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The Electric Car: A waste of time?

electric vehicle, plug-in electric car, conventional vehicle, zero emissions

Electric cars are becoming more and more popular. The three major reasons are that people want to purchase vehicles that are more environmentally friendly, want to become less dependent on oil, especially foreign oil, and want to purchase vehicles that are more economical.

Although electric cars tend to be more environmentally friendly due to zero emissions and increased efficiency, the question of the fuel source for the electricity that runs the cars has been masterfully avoided. We cannot truly make headway with reducing our carbon footprints with automobiles, electric or not, without addressing the entire life cycle of those automobiles.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us start with the history of electric cars first. This will give us a more comprehensive view of the electric car. Therefore, allowing us to better understand the pros and cons of electric cars, and ultimately help us to decide what role we want electric cars to play in the transportation of the future.

History

Electric cars were popular from the mid-1800s to the early 1900’s until the internal combustion engine became cheaper and more efficient. The electric car made a small comeback during the 1970s and 1980s, but was short-lived until recently. Early on, city dwellers preferred electric cars to gasoline cars because they did not have the vibration, smell and noise of gasoline run automobiles.

However, the limited range of the electric car, its unreliable batteries and the expansion of the oil industry eventually made electric cars for the most part obsolete until the last twenty or thirty years here in the United States.

Since the 1970s easily accessible oil has been declining. In the past four years oil prices have been rising. Both of these factors have put the electric car back into the forefront. Other factors that have contributed to the third rising of the electric car include climate change, air pollution and national security [foreign oil].

Benefits

The electric car is more efficient than the conventional, or gasoline run, vehicle. According to Robert Q. Riley, the electric car is approximately 46 percent efficient, whereas the conventional car is only 18 percent efficient.

Electric cars also produce zero emissions. This means no exhaust is coming from a tailpipe like with a gasoline run car. This is said to greatly improve air quality, especially in cities and other congested areas. With zero emissions, there is less carbon dioxide, or CO2, being emitted into the air, which may slow down or reduce climate change as well. Additionally, improved air quality may help prevent related health problems, such as asthma and cancer.

If the electricity comes from primarily nuclear plants, solar, wind and hydro- power, then the environmental impact, or carbon footprint, of electric cars may be even less than some currently predict. Depending on the energy source, we could also see a reduction in hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and carbon monoxide in the air.

As more and more electric cars are mass produced, the cost of the electric car will likely become more affordable and, therefore, can compete with the cost of gasoline run cars. With government rebates and incentive programs, electric cars may be even more affordable for middle-income families wanting to make more eco-friendly purchases.

Continued advances in technology will likely make the electric car even more efficient, affordable and environmentally friendly. Smart grids, improved batteries, and renewable energy sources make the electric car of today far superior to its predecessors 150 years ago.

Problems

According to a LiveScience.com article, it takes 100 gallons or more of oil to make a car. This includes electric cars. Therefore making electric cars still heavily reliant on oil for its production. Currently, there is no other lightweight, inexpensive material that can fully replace plastic use in cars, which has increased over the past thirty years.

This plastic, unlike the steel and aluminum that was once used in its place, is less easily reused and recycled at a car’s end life. This means the plastic goes directly to the landfill where it takes up to a thousand years to breakdown.

Changing the fuel used by cars only addresses a small piece of the puzzle, and might actually further propel already prevalent problems. This is a quote from a 2009 report put out by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute,

  • “…driving such vehicles [hybrid or electric] does not reduce congestion, road and parking facility costs, most consumer costs, accident costs, mobility problems facing non-drivers, or the environmental impacts of roads and sprawl; in fact, by reducing vehicle operating costs, it tends to increase these problems.”

The type of fuel used for the electricity is also an area of debate for the electric car. The electric car may reduce oil consumption, but may also increase the use of natural gas and coal because these are the two most commonly used fuel sources for power plants in the United States. These fossil fuels are still a huge source of air pollution, and electric cars could increase our consumption of them.

Although batteries have greatly improved over the years, they still remain somewhat of a problem for the electric car. The storage capacity, lifespan and cost are all current obstacles the electric car industry must overcome. The Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California of Berkeley reported in 2009 that the price estimate for an automotive battery for 2012 is approximately $12,000. It is also estimated that the battery life will be approximately 10 years, but is somewhat dependent on usage.

Developing an infrastructure for recharging the electric cars is also posing as a challenge to the industry. Without adequate funding and consumer demand, developing an infrastructure that is user-friendly and widespread [national] is unlikely. The Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California of Berkeley estimates that an infrastructure to support 100,000 cars will cost $300 million. However, these costs when broken down into the per-mile cost could be as little as a few cents a mile.

Future

In the future, the life cycle of the automobile needs to be further evaluated to help make the appropriate improvements. For example, new materials need to be developed so they can be used in the mass production of most automobiles. So far some materials being used include hemp, recycled post-consumer plastics, soy-based polyurethane and water-based paints. The Lotus Eco Elise is one car that has been made using many of these more environmentally friendly materials.

The fuel sources used at power plants to generate the electricity for the electric cars needs to be evaluated and changed accordingly. Currently wind, solar and hydro- power cannot generate enough power to get us away from fossil fuels. Therefore, we need to highly consider the option of nuclear power, which is a cleaner energy source than that of coal and natural gas. The electrical grid also needs to be updated to make it more efficient and economical as the fleet of electric cars continues to grow.

Lastly, solutions to our energy and transportation problems need to be looked at beyond just the automobile. This means looking at land use, city development, public transportation and efficient highways and road systems. The automobile is only a small piece of the puzzle, and, therefore, changing the automobile is only a part of the solution, not the whole solution. Thinking outside of the box and getting to the root of the problems is detrimental to coming up with comprehensive plans to improve transportation and energy use, and drastically reduce pollution.

Conclusion

At this point and time it is difficult to say how much of a role the electric car is going to play in the overall improvement of transportation. As long as technology continues to improve the electric car and oil prices continue to rise, the electric car will likely slowly replace conventional, or gasoline run, vehicles. On the other hand, with over 250 million cars driven in the United States, replacing all those vehicles with electric ones is unlikely to provide us with the drastic changes we really need. This goes back to the fact that more time and energy needs to be spent on putting a more comprehensive plan together, and then executing it in a timely manner. This will require the cooperation and innovation of many industries, educated consumers and citizens, and honest, ethical political leaders.

Call To Action: 

Go to www.epri.com and download their "Consumer Guide to The Electric Vehicle."
Drive less, even if you have an electric car.
Stay up-to-date on new technology and electric car designs

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