Electric cars are better than combustion engine cars, but how much better?
There are a myriad of factors involved and the advantages of electric cars over other options are not so clear cut. Indeed, the best transport options for the environment are walking, biking and public transport. Also, there are vehicles using biofuels that have low-emissions when in operation, like the electric car. In this article we will look at some of the pros and cons of electric cars
Starting with the pros of electric cars
An obvious pro is that electric cars are electric, which means that running them produces less CO2 emissions.
Also electric cars tend to be smaller on average and their powertrains have much fewer parts which means that they use less resources in their manufacture. Combustion engines with their pistons, carburetors, exhaust systems, gears, fuel pumps, alternators, cooling systems and so on, use more resources.
With fewer parts overall, and fewer moving parts in particular, electric cars are less likely to break down and will need less maintenance.
Electric cars, because they don’t have a flammable fuel, are considered safer in that sense, although they can be just as deadly in other ways.
But where does the electricity come from?
Yes, when in operation, electric cars produce less emissions. However, to say that electric cars are emission free, as some makers assert, is disingenuous to say the least.
Electricity is generated in different ways including the use of fossil fuels, as is the case in most countries. New Zealand, for example, is very fortunate to have 83.9% (in 2016) of its electricity generation from renewable sources. However, other countries are not so fortunate. In 2018 the UK had 33% renewable electricity, Australia had 27.7% (2020) and the USA had only 14.7% (2016). (Source: Wikipedia)
Also, it takes energy to make energy, and the building and maintenance of renewable energy generation, like hydro- and wind-power, uses plenty of fossil fuels. You can read more about net energy and the future of energy production here »
How is the car made?
Also, fossil fuels are used in the manufacture of cars. From the mining and transport of iron ore, to the steel-making process and then the manufacturing and distribution process there are a large amount of fossil fuels are used. Again, it is true that a combustion engine uses more resources overall so electric cars remain the better option. However, it is clear that electric vehicles are far from zero-emission.
Another issue with the manufacture of electric cars is the different types of materials that are needed including lithium for the batteries, and cobalt and rare earth metals for the motor, each of which materials comes with its own set of environmental, economic, and geopolitical challenges which will only increase as the number of electric vehicles increases.
Batteries are becoming more and more efficient but they still don’t run as far as a tank of petrol.
Second order factors
Along with the direct factors of the car itself and the electricity to power it, which we have just talked about, there are also indirect, or second order, factors involved. There are no advantages to an electric car when you consider some of these second order factors. For instance, just like combustion engine cars, electric cars need the same roads with all their signs, lights, markings, and so on. Electric cars also need parking lots and parking buildings, driveways and garages, and various other infrastructure. The social commentator Ivan Illich made the point that the car has created the environment that necessitates the existence of the car to navigate it. Huge sprawling cities that developed throughout the twentieth century are not conducive to walking and biking and providing comprehensive public transport systems is inefficient.
The Tesla paradox
There is another factor at play that I’m calling the Tesla paradox. In New Zealand the cheapest Tesla is $66,900 (Tesla Model 3) and the most expensive is $209,990 (Tesla Model X) (Source: AA). The average adult income is approximately $50,000 per annum, and a Tesla is not affordable for most people. Tesla is a luxury brand, which means it is a status symbol. To be able to make the sort of money required to afford even the cheapest Tesla would result in some environmental harm on average. You might call this a third order effect.
There are obviously cheaper electric cars, however, the point is that the effect of buying anything at all is that on average some environmental damage is being done. And as they say, being less bad is still bad.
What is the best solution then?
I said at the beginning that electric cars are better than combustion-engine cars, and they are, but as I have described not as much as you might think. There is obviously no clear cut answer to the competing issues of energy options and costs, infrastructure costs, emissions and pollution, and reasonable transport options.
Overall the most sustainable way forward is two-fold:
- First, reduce the total number of cars as much as possible. In the US there are more vehicles than there are drivers. The situation is nearly as bad in many other countries. This is unsustainable.
- The second thing is to then have the rest using renewable, clean sources of energy. This could be renewable electricity or sustainably-sourced biofuels.