When electric cars first appeared, they looked like a way for the world to escape dependence on fossil fuels and move to an environmentally friendly method to power our transportation. High costs and poor battery performance have deterred many people from making the leap, however, which begs the question: can electric cars replace gas guzzlers one day?
History of Petroleum Fueled Cars
Our love affair with cars dates back to 1908 when Ford Motor Company (F) began mass production of the Model T on Henry Ford’s first assembly line. The automobile quickly spread through the world as an efficient means to travel to work, shopping trips, and to other cities.
- Electric cars have come a long way, but the numbers sold still lag gas cars by a wide margin.
- High manufacturing costs help to explain why electric car sales stalled when they were first brought to market.
- While costs have come down, the most popular brands of electric cars are more expensive than gas cars.
- The cost of ownership with electric cars is typically less because visits to the gas stations or oil changes are a thing of the past.
The inventors of the internal combustion engine understood that petroleum held a large amount of energy, as 84% of the volume of crude oil can be burned and converted to energy. Can you think of any other substance that can take you and 2,000 pounds of car 30 or more miles on just a gallon of it?
Few people can, which is why gasoline-fueled cars have been the norm for over 100 years.
Alternative Power Sources
Over time, engineers have searched for other methods to power our cars. Modern methods include hydrogen-powered vehicles running on hydrogen fuel cells, but creating hydrogen fuel cells takes as much energy as it expands, so outside of areas like Iceland, hydrogen fuel is not necessarily practical or cost-effective.
Some countries have experimented with plant-based fuels, such as corn-based ethanol, which is a major component in E85 fuel, and oil and fat-based Biodiesel, which is used in some public transportation systems. This has worked well in Brazil, where enough sugar cane is grown to fuel much of the country's transportation needs.
Natural gas and propane have also been considered, but just like the gasoline they hope to replace, these are carbon polluting fossil fuels, a limited resource in an increasingly resource-hungry world.
The Emergence of Electric Cars
Electric cars have had the best adoption of alternative powered cars thanks to a number of factors. First, the cost of electricity is competitive for consumers with the price of gasoline. Second, nearly everyone with a car has a power outlet in their home. Recharging is easy.
Electric cars struggled when they were first brought to market, largely due to high costs, a lack of familiarity, and resistance from major automakers to produce them, as chronicled in the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car."
But since 2006, quite a lot has changed. Electric cars are commonly spotted on roads around the United States and Europe, and their popularity is growing. But can electric cars fully replace our gas-powered cars, or are they still going to always fall second to their predecessors?
Obstacle 1: Cost
The first major obstacle to replacing gas-powered cars with electric vehicles, known as EVs, is the cost. The upfront costs of electric vehicles have historically run higher than gas cars. New technologies are bringing the costs down to be more competitive, but the purchase price is still something to consider.
Once you buy the car, however, your cost of ownership does decrease. You still have to rotate and change your tires, but oil changes and visits to the gas station are a thing of the past. In general, maintenance costs and general running costs are lower with an EV than with a gas car. In addition, the government has offered some tax deductions and credits for people who purchase electric vehicles, which can further lower the cost.
If the average consumer saves $10,000 on gasoline over five years, which is a high estimate, the cost is more reasonable compared to gas-powered cars, and you might even save money in the end. That is, however, if you have enough power to get everywhere you want to go with an electric vehicle.
Obstacle 2: Battery Life
For example, the Nissan Leaf (disclosure: my father owns a Nissan Leaf) can only go roughly 100 to 200 miles on a full charge, even less with the air conditioning or heat turned on. These cars are practical for commuting, but can’t be used for long drives or road trips. Even if you can find a charger at your halfway point, you need to take time to plug in if you want to make it back.
Chargers are showing up in more places, but the battery is still holding back electric cars from their full potential. Charging my dad’s Nissan Leaf from 0% to 100% takes all night on a standard outlet. With a home charging station, which can cost thousands to buy and install, you can charge in seven hours. New charger technology allows you to reach 80% in 30 minutes, but those chargers are expensive and can be hard to come by.
Of the 17 million vehicles sold in the United States in 2019, just 2%, or 325,000, were plug-in EVs.
My dad can use his EV for his regular commute, but he sometimes has meetings in Denver’s far-reaching suburbs, and the Leaf does not have the power to make it there and back. On those days, he has to swap with my mom or take their old gas guzzler, which is standing by as a backup for farther drives.
As costs have come down, more consumers have purchased electric vehicles than ever before. And battery technology is improving, which will make EVs more desirable for people who worry about having a 100 or 200 mile limit on their daily drives.
As we add more EVs, we will also need a way to power those EVs. Today, most of our power comes from coal power plants, which pollute just as much as the gasoline we are trying to eliminate. We may be able to eliminate our gas guzzlers in the coming years, but we are certainly not moving toward a greener world until we find a way to charge those cars with clean, renewable energy.
The Bottom Line
Electric vehicles have already replaced gas guzzlers for a growing number of people, and as technology improves, they will become more popular. The average commute in the United States is 25 minutes each way, which likely falls within the range of most EVs today, but adding errands or road trips may make that EV impractical.
Until battery technology improves, most of us are stuck with our trips to the pump, but with improved technology, our gas guzzlers might become a thing of the past.