A Drive on the Electric Side

We have big problems: gasoline consumption, air pollution and a transportation system that relies heavily of fossil fuels. While scientific inquiry and technological progress will do their own, one of the best ways we can contribute, in a non-radical way, would be to take a ride on the electric side and explore the electric car. This market-based solution, once an engineering puzzle, now a transportation disruptor, is growing both in accessibility and in efficiency. While this post may seem like it’s trying to sell you a new Tesla, the purpose was to speak more broadly about the electric car and the problems it can help solve.

“The World Health Organization says the number of deaths attributed to air pollution is 6.5 million a year. That’s more than the number of people killed by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined.”

Both public and private sectors are committed to rethinking future energy requirements in response to the current state of climate change. With that, achieving sustainable transportation has become a common and pressing mission among those seeking a greener future.  In light of this problem, the world has witnessed a rise in electric car popularity: its global sales exceeded 100,000 units for the first time in 2012[1].  The emergence of these vehicles is set to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions as CO2-releasing gasoline engines become fewer on the road.

While it would be nice for the electric car to be the perfect solution, it does come with some caveats. For instance, the mining of lithium for the battery and the production of various components (such as the embedded computers and electronics) are more energy-intensive and release more greenhouse gases than petroleum cars initially would[2]. Since fossil fuels remain the main source of energy worldwide, these resources continue to feed and drive this vehicle’s activities and functioning[3]. So then, over its life cycle, why is the electric car still considered the zero-emission alternative we’ve all been looking for?

The post-manufacturing footprint of the electric car depends on the local energy system (ex: solar, hydro…) in which the owner recharges their automobile[4] (see figure below). If this system relies more on renewable sources – like in Quebec with hydroelectricity – then the indirect pollution is much reduced. And ultimately, these vehicles are still releasing far less greenhouse gases over their lifetime than gasoline cars, especially as the technology involved is constantly being developed[5].

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Electric Car Emissions Relative to the Country of Its use and its Overall Energy System Type[6]

On the consumer side, the electric car has not always been favored due to its range on one charge. According to a study by the California Center for Sustainable Energy, 79 percent of consumers would be interested in this type of car if it were capable of 200 miles on one charge[7]. This of course, is not the case for most electric vehicles today*. And let’s be real, the high price tag has also long deterred the green fanatic from going electric.

*(It should be said that the new Tesla Model 3, projected to hit production at the end of 2017, is projected to go 215 miles per charge.)

Still, some governments offer consumer incentives to help increase electric car sales.  Although batteries currently account for a third of manufacturing costs, mass production, technological advances and consumer demand will help to lower the selling price[8][9]. More and more companies; such as Tesla with the aforementioned Model 3; Chevrolet with the Bolt; and Nissan with the Leaf, have also committed to selling more affordable long-range electric cars[10].

Billions of dollars have already been invested in the development of new models and a number of governments have electric car deployment targets – which are both set to only expand[11].  The electric car is perhaps still in its beta phase, but with appropriate research and development, it can continue to have a positive impact on the environment. However, if the goal is to decrease atmospheric pollution and mitigate carbon-dioxide emissions, nothing beats using public transport, cycling or walking as much as possible to save energy.

Another way of making transportation more efficient at reducing environmental strain might be the promise of automation in the transportation system. The self-driving vehicle concept has been gaining traction in recent years, and it will be interesting to see how this idea comes to develop along side of electric cars. Whereas there may exist generational unease– or even in some cases, consumer-driven resistance(1,2)– towards the technological disruption of driving, we’ve learned, time and again, that man can adapt to his milieu whatever the tools he has. Now of course, when more is known about said milieu, man, new with knowledge, must use his tools to build new ones (and yes, even some that parallel park into lithium-ion superchargers).

[1]  International Energy Agency. “Global EV Outlook” IEA. International Energy Agency, Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. < https://www.iea.org/publications/globalevoutlook_2013.pdf>

[2]  Conca, James. “Are Electric Cars Really That Polluting?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 21 July 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

[3]  Lomborg, Bjorn. “Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret.” WSJ. The Wall Street Journal, 11 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

[4]  Wilson, Lindsay. “The ‘Electric Cars Aren’t Green’ Myth Debunked.” Shrink That Footprint. N.p., 06 June 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

[5]  Wilson, Lindsay. “The ‘Electric Cars Aren’t Green’ Myth Debunked.” Shrink That Footprint. N.p., 06 June 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

[6]   Wilson, Lindsay. “The ‘Electric Cars Aren’t Green’ Myth Debunked.” Shrink That Footprint. N.p., 06 June 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

[7]   Davies, Alex. “How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, Feb. 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

[8]  Zhong, Jack. “Rise of the Electric Car.” Columbia Science Review. N.p., 14 Nov. 2015. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

[9]  Randall, Tom. “Here’s How Electric Cars Will Cause the Next Oil Crisis.”Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

[10]   Davies, Alex. “How GM Beat Tesla to the First True Mass-Market Electric Car.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, Feb. 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

[11]  International Energy Agency. “Global EV Outlook” IEA. International Energy Agency, Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. < https://www.iea.org/publications/globalevoutlook_2013.pdf>

Words by: Marguerite Jane & Kirstin Lee