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, which begs the question: can electric cars really replace gas guzzlers?
- Electric car sales are increasing rapidly, but sales are still far behind gas and diesel-powered vehicles.
- High manufacturing costs and limited infrastructure help to explain why electric car sales stalled when they were first brought to market.
- Worldwide electric vehicle sales rose 109% in 2021, to 6.5 million.
- Electric vehicles tend to have a higher sticker price, but lower costs over the lifetime of the car.
- However, electric vehicles are still impractical for longer journeys.
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.
The inventors of the internal combustion engine understood that petroleum held a large amount of 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?
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 hydrogen is expensive to extract and transport. Outside of a handful of countries with sufficient infrastructure, hydrogen fuel is not practical or cost-effective.
Many 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 the United States and Brazil, two countries that use significant amounts of biofuels.
Natural gas and propane have also been considered, but just like gasoline, these are carbon-producing fossil fuels, a limited resource in an increasingly resource-hungry world.
While the electricity to power electric vehicles may be generated from fossil fuels, coal or oil-burning power plants are much more efficient than an internal combustion engine. That means that electric vehicles cause fewer carbon emissions, even using dirty electricity.
The Emergence of Electric Cars
Electric and hybrid cars have had the best adoption of alternative vehicles. Worldwide, 6.5 million electric vehicles were sold in 2021. That's an increase of more than 100% over the previous year, although it's still less than 10% of the global market. More than half a million of those were sold in the United States.
There are many reasons for the increasing popularity of electric vehicles. 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.
Second, consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers associated with fossil fuels. Not only are carbon emissions an existential threat to human civilization, but gasoline pollution is also a leading cause of mortality. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, electric cars become more attractive.
Another plus is that he EV car is quieter, quicker to accelerate, often lighter-weight, and offers high-tech trappings. Electric cars struggled when they were first brought to market, largely due to high costs, sparse infrastructure, and resistance from the oil industry.
Quite a lot has changed. Electric cars are commonly spotted on roads around the United States and Europe, and charging stations are as common as gasoline pumps. But there are still many obstacles before electric vehicles can overtake the old-style combustion engine.
The percentage of U.S. electricity that comes from fossil fuels, according to the Department of Energy. 20.1% comes from renewable sources, and another 18% comes from nuclear power.
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, with a sticker price about $19,000 higher than the average gas-powered vehicle. New technologies and manufacturing techniques are bringing down the costs, but the purchase price is still something to consider.
But once you buy the car, electric vehicles are cheaper to maintain. 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, the electricity to drive one mile costs around $0.03 cents in the United States, while one mile of gas costs over $0.06 cents.
Naturally, this calculation depends on the relative prices of gas and electricity, which fluctuate over time and geography. A state-by-state study in Joule projected that an electric vehicle would have savings of $3,000 to $10,000, assuming an average lifetime of 15 years.
Moreover, there are also tax advantages to electric vehicles, since the government offers deductions and credits for people who purchase electric vehicles.
If an electric car can save you $10,000 on gas, that's a pretty strong financial incentive to going electric. Assuming, of course, that you have enough power to get everywhere you want to go with an electric vehicle.
Obstacle 2: Battery Life
The second biggest hindrance to electric vehicle ownership for many people is the battery. While many manufacturers are trying to scale up battery capacity, the maximum range of an electric vehicle is only around 400 miles.
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 before you head 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 15 million vehicles sold in the United States in 2021, just 4%, or 535,000, 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 take an 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.
And having more customers means that electric vehicles can become even more affordable. As electric vehicle manufacturers climb up the learning curve and take advantage of economies of scale, electric-powered vehicles are becoming more practical than ever.
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. As gas prices rise, electric vehicles continue to look more attractive. For the moment, most of us are stuck with our trips to the pump, but with improved technology, gas guzzlers might become things of the past.
Correction–March 18, 2022: An earlier version misstated the amount of U.S. electricity that comes from fossil fuels.