There is a lot that can be said about Electric Vehicles (EVs), and believe me, I’ve heard the ENTIRE range of opinions – from the “traditional” car lover who is afraid of change to the “progressive” millionnaire boasting about their Tesla at every single chance they get! To me, no matter the point of view, I’m very excited about the fact that I stumble upon more and more conversations about EVs in my daily life! It definitely wasn’t the case just two years ago, when I first started to learn more about EV technology and its potential.
I personally believe that EVs will have a real part to play in our “Sustainable” future.
Let’s be Clear Though
Are electric cars the answer to the Climate Crisis?
The answer is a resonating NO.
In fact, not One Single Action can be the “End All Be All” solution when it comes to Climate Action or building a truly sustainable society. Real durable change can only be achieved through an integrated approach including technology yes, but also behavioral change, policies change and massive investments in the low carbon economy.
I’m emphasizing this, because I see a lot of EV enthusiasts out there that seem to have adopted the idea that they’ve reached an ultimate level of moral superiority, and act like they have a green halo following them around.
Transportation and Carbon Emissions
That being said, transportation – especially in the U.S. – does play a large role in carbon emissions. On average, transportation generates around 28% of all of the nation’s GHG emissions, and from that, 60% comes from passenger cars only (the cars that sit in our garage/driveways)! So, there definitely IS a lot to gain from electrifying the cars on our roads, and here are the main benefits we could gain from doing it:
EVs and Emission Reductions
As I mentioned above, electrifying the cars on our roads can ultimately make a big dent in our emissions profile and help us minimize the dire effects of Climate change. But, even more, tangible than the benefits of GHG reductions, EVs also reduce emissions of particulate matters, VOCs, NOx, and other combustion by-products. These particular pollutants, which are also mainly sourced from on-road vehicles in the U.S., have real measurable effects on public health, here and now. Indeed, these pollutants have been correlated to increased respiratory, cardiac, and immune health issues, and unfortunately, they tend to disproportionately impact communities located near high traffic/congestions areas, or large industrial operations, which historically have been low-income communities, and communities of color. In other words, reducing these pollutants would result in short-term health and socio-economic benefits.
First, electric cars are cheaper than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles! I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true! The idea, when purchasing a car (or anything for that matter), is to assess the REAL (or total) cost of the car ownership, when looking to compare prices. This includes the upfront purchase, yes, but also fueling (whether it’s gas or electricity), maintenance, repairs, depreciation, registration, insurance, etc (if you’ve owned a car, you know that this list has no end). And, on this basis, according to AAA’s latest (2019) Driving Costs Estimates, which is an annual cost assessment of vehicles segment, the total cost of ownership of an average electric vehicle ($9,170) is cheaper than a medium sedan ($9,817 ), and a medium 4WD SUV ($11,819).
Not only EVs have less moving parts, which significantly reduces the maintenance requirements of the vehicle, but the fueling costs are significantly lower and that’s where the savings pile up over time. The total cost of ownership difference is still modest today, but the gap will get larger as the cost of the vehicle batteries drops, and as the secondary market (used vehicles) grows over time.
Not only EVs represent value for individuals, but they also offer new economic opportunities in an industry pushing towards a low carbon economy.
EVs and Smart Mobility
Listen. If you replaced every single car in the U.S. with an electric one, you wouldn’t solve the major traffic and congestion issues in our cities, nor the equity issues around transportation access. So, again, EVs are not the solution to everything. However, they’re still part of the key to design a sustainable long-term approach to smart transportation. It’s no secret: long-term transportation solutions need to integrate intelligent planning, where transportation is accessible to everyone, affordable and efficient. This translates to designing multi-modal communities and neighborhoods, where walking and biking is safe and practical, but also policies encouraging less commuting for work (working from home, anyone?) and flexible schedules.
That being said, a society devoid of cars is not realistic at this point, even in 20 years, and that’s where I think EVs and autonomous vehicles (AVs) and EVs will play a bigger role, especially in dense areas. In my mind, they will help us move away from individual car ownership to a more smart fleet sharing service (imagine an efficient driverless Uber network). This fantasy is, in my opinion realizable, but does but this topic has a lot of caveats and assumptions, thus will be kept for another video
There is this feature that EVs have the potential for, and it is called Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G). This is, in layman’s terms the ability for your vehicle to act as a battery for your house. Yes, you’ve read this right. In a low carbon economy, where reliance on renewable energies as electricity sources will be the norm, efficient energy storage will be the norm. Today, energy storage is still costly and unsustainable in its application, unfortunately, but technologies like this one would not only offer a real energy storage solution but, when extrapolated, can also unlock resilient grids where vehicles act as buffering units for the electric grid, offering storage or deploying electricity, as needed through bi-directional charging. This feature will truly make a difference in local resilience applications.
It’s not perfect though
As the premise said, EVs are not THE solution that will solve all of our transportation issues, and in fact, EVs have real substantial challenges to overcome to be entirely sustainable.
Battery sourcing and recycling
The current battery technology in EVs is, in more than 99% of the released/announced models, lithium-cobalt technology. However, the procurement of cobalt and the labor practices in the third world countries where it is sourced violates many ethical labor practices. It’s very bad, and sad, and as long as these malpractices occur – or as long as lithium-cobalt remains the prevalent technology used for these vehicles, true sustainability is not achievable.
Additionally, the disposal of the same batteries, at the end of life of the vehicle (or at the batteries’ designed end of life), there are currently no real opportunities for efficient recycling or upcycling. Even if, in theory, we’ve established that there is a real potential to re-use and upcycle these batteries at a profit, most of the efforts pursued in this optic are still at the pilot or infancy stages. This is mostly the case because the EV market is still relatively recent (as a larger, viable player in the market shares for vehicles), but the importance of not letting these batteries end up in landfills couldn’t be more urgent.
Education and Awareness
Education and general awareness about what the technology can achieve remains one of the main barriers to EV adoption amongst the general public. Yes, people get excited about EVs, but they’re not convinced that they’ll be buying one in their near future, because they still have range anxiety, performance anxiety, and simply don’t believe EVs are yet affordable, convenient, reliable, and simply awesome to drive!
As anyone who has ever worked on a disruptive technology will tell you, it is hard to change the status quo and the operating assumptions that live in the popular narrative. It can be done though, through constructive education, and building marketing campaigns on different momentums. If you ask me, a good and balanced campaign to learn more about EVs and the technology is the Drive Change.Drive Electric Campaign, since it’s multi-stakeholders and not affiliated to one auto manufacturer only, check it out!
Achieving true emission-free technology
On the road, EVs do not emit carbon or any other pollutants, yes. But considering that EVs are fueled by electricity and that most of the electric grids mix offered in the US still include a lot of Coal, fossil fuels and natural gas as generation sources, can we really say that they’re emission free? Looking at a Sustainable Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach, the answer is no, because the electricity generation activities that occur to charge your vehicles will count towards the technology’s emissions.
That being said, according to the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, in the vast majority of the U.S., electric vehicles do (following this LCA approach) offer significantly fewer emissions per mile, so the emissions reduction of the technology are still strong benefits. In the long run though, as the national electric grid mixes transition away from fossil fuels (through different federal, and state policies and climate ambition), the value proposition of the EV technology will be multiplied, and could potentially reach a real emission-free status in some regions!
All in All
When you work within a field, you enter an echo chamber where what you learn, see and believe is often reinforced by the people surrounding you – your professional peers. So you go into the world assuming that most people operate with the same baseline and knowledge, but nothing could be less true, everyone actually operates in their own echo chambers with their own convictions, beliefs, and knowledge, and trust me most are completely different than yours!
So this article was an attempt to put on paper what I know and assume, and wish for the EV technology. Nothing less, nothing more. It is a very complex subject, especially when you combine it with what truly sustainable transportation systems should look like, so I expect to have follow-up articles. But this is a good baseline,