My editor tactfully suggested that every time I review an electric car, instead of taking up a third of my available space explaining why they will never fulfil more than a small fraction of our personal transportation needs, I should summarize the facts into a separate column to which I can then refer readers who want to know the truth.
Here you go!
It’s clear from recent events in the Excited States of America that not only are facts irrelevant in the realm of public and political discourse, they may even be harmful to whatever cause you’re trying to promote.
But unlike lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats whose very existence often hinges on ignoring the facts, I — as an engineer and journalist — still feel beholden to them.
So, here are a few facts to consider on the subject of electric cars.
Contrary to what may be at least a common — if not popular — opinion, I don’t hate electric cars. They never did anything to me.
I have often said that an electric motor is an excellent way to power an automobile. We’ve known that an electric car is quiet, quick, simple and durable since before the Baker Electric went out of production in 1914.
It’s what supplies the electricity that’s the problem, and has been since that Baker Electric ran out of juice.
I don’t even hate battery-powered cars. It’s science that hates battery-powered cars.
A friend of mine worked on the EV-1, General Motors’ first shot at a modern battery-powered car. When he left that project, his parting gift from his colleagues was a 75-foot-long extension cord, which I thought was terribly funny.
He also came out of that experience saying that there are three types of liars in this world: liars, damned liars, and battery engineers.
They have been promising us ‘the’ battery breakthrough ever since the demise of that poor old Baker, and we’re not a heck of a lot farther along that road than we were then. Certainly, there’s been nowhere near the progress we’ve seen in petroleum-fuelled cars.
At the moment, the best range a battery-powered car that is even within sight of an affordable price can deliver is 383 kilometres, in the new Chevrolet Bolt EV.
Although, as I said in my preview of that car a couple of months back, what that range might be in Winnipeg in February has not been announced …
Apart from the quietness, there’s nothing about the Bolt that wouldn’t be better if it had a modern Diesel engine in it.
It would triple its range, you could ‘recharge’ that range fully in five minutes, not nine to 60 hours, from a delivery infrastructure that is already in place literally everywhere in the world, and which would not require you (or likely for most urban dwellers, your landlord) to install a multi-thousand dollar Level 2 charging station where you live.
“Yes,” the electric car fanatics cry, “but Diesel is a fossil fuel!” True.
But, depending on where you live in North America, chances are very good so is your electricity, because it is generated by burning something — usually natural gas.
And burning a fossil fuel to power an electric car is nowhere near as efficient as burning that fuel to power the car directly.
That grotesque creature whose name will never sully my column but who managed to lose the election down south yet still gain the presidency, has said he will bring coal back. So, good luck on that front.
I can’t deny electric cars have zero emissions at the tailpipe. But tailpipe emissions have pretty much become last century’s problem.
According to Environment Canada, cars and light vehicles — our personal transportation fleet — are responsible for only 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. As older cars get phased out and newer cars get ever cleaner, that percentage is likely dropping.
So, even if tomorrow morning, all cars in our fleet were magically powered by the sheer force of Elon Musk’s ambition, 88 per cent of the problem would still be here.
Electric cars currently (ho ho …) hover around one per cent share of the market. Let’s assume that the wildest dreams of battery-powered car fans are achieved, and that market share increases tenfold in the next 10 years. That’s 10 per cent of new car sales.
But remember that modern cars often last 10 or more years (both of my Volkswagen Diesels are well over that already). People aren’t going to instantly throw out their perfectly good three-, four-, five- or even 10-year-old car to buy a battery-powered electric car, so it will take another 10 years or so for 10 per cent of our total automotive fleet to be battery-powered.
So, doing the math, 20 years from now, we will have reduced the total automotive contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in our country by one tenth of 12 per cent. i.e.,1.2 per cent. Start planning the parade!
All the costs of installing the recharging infrastructure, not to mention the millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded bribes largely to rich people to buy their third or fourth car to park beside their Escalade, for a 1.2 per cent improvement in our atmosphere?
Hey, I’ve got grandchildren. I want a cleaner atmosphere as much as or more than anybody. Is this the best bang-for-the-buck we can get? Not even close.
The low-hanging fruit is in areas like concrete production, which by some credible estimates is responsible for 30 per cent of CO2 emissions.
How ridiculous then is it that Quebec, which does have hydro power to spare, is giving $8,600 to those rich folks for their electric playtoy, while also giving a $2-billion grant to build a concrete plant in the Gaspe where there is zero demand for concrete? Like I said, politicians and facts.
Even in the realm of transportation, if we were to use those billions of taxpayer dollars to build roundabouts at every conceivable location, instantly we’d save way more fuel and reduce pollution faster than electric cars ever could. And, save thousands of lives and billions of dollars on hospital and car repair bills at the same time.
So, the facts are that battery-powered cars’ impact on our atmosphere is effectively a non-issue.
There are other environmental facts to consider. Where do the batteries come from? Most car batteries today and in the foreseeable future are based on such benign elements as nickel and lithium.
Much of our nickel still comes from the Sudbury region, where it is mined using Diesel-powered equipment. It is shipped by Diesel-powered trains to the west coast, loaded onto bunker-C-fuelled tankers, and shipped to China, where it is loaded back on to Diesel-powered trains and sent to the battery factories.
The finished batteries go back onto Diesel-powered trains to China’s east coast, are loaded onto bunker-C-fuelled tankers and shipped back to North America, where they once again are loaded onto Diesel-powered trains and shipped to the car assembly plants. So, that’s nice and clean.
Lithium? Hello, Galaxy Note 7 …
Also Read: There are two sides to every story
We’ve had a lot of fun over the last few decades with OPEC — the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Wait ’til they form OLEC — the Organization of Lithium Exporting Countries, which if it existed would currently consist of Bolivia and China, with Russia applying for membership. Oh, goody — let’s stake our future on those bastions of freedom and liberal democracy.
The next environmental issue we will have to deal with is when a car’s battery is done, what do we do with it? In the Bolt for example, that’s 450 kilograms of toxic sludge.
There are lots of opinions on how long electric car batteries will last, but nobody knows for sure because they haven’t been around long enough.
The company with the most experience is Toyota with their hybrids. They say essentially that the battery lasts ‘the life of the car,’ which is another way of saying ‘when the battery is done, so is the car.’ That’s not quite true, because there are many instances of Priuses getting new batteries.
The lifespan and the warranty seem to be in the 10-year/320,000-km region, again less than my VWs have gone, and the replacement cost is in the low thousands of dollars. So, for a car that old, not likely to be a viable option, although for young year-wise but high-mileage applications like taxis, it might work.
And that’s for a hybrid, where the battery doesn’t do all the heavy lifting. In a pure electric, who knows?
We do know that battery lifespan depends on how many charge cycles it goes through, and at what temperature.
All pure battery-electric cars are set up so they never charge fully nor discharge fully, because either extreme shortens battery life considerably.
Again, Chevrolet’s Bolt EV offers a clue as to lifespan, with an eight-year, 160,000-km warranty on its battery.
To me, that doesn’t seem very long, mileage-wise especially, but that’s all they’re going to cover you for. After that, you’re on your own.
But the larger problem for society — what happens to all those toxic chemicals when the battery IS done?
We know how to recycle every milligram of a conventional car, and presumably somebody will come up with solutions and facilities for batteries, too. But we don’t have them yet, certainly not in the volume we’re going to need if electrics do become a big part of our fleet. Which they won’t; jus’ sayin’ …
Another topic electric car fans don’t seem to want to talk about — where is the electricity going to come from? Do you have any idea how much petroleum is burned by our transportation fleet daily? It’s got to be in the hundreds of thousands of barrels.
Yet, I remind you it still only contributes 12 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Where is that much ‘replacement’ electricity going to come from? Nuclear is the cleanest option. But after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, how many new reactors are going to be built in your back yard? And electricity doesn’t travel well, so they would have to be near population centres.
B.C., Quebec and a few other places in North America have cheap hydro power. How many more multi-thousand hectare tracts of most likely aboriginal land are going to be flooded to build more of those?
People driving Teslas today probably have a house big enough and are wealthy enough to install solar panels on their roofs. What about the huge percentage of Canadians who live in apartment buildings? Where are their solar panels going to go?
There will never be enough windmills to make up the difference. And even if we do generate that electricity, how do we get it to the people?
A few Christmases ago, we found out how robust Toronto’s electricity distribution infrastructure is; an ice storm shut the city down for a week.
Let’s plug 500,000 cars into that every night and see what happens. The city burns to the ground, is what happens.
What’s more, and as previously noted, an electric cars business model depends on governments bribing potential customers with your and my tax dollars. That’s $14,000 in Ontario, which I think is the highest bribe in North America, mostly going to wealthy people who can afford any car they want? For, as noted above, approximately zero societal benefit? Why isn’t there rioting in the streets? Not to mention encouraging electric car purchase with these bribes, then having amongst the highest electricity prices anywhere? Better reread Adam Smith, Premier Wynne.
Listen, if you want to spend your own money buying an electric car and pretend you are saving the planet, fill yer boots. Likewise, if you want to spend your own money buying a Porsche and pretend you’re driving on the Nurburgring on your way to work. Just don’t expect me to be happy with the government using my taxes to help you fulfil either fantasy. When any battery-powered car can compete on a level playing field without tax-funded bribes, give me a call.
So, as it stands, battery-powered electric cars have zero chance of ever becoming more than a small fraction of our fleet. For urban delivery vehicles which have predetermined routes and which can be plugged in easily overnight, sure. Car-sharing services? Maybe. Both, of course, remain limited by how much electricity can be delivered safely and economically to their charging stations.
Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler Benz, said recently that he sees Mercedes-Benz eventually becoming as much as 25 per cent electric. Last time I looked, when the score in a basketball game was 75-25, the team with 25 was losing big time.
Like I said, at best, battery-powered electric cars will never be but a small percentage of our fleet.
Now, there is a technological solution that will achieve the environmental, transportation and economic goals we all share.
It’s hydrogen fuel cells. That’s a topic for another day.
But the technology and the infrastructure are both closer than most people think. It’s the only feasible long-term solution.
And the more time and resources we waste on stopgap short-circuits like battery-powered electric cars, the farther we are from achieving those goals.
Can’t we just get on with it?