Electric Vehicles: Fact Vs. Myth

Is Tesla to the ICE car what the Model T was to horses?

Fuel pump and plug for charging electric vehicles
ADragan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

There is currently a groundswell of optimism about the prospects for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to replace the internal combustion engine (ICE) in passenger transport, with stories about numerous countries proposing a ban on the sale of new oil-fueled cars and manufacturers planning to release multiple models as they transition to a new, all-electric future. Skeptics note that such enthusiasm is not new, and that many past companies and vehicles have excited proponents and the media while ultimately failing. The GM EV1, the Fisker, Solectria, Better Place, and others come to mind.

But past failures are no guarantee of future failure, to invert the standard brokers’ caveat. Wind and solar were not viable during the 1970s energy crises but are much more attractive now. Producing oil and gas from shale was uneconomic until George Mitchell’s people puzzled it out. Similarly, electric vehicle technology has advanced far beyond what it was in the 1990s.

That said, the enthusiasm for many technologies and fuels still often far exceeds their performance. The 1990-era California mandate for electric vehicles produced widespread plaudits with Hollywood stars praising GM’s EV-1 and any number of environmental advocates gushing about its performance, as can be seen in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Yet Time magazine later listed it as one of the worst vehicles of all time.

Which raises a problem that is often central to policy analysis, namely that far too many people write and speak with great confidence on subjects with which they are at best passingly familiar. As Tom Nichols describes in the book, The Death of Expertise, many feel that if they can find a citation to support an argument, they have conducted research. Sometimes such arguments then take on a life of their own, as they are repeated so often that casual observers assume they are true.

In the debate over the future of the electric vehicle, actual evidence is regularly misinterpreted. The media is full of stories about their attractiveness—but have been for decades. Manufacturers have announced plans for many models, but they also touted plans for large-scale sales of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the 1990s. Technological advances in batteries are regularly described as breakthroughs without acknowledgement that laboratory advances rarely prove to be viable in the real world, as Steve Levine describes in his book, The Powerhouse.

The story told by the data is rather different from the popular perception of electric cars. First, their popularity is greatly exaggerated by the high level of sales in countries where generous subsidies are given to buyers, such as Norway and China. Some inflate the sales numbers by including sales of two and three-wheeled vehicles with passenger cars. The BEV share of new car sales globally is 4% and in the US it is 2%. As Fig. 1 shows, actual market share must increase dramatically to match the optimistic scenarios.

Various Scenarios and Forecasts for BEV share of new car sales. Blue dots: Actual; Orange triangle: IEA SP 2019; Blue triangle: IEA SP 2020; Yellow dot: IEA SDS 2020; Black X: IEA NZ 2020; Black dot: Shell Sky; Blue diamond: Exxon; and Green diamond: DNV. IEA: International Energy Agency, SP: Stated Policies Scenario, SDS Sustainable Development Scenario, and NZ: Net Zero 2050 Scenario.
Michael Lynch

Also, the environmental benefits of electric vehicles tend to be exaggerated. As many have noted, although they are referred to as “zero emission vehicles,” they are really “remote emission vehicles.” In France, with its heavy reliance on nuclear power, their use reduces greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 77%, still a far cry from zero. And the heavy sales numbers in China reduces the overall savings, since two-thirds of China’s electricity comes from coal power, reducing the emission savings by about half.

The difference from zero and actual emissions is the result of the energy-intensive manufacture of the batteries (and other materials in the vehicle). Since China produces the majority of the world’s lithium-ion batteries and again, is heavily reliant on coal for power, the emissions reductions are that much less.

The primary question is: When will electric vehicles achieve a significant market share, beyond luxury cars, such as Tesla? The cheaper models have had some success as second cars or commuter vehicles, but their cost and performance remain inferior to ICE vehicles.

The suggestion that the Tesla will be to the ICE car what the Model T was to horses does not stand up to scrutiny. The Model T could carry 6 passengers, compared to two at best for horse, could travel at speeds up to 40 mph, while horse can maintain only 17 mph for brief periods, and the cargo capacity of a Model T was ten times that of the horse. Added to that, the typical horse emitted approximately 22 pounds of manure a day, much of which the owner had to clean up.

The long charging times electric vehicles is also significant. “Refueling” a BEV takes 40 minutes even at a fast charging station, and usually only takes the batteries to 80%, versus an ICE vehicles’ 5 minutes for a complete refill. And ranges for BEVs are exaggerated because their performance degrades at higher speeds and colder temperatures: At 70 mph and 32 degrees, a BEV can see its range halved from the reported optimal. (An ICE vehicle does lose 12–14% of efficiency when speed increases from 55 to 70 mph.)

Given these shortcomings, the optimistic targets for BEV sales are unlikely to be achieved; worse, and the persistence of existing ICE cars means that even with higher sales of BEVs, their share of vehicles in use will lag significantly. At normal turnover rates, even if the BEV share of new vehicle sales reaches 40% by 2030, only 15% of the cars on the road will be electric (Fig. 2).

BEV share of cars in use.
Michael Lynch

Rather disconcerting is that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching to electric vehicles is higher than most of mainstream approaches. Considering that at present, the world is consuming nearly 8 billion tons of coal each year, that would seem to be the priority target for climate policies. Switching to natural gas can reduce emissions and is often done at no cost, whereas switching from an ICE to a BEV can cost over $10,000, one reason there is growing opposition to government subsidies to buyers, who are naturally in the upper income bracket.

Ultimately, the electric vehicle needs major improvements in range, recharging, and costs before it can be more than a niche market which suggests the petroleum age is not yet near an end.

[The article was sourced from the author by TWA editor Andreas Michael.]