The facts about electric vehicles
High prices. Toxic batteries. Terrible range. The world is full of alarming stories about why electric vehicles are bad. But the reality is very different.
It’s easy to understand why people have these misconceptions. This is a new technology, one that the public is only just learning about. That makes people vulnerable to the exaggerations of companies that don’t want to have to change. But if we look at the facts, it doesn’t take long to tear those arguments apart.
The myth of the long tailpipe
The “long tailpipe argument” is one of the most popular and important misconceptions. It’s the idea that, once you take the environmental costs of manufacturing into account, electric vehicles are just as polluting over their lifetime as vehicles using fossil fuels.
As with many misleading arguments, this has a true fact at its core. Electric vehicles are more polluting to produce than comparable fossil fuel vehicles. A full-size electric vehicle with a range of 265 miles is 68% more polluting to produce than an equivalent gasoline-powered car. But only looking at manufacturing means missing out on the big picture.
Manufacturing creates only a small proportion of the pollution from any vehicle. Once you combine manufacturing with years of driving, electric vehicles produce less than half the global warming emissions of their gas-fueled equivalents.
As electricity generation gets greener, the environmental impact of driving an electric car keeps falling. Even when its electricity is generated entirely using fossil fuels, an electric vehicle will emit 25% less pollution during its lifetime. By using hydroelectric power and renewable energy, this can get as high as 64%, reducing a driver’s environmental footprint by two-thirds.
Transportation now produces more carbon dioxide pollution than power generation, so accurately understanding this area is important.
The biggest practical problem holding many people back from going electric is the cost. There’s a widespread perception that it’s more expensive to drive an electric than a gas-powered car.
It’s easy to understand why people see it this way. Even with several countries providing government subsidies, you might be paying over 25% more for the initial cost of the car.
But this doesn’t take into account the savings made over the lifetime of the vehicle. Reduced costs for fuel and a reduced likelihood of something going wrong mean that an electric car can work out cheaper over its lifetime. The price of electricity is significantly lower than for gasoline or diesel. Though electricity and gas prices vary regionally, on average, a gallon of petrol in the US costs twice as much as the equivalent electricity.
For managers of vehicle fleets, this balance between up-front costs and long-term expense can be balanced using FleetCarma’s Electric Vehicle Suitability Assessment. This shows when gas-powered vehicles can be replaced with electric ones in a cost-effective way.
The vehicle’s range
Early electric cars had problems with range. Their relatively small battery capacity meant that they soon needed to recharge. Opportunities to do this were few and far between.
Both of these things are changing.
Electric vehicle manufacturers have significantly increased the range of their vehicles. The upcoming Mercedes-Benz EQC SUV will have a range of up to 310 miles between refueling and cars already on the road can go for 200 miles.
It’s also becoming easier to recharge. Cities and local governments are setting up fueling points, while specialist apps show you the nearest fueling point wherever you are. As recharging becomes quicker and easier to find, worries about range are vanishing.
Like all batteries, those in electric cars lose power over time. Those in smaller vehicles need replacing every 7-10 years, while buses and vans need new ones every 3-4 years. This is an important part of their environmental impact, as batteries take a lot of resources to produce and their chemicals can be toxic.
Fortunately, the rumor that these batteries can’t be reused or recycled is untrue. Most electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries, like those in smartphones and cameras. Only around 5% of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled, but this isn’t because they can’t be. It’s because this is relatively new technology and the infrastructure isn’t in place yet. Batteries for electric vehicles can be recycled through processes including smelting and direct recovery, letting the materials be reused to reduce the costs and environmental impact of mining.
Many batteries can even be reused for other purposes, as they still have about 70% of their original capacity. They’re currently providing backup power for everything from streetlights to elevators to data centers.
The extra hassle of replacing the battery is more than balanced by other areas of maintenance.
Electric cars have far fewer moving parts than gas-powered ones, significantly reducing the need for repair or replacement. Fan belts, head gaskets, and spark plugs are just a few of the parts that aren’t needed anymore and so don’t need replacing after wearing out. Even the wear and tear on brakes is reduced, as electric cars can slow down simply by slowing the motor.
There are still parts of the car that will get broken or worn down, as in any complex machine. But the time and money spent on maintenance is significantly reduced by going electric.
Electric vehicles combine well with one of the other big trends in motoring – self-driving cars.
The lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles provide better energy storage and voltage than those in most traditional vehicles, which use 12-volt lead-acid batteries. This means that electric vehicles are better for powering self-driving cars. Cruise control, proximity sensors, and the other elements that go into automated driving can be more easily implemented using an electric car’s battery.
Electric power makes it easier for an automated vehicle to recharge. Recharging doesn’t need a human inserting a fueling hose, just a way for the car to connect to an electric socket. The development of wireless charging will let self-driving electric vehicles simply drive into a charging point and automatically refuel.
A better driving experience
Many of the so-called problems with electric vehicles are myths. In reality, they’re more environmentally friendly, easier to maintain, and cheaper to run in the long term. As the infrastructure grows to support them, the benefits will increase. And as work continues on self-driving technology, electric vehicles will help to make that vision a reality.