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Electric Cars: On Path to Sustainable Transportation?

For centuries, when the future was hypothesized about, flying cars have been a reoccurring theme in our imaginations. Though the present-day world is without this engaging invention, we do have a more practical and sustainable mode of transportation on the rise. The realm of electric cars is multifaceted and complex. For starters, there are multiple kinds of electric cars - two of which are the all-electric vehicles that run on an electric battery all the time, and the plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that are able to utilize both gasoline and an electric battery at the appropriate times. In general, models such as these with at least partial reliance on an electric battery are referred to as electric vehicles, or EVs.

Growing Popularity

Electric vehicles in general have risen in popularity and sales in recent years - for instance, the number of EVs in existence in 2019 rose 40% from the year before. The number of models, availability, and even number of charging ports around the country are also on the rise. For some, the presence of EVs on the roads is a way to combat the negative impact that the transportation sector has on the climate. Transportation is often considered the largest source of environmental pollution within the United States. As one report states, transportation is a growing contributor to greenhouse gases and passenger cars in general contribute around 17% of the transportation sector’s total emissions. Could EVs play a part in making the transportation sector cleaner?

(Mostly) Positive Praise

In light of all of the pressure to reduce emissions and create a more sustainable transportation sector, electric cars have seen a range of praise, criticism, and uncertainty. Some enthusiastic reports go so far as to say that the EV will help save the climate and human lives.” And that when considering all the factors, EVs overall are better for the environment than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles, even in spite of some pesky rumors.

Praise for EVs doesn’t stop with their role in helping the climate. In addition to decreasing emissions, electric cars have also been cited as having better overall life-time affordability than gasoline-powered vehicles. This has to do with the fact that EVs have much lower required maintenance and servicing throughout their use. The end result is savings for many, especially for those buying second-hand EVs.

Mixed Reviews

Some critics are slower to praise the EV and instead opt for a more hesitant stand-point. For instance, a scientific study on the air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) concludes that its results do not demonstrate that EVs are the best technology for every transportation need. Rather, the report encourages additional research and careful consideration on how to achieve less pollution from the transportation sector overall.

An interesting report from the International Council on Clean Transportation points out that even though EVs are capable of addressing pollution problems, they often have limited availability and are marketed primarily as a car for the upper class. Thus, if the EV is to play a role in cleaner transportation, it will first need to become more readily available for people of lower incomes. There also exists the occasional argument that EVs are actually equally bad or even worse for the environment than traditional gasoline vehicles, such as this blog piece from Mukesh Malhotra, the Founder and CEO of Ecoforus Sustainable.

In light of this large range of varying opinions and beliefs, it becomes clear that a true look at the costs and benefits of EVs and the potential role that they may play in the future of clean transportation involves examining the impact of the car from every angle - from production line to life on the streets.

Battery Production

One of the first factors to consider when comparing EVs with traditional vehicles is the origin of the EV’s battery. Manufacturing the EV’s battery requires “a range of rare earth metals” and the process of procuring them produces carbon emissions. In fact, battery production in countries such as China likely make up about one third of the overall carbon emissions from the car’s entire lifecycle. The intense process of extracting minerals such as lithium and cobalt requires a great deal of energy and thus a higher production cost than for traditional vehicles.

Air Quality and Emissions

Despite its initial setback in the production phase, the EV offers key benefits in other areas. One such area is that of improved air quality and lower carbon emissions while the car is being driven in comparison to the gasoline-powered vehicle. This is especially relevant for areas of high population, which could really benefit from the decreased emissions and better air quality that EVs offer.

Power Sources

BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin says that EVs are more sustainable in the majority of cases no matter the source of the EV’s power. However, others claim the opposite, saying that EVs are just as bad as gasoline powered vehicles if they are charged by traditional fossil fuel-burning power plants. In general, most research agrees that the power source of the EV - whether natural gas, coal, or renewable energy - can impact the extent of the benefits that the EV has to offer over traditional vehicles.

For instance, PNAS’s report concludes that EVs with power from renewable sources like wind and water are connected to a potential decrease in “air quality-related health” incidents, whereas EVs with unclean energy sources can actually result in greater air-quality consequences than traditional vehicles. The potential advantages of EVs powered by renewable sources becomes even more clear when considering both climate impacts and human health at the same time.

Oil and Gasoline

One area in which the benefits of EVs are more straightforward is that of oil and gasoline usage. According to this report by the International Energy Agency, EVs around the world saved over half a million barrels of gasoline every day during the year of 2019 alone. Consequently, an EV owner will likely save around 60 percent on the cost of fuel compared to that spent by a traditional vehicle owner.

Overall Life-Cycle Comparison

The many factors of EV manufacturing and usage demonstrate the importance of analyzing the overall lifecycle of the car in order to fully understand its benefits and offerings. For instance, the International Council on Clean Transportation claims that the higher emissions from the battery manufacturing process are paid off within only two years of owning and driving the car.

This assessment is similar to that of the Wall Street Journal, which undertook a thorough comparison of the lifecycle of an electric Tesla Model 3 with that of a traditional vehicle - the Toyota RAV4. The Tesla produces roughly 65% more emissions than the Toyota during manufacturing. However, for every mile driven after it leaves the lot, the Tesla produces only 34% of the emissions associated with the Toyota. With calculations based on the national average for energy production sources, the Tesla clearly comes out ahead with lower carbon emissions at the end of its lifespan than that of the traditional Toyota vehicle.

Future Roles and Policies

What role should EVs play in the future? Are they the whole solution or only a part of it? Electric transportation in general is an expanding and diverse market. For instance, countries such as China are using a large number of electric buses. Electric technology can also be used in other unlikely areas such as trucks and shipping. However, sources such as the ICCT point out that a great deal of research still remains to be done concerning this technology.

It’s clear that there are many variables to consider when determining the role that EVs can play in creating a more sustainable and cleaner transportation sector. For instance, the EV might have a much wider future impact if certain steps are taken such as reducing carbon emissions from power sources, creating more efficient batteries, and providing proper methods for disposal of the battery at the end of the car’s life.

Politics and Policy

What role should the government play in the incorporation of EVs into the general transportation sector? The Wall Street Journal argues that the US government’s support or lack thereof could have a substantial influence on the transportation sector. The best scenario would be one in which the US encourages the use of EVs, while also supporting other critical improvements such as lighter vehicles and greater efficiency to ensure a balanced use of resources and cleaner transportation.

BBC’s Roger Harrabin agrees that addressing the contribution of transportation to the climate crisis should involve other efforts in addition to the use of EVs, including decreasing the amount of driving overall. He also notes that making the most of the EV potential will be a hard and possibly straining experience - straining that is for the production of clean energy to power the cars.

There is a wide range of possible policies to consider in creating a cleaner transportation system, including a policy that addresses equitable access to electric technology to ensure that low-income communities are able to benefit from the EVs cleaner offerings. Another potential policy would incentivize lower carbon emissions.

President Biden’s plan to promote electric technology is one example of possible government support for EVs. In a recent update from the White House, the plan was revealed to include provisions for increased charging stations, some electric school buses, transit buses, new battery models, possible tax credits, and even potentially a battery recycling program.

With everything considered, it still remains unclear exactly what role EVs will play in the future. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, the future of EVs will likely be shaped by a combination of consumers, the government, and the investments of big businesses as we continue to move towards a cleaner transportation sector.

Written by Christina Magers

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