We all know electric vehicles are the future of the car industry. But when somebody says “electric vehicle,” it can mean many things, from hybrid to plug-in hybrid to fully electric vehicle.

The Jeep Wrangler is a perfect illustration of all the different levels of electrification, with six available powertrains. It is currently offered with a V6 or V8 engine, as turbo four-cylinder, mild hybrid V6, or, finally, as a plug-in hybrid. That means buyers must become familiar with all kinds of powertrain options to make the right choice for their lifestyle – creating an educational challenge for both the industry and consumers.

While still dominant, many experts say traditional ICE’s days are numbered because they cannot match the environmental benefits of electric vehicles. Synthetic fuels provide an option for lowering the environmental impact of ICE vehicles, with German carmaker Porsche and Siemens Energy producing synthetic fuel that could lower ICE emissions by 85 percent. But these electro, or e-fuels, are expected to remain expensive and difficult to produce.

Many governments around the world are mandating stricter emission regulations, causing automakers to look at phasing out ICE-only cars and trucks sales by 2035 or sooner and replace their fleets with vehicles propelled by electric motors. But it’s not a clear path forward, as electrification can mean a variety of things.

Hybrids: the stopgap between the past and the future

Hybrid vehicles, which have now been on the market for about 20 years, combine an ICE, battery and electric motor to increase efficiency and lower emissions. But in today’s electrification landscape, there are multiple levels of hybrids. Micro-hybrids have the least electric assistance and use a typical 12-volt car battery used for an auto start-stop system. Currently, this technology is near-universal on ICE vehicles.

Above this is a mild hybrid, which incorporates a 48-volt battery architecture. This system is typically bolted to the transmission, as with the Jeep Wrangler’s optional eTorque ZF 8 speed transmission. The electric motor smooths out auto start-stop, using the electric component to pull away from a stop as the ICE turns back on, and boosts horsepower and torque slightly. While uncommon today, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)  predicts they will make up 22 percent of U.S. sales by 2025.

There are two main types of hybrids – hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). HEVs were pioneered by Toyota with the Prius and Honda with the Insight in the early 2000s. They offer an efficient balance of gas and electric powertrains that work with each other. But HEVs cannot drive more than a few miles on electric power alone, which is where PHEVs come in.

These vehicles work just like an HEV, but have a larger rechargeable battery that provides about 20-40 miles of electric range before the ICE engine kicks in. PHEVs can be the perfect vehicle for people who are looking for efficiency for short commutes to work and still want the assurance of long-distance capability for longer trips. For example, the Jeep Wrangler 4xe PHEV gets 22 miles of EV range, and the best fuel economy of the lineup. Despite this flexibility, BCG forecasts PHEV market share will only reach 6 percent of U.S. sales by 2025. Chances are, people either want an electric vehicle or they don’t – not something that splits the gap.

The dawn of the age of battery electric vehicles

Full battery electric vehicles (BEVs or EVs) – which simply were not practical just 10 years ago because of their limited range – are now seen as the future.

While they are the end point of our current trajectory, the battery and motor system is more straightforward than hybrids because there is no need for a traditional ICE to back up the electric motor. Today’s batteries can deliver 220—350 miles of range when fully charged, a number that’s expected to increase and isn’t far from the range of most traditional ICEs on a full tank of gas.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) provide a compelling alternative to BEVs, powering an electric motor with compressed hydrogen that can be refilled like gasoline. But they are more complex to engineer and develop, cost more for consumers, and present complex infrastructure challenges. FCEVs will be offered moving forward in some areas, but don’t expect them to rival the upcoming dominance of BEVs.

Electric vehicles only made up 2 percent of US sales in 2020, but with a swarm of new offerings coming by 2023, that number is expected to jump to 11 percent in 2025. By 2035, BCG forecasts 54 percent of U.S. vehicle sales will be BEVs.  

This brings us back to the Jeep Wrangler. With its ICE engines and electric options, the Wrangler represents the industry’s past and future. The recently revealed, fully electric Wrangler Magneto concept, with its promises of off-road capability and efficiency, not only previews a future product but how we can push an industry towards an efficient, electric future with any vehicle.