The Electric Car Fantasy

I get irritated every time I read about electric cars on a "green" or "socially responsible" blog; like these posts, among many others, over at GOOD. The whole idea that electric cars can solve our environmental and social problems is fantasy. Do I think of electric vehicles would be better than the current fleet of vehicles on the world's roads? Sure. But they are a long way from the ultimate solution. Before we have conversations about the awesome future EVs might potentially hold, we need to step back and understand exactly what problems these machines would solve and which they would not.

(from Flickr user NA.dir)

Problems EVs might solve:
1. Geopolitical Turmoil - the problem with refining oil into fuel is that many of the oil producers are corporations owned by governments that are hostile to the United States. If we can switch to a fuel produced by domestic corporations or those in friendly countries, it would be a step in the right direction.

2. Pollution and Emissions - this one is a big 'if' because whether electric vehicles reduce emissions depends on how the electricity to power them is produced. If it's from dirty fossil fuels, then no improvement. If it's from clean sources, then the emissions issue could be resolved.

Problems EVs will NOT solve:
1. Traffic - if you switched every vehicle on the road today into a pure electric-vehicle, you would have exactly the same amount of traffic that you have now. If you don't think traffic is a problem, maybe this is an acceptable outcome. If you realize the huge cost that traffic and congestion places on society, then we need to come up with a better solution.

2. Parking - cars, no matter how they are fueled, will need to be parked for 95% of their lives. Replace every car on the road with an EV and you've solved none of the parking issues.

3. Mutilated Urbanism - you know all of those suburban subdivisions and strip malls and car-dependent suburbs? Switching to EVs won't reverse any of that. If anything, it will perpetuate it, particularly if the cost of driving on electricity is less than driving on gasoline.

4. Infrastructure - roads and highways are funded primarily (although not entirely) by the highway trust fund. And much of the money for the highway fund comes from taxes on gasoline. If you get rid of gasoline, you need to find a new means to fund the infrastructure, and given the political difficulty in raising the gasoline tax (even in proportion to inflation) this is going to be a serious problem.

There are more issues that fit into both categories, but the point is that EVs are hardly an ideal solution, even in the unrealistic fantasy world in which every car in existence is replaced by one that runs on cleanly-produced electricity.


    Also, unless you can sustainably harvest your own lithium and assorted rare metals in your backyard and gather your family together on winter nights to craft batteries and semiconductor chips in front of the wood stove, no to mention guarantee an endless supply of cheap electricity from somewhere else, you're gonna be SOL.

    Fine blog, by the way. Thanks for your hard work.


    In case people don't know this, Coal is the primary electric generating fuel which means that unless there are radical changes, electric cars would actually be burning coal. It just wouldn't be comming out of the tail pipe.

    Given that the country is both broke and the Saudi Arabia of coal, doesn't bode well for our environmental future.

    On April 02, 2010 Mike Gaspari said...

    May I add another problem EVs won't solve: household economics. Even if they manage to get the batteries to say $300/kWh (and don't bet on it) there's no chance of EVs taking a large market share or fleet share in the next decades since they won't be cheaper to buy&operate than conventional small cars. With the economic problems we're facing that will only get worse (peak oil...), who is going to buy those things? The diminishing returns (for households at least) are obvious unless you operate a fleet or unless you're upper-middle class+.

    For it to be a "disruptive technology" it needs to be self-sustaining and if it needs all kinds of breaks and subsidies it's quite clear that it won't scale to a level that makes any large impact.

    The other thing is the time scale. The example provided by hybrids is very instructive. We've had those for over 12 years now. Toyota has produced over 2 million of those. But how many conventional cars in that same time? Over 50 million? The big efficiency gains in the Toyota fleet have come from replacing the old trucks and so on with newer more efficient conventional models. And even now hybrids have only few percent of market share.

    Let's say someone came up with a "perfect" battery today. Let's say it had high energy density, provided long range, was light, cheap, had no resource problem, had no recycling problem, quick to charge, no memory effect... So all the problems of today's batteries would be resolved. Designing a new car from first idea to start of mass manufacturing usually takes 4-5 years. Since this is a new kind of car 5 years. Then you need 10 years to scale up production so that it can take a large market share. Then you need another 10-15 years to take a large share of the fleet. Overall 25-30 years. Forget it. For a long time every new EV will be matched by 100 to 1000 additional conventional cars debuting on the roads of China and India. It's a techno mirage.