The promised electric utopia is still some way off.
The evangelist for electric cars comes in a few forms. There’s the tech industry looking to solve problems and innovate, there are the investors and the companies looking to hype things up to get sufficient interest from the investors, and the bloggers, YouTubers, and general influencers who are happy to hype it up based on either optimism or speculative self-interest. In its own sub-category is Tesla and the company's own evangelists that are willing to put the reality of Elon Musk’s bad leadership and inability to deliver on promises made and willingness to say and do whatever he needs to keep the balls in the air.
This is not a hit piece though. We understand there’s a place for electric cars in the automotive industry and society as a whole. The technology will evolve and benefit, mostly in cities where pollution is a serious problem, and that local thinking will help globally in the long run. At the same time, we believe hybrid drivetrains will become the majority until drivetrains truly evolve beyond gasoline engines and can be powered by renewable sources.
The problem we have is with people not confronting the real issues with electric cars. Things like the carbon footprint required to actually build one, the ramifications of using batteries, and where the electricity to charge those batteries actually comes from. These are the facts that tend to be ignored in both the tech and automotive industry amongst the excitement, hype, and constant evangelism.
The first battery-powered road car was patented in 1894. So, while the tech industry is banging on about this new technology, the reality is that batteries and electric motors have been around a long, long, time. Electric cars actually appeared before the petrol powered internal combustion engine, and people haven’t stopped trying to make them into production vehicles since. The first electric vehicle can be traced back to around 1830 but rechargeable batteries didn’t make them a realistic proposition in the late 1800s.
America’s major media centers are on the west and east coasts where most of the money, along with the densest cities, reside. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Fransisco are the obvious places, and San Fransisco is also where the current technology revolution started. The reality is that America has a population of roughly 320 million people divided unequally across 50 states. This leads to a skewed perspective and forgetting the people that live outside of major cities. The places where there’s a lot of road to cover and a car is an essential part of daily life. On top of that, far from everyone can go out and buy the latest and greatest in car technology or has access to an infrastructure that will support it.
Plug-in electric cars represented 1 out of every 250 motor vehicles on the road at the end of 2018. That’s a cumulation of just 5 million vehicles worldwide, and 2 million of those are in China. The current estimation of cars on the road in the United States alone is 253 million. That doesn’t mean we won’t all be driving electric cars one day, it just means there’s a long, long, way to go before that could be a reality.
Research from the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies showed that overall EV awareness has been pretty much flat since 2014. Even in California, home of the current push into electric cars, only a single-digit percent of car sales are electric. The report also points out most of the sales are to repeat customers so, although sales are growing slightly, the actual user base isn't. The bottom line is that dealers aren’t motivated to sell electric vehicles and customers don’t want to deal with the issues charging brings, or make the higher initial investment to get into an plug-in electric vehicle.
While countries and states work on renewable energy, there’s a big problem with the precious metals needed to make batteries capable of powering cars. Just like oil, the thing we’re trying to replace as a power source, lithium is a finite resource and not only will it run out, but because of the increase in demand from automakers, it’s likely to get very expensive over coming years to buy what hasn't been mined yet. On top of that, there are other minerals involved in making batteries. The Cobalt mining industry, for example, is not famed for its working conditions and the nickel used in the batteries is toxic to extract from the ground.
So far, batteries from hybrid cars going back 20 years now hasn’t been too big of an issue. But, if the prediction of a battery powered vehicle boom happening in 2025 becomes a reality then by 2045 there’s going to be a huge amount of battery packs that have reached the end of their service life for cars. In theory, they can still be used for other things like powering refrigeration in stores, and there are recyclers out there, but nobody has stepped up with a real solution yet for the sheer volume of batteries that will need disposing of.
Every year, Californians watching TV will see an advert at some point asking them to keep their air-conditioning temperature set a little warmer than they like because when everyone comes home and uses it, it strains the electricity grid. Now, imagine if the electric car utopia happened and everyone got home and plugged in their electric car, or got to work and plugged in their car to charge. The reality is, despite over 100 years of having an electricity infrastructure, it’s rarely been upgraded and corporations don't like spending more money than they think they need to.
This isn’t only a California problem but it’s a great example because California is not only a state. It’s also the 5th largest economy in the world and not the only place with that problem. While renewable energy is growing, we will have limitations for quite some time.
All that would change in the shift to electric vehicles is how they’re powered. They’ll still have four wheels, a steering wheel, and front and rear bumpers and most people need one. Infrastructure and regulation issues that have been giving people headaches since the first traffic jam still need to be solved. That means no effect on congestion, and those cars still need to be recycled when they reach the end of their life, not just the batteries.
The environmental impact of building a new car, particularly an electric one, is high. In an analysis Toyota made in 2004, they found that as much as 28% of a regular car's carbon dioxide created through its lifecycle occurs during its manufacture and its transportation to the dealership. Disposing of a car also has a large environmental impact. Therefore, there’s an argument to be made that if a car is getting decent gas mileage, then keeping it alive longer makes sense as it already exists.
If you can’t afford to buy an electric car and have solar panels put on your roof, then that’s the acceptable ecologically sound proposition nobody talks about. The benefits add up as an old car has either been paid off already or is cheaper to purchase than a new one and if it costs less over a year to maintain than a new car payment, then it also makes financial sense.