Busting 7 of the most common myths about electric cars

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2019 Nissan Leaf Plus

2019 Nissan Leaf Plus

Ah, yes, forwarded emails with subject lines like, “The real story behind …” or “Things you haven’t been told about ….”

They can contain much misinformation, and their “facts” can spread at digital speeds. We recently got one from an Australian acquaintance, who helpfully sent it to 70 or so of his closest friends.

Copied and pasted from something he’d received himself, it was titled, “Electric car news you don't hear much about.”  And, boy, was a lot of it … well, let’s say misleading and out of context. It contained some outright misinformation and a healthy dollop of FUD.

When they apply to electric cars, such materials risk forming lasting impressions among new-car shoppers. So they’re worth trying to rebut.

Early one morning, fortified by a pot of strong tea, we banged out a response.

We’ve now expanded that response into more general replies to some of the myths about plug-in electric vehicles, copying and pasting each point from the note, lightly edited for clarity and style, ahead of our response. Feel free to copy and paste them yourself as needed—but include the link to this piece, please!

Tesla Model S P100D

Tesla Model S P100D

(1) BATTERY WEIGHT and TIRES

Top electric vehicles like Tesla have 500 kilograms of batteries. Imagine driving your present car carrying the extra weight of six burly rugby players as passengers everywhere, with instant acceleration which the square torque curve of the electric motor gives. I predict a 50-percent shorter tire life. Imagine the cost, the particulates, and the CO2 footprint to double car tire production.

The weight statistic is true. But most high-volume electric cars have electronic controls built in to prevent uncontrolled wheel spin, just as regular cars do. However, EV batteries will get lighter over time as lithium-ion cell energy density increases (at 7 percent a year).

For energy use, the weight is less of a problem than for gasoline cars. They waste the increased energy used to accelerate the higher weight. But the momentum of an electric car lets you return energy to the battery as the car slows. The heavier the car, the more energy it takes to accelerate—but the more you return to the battery commensurately through regenerative braking.

Of course, if you pay six figures for a high-performance electric car (think Tesla Model S P100D) and use its capabilities, you should expect to replace your very expensive low-profile tires every 15,000 miles or so. That’s par for the segment.

2019 Audi e-tron battery pack

2019 Audi e-tron battery pack

(2) BATTERY LIFE and RECYCLING

These batteries cost circa $15,000. The Tesla/Audi owner will face this replacement cost after 10 years or so. They may live in remote areas. Imagine the transport and recycling.

Whether an electric-car battery needs to be replaced after 10 years remains an open question. Nissan Leaf batteries are passively air-cooled, and hence lose capacity more quickly than batteries from Tesla, GM, and others that are actively liquid-cooled.

But we will need hundreds of thousands to millions of electric cars over their full lives to have enough data to make definitive statements about battery life. Remember that manufacturers only design cars for lives of 10 to 12 years and 100,000 to 150,000 miles to start with, though Toyotas and a few other brands often last far longer.

Thus far, data shows Tesla batteries have only lost about 10 percent of their energy capacity after 100,000 miles.

DON’T MISS: Tesla Model S battery life: what the data show so far

But long before recycling, electric-car batteries will have second and third lives well beyond their automotive use. Small businesses are forming to rack them for energy storage in buildings, etc. Some carmakers are even going into that business themselves.

The value of a battery that cost $5,000 to $10,000 new does not suddenly fall to zero, so people won't want to toss them. They're too valuable, and could live on for as long as a few decades.

Then, once they’re finally ready for recycling, it will happen in just the same way as all dead hybrid batteries are now removed and recycled by their makers. The lead-acid starter battery is the best model; it may be the single most recycled consumer good in the world (in part because, unlike EV batteries, its lead makes the entire thing highly toxic).

Virus-grown manganese oxide nanowires for lithium-air batteries (MIT)

Virus-grown manganese oxide nanowires for lithium-air batteries (MIT)

(3) RATE of IMPROVEMENT

100,000,000 cars a year are made today; if EVs need an average of 300 kg of batteries each, that is 100,000 TONS of batteries per day. As demand for cobalt and lithium increases, costs will not go down as we read about, like Moore’s Law for computer power.

Moore's Law has nothing to do with battery cost. Anyone who says it does has no idea what they're talking about. But batteries do improve each year.

The real data: Over 20-plus years, lithium-ion battery costs have fallen 7 percent a year, on average. That's far faster than the annual improvement in efficiency of combustion engines.

Lithium is abundant on five continents. It presently blows across the plains of Peru as dust. Most analyses suggest it will never see the shortages or cartels or sales restrictions that oil does. It's just too plentiful.

The supply of cobalt and some other battery metals used in smaller quantities is more limited. Its mining is not cost-free. Mining is never pretty; it's destructive to natural landscapes and often damaging to people and communities in permanent ways. However, parts of the global auto industry are now focusing intently on ethical sourcing, to avoid the children-mining-cobalt-in-DRC story that seems to have gotten so much traction lately. BMW will now buy cobalt directly from mines to avoid child exploitation by intermediaries.

Research into newer battery chemistries and redesigned electronic components that cut use of scarce and expensive materials is also constant. Some of the largest makers of lithium batteries for cars have set targets to eliminate cobalt from their chemistries. In the meantime, cobalt concentrations are falling, similar to the use of platinum in catalytic converters: Converters in today’s cars use less than 10 percent the amount of platinum contained in the first such converters in 1975.

It's also worth pointing out that the fossil fuels we've burned since 1850 or so have their own ecological downsides, not only in harmful emissions but also in the vastly increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon from CO2 emissions—leading to climate change.

Also, consider this: Petroleum drilled from the Earth and refined is generally burned once for transportation before new oil has to be drilled to replace it (e.g. to refill your tank.) The lithium and other minerals mined for batteries are reused over and over, thousands of times in driving a car before the batteries get too weak and are moved on to other uses. While mining has serious consequences, assigning the same weight to the mining of battery materials as to the drilling of oil is a false equivalence.

BNEF study shows EV emissions falling faster than gas engines as power grid gets cleaner

BNEF study shows EV emissions falling faster than gas engines as power grid gets cleaner

(4) GRID DEMAND from ELECTRIC CARS

Until nuclear power gets adopted globally, the fossil fuel for baseload power will be overwhelmed by 100 million electric cars per year at peak load times, and will need massive increases.

This is simply rubbish. Most electric cars will be plugged in overnight to recharge, just as mobile phones are. Electric utilities welcome this added usage, as it stabilizes their power demand overnight.

Utilities, and their regulators, will put in place cost penalties—where they don't already exist as "demand charges"—to discourage plugging in EVs during demand peaks. It will likely cost you far more to plug in at 3 pm on a hot, muggy afternoon than it will between 11 pm and 6 am that night.

We’ve talked to dozens of utility executives in 10 years. All of them feel electric-car load is predictable, manageable, and welcome—because it's one of the few ways they can increase electricity usage in an ethical and environmentally helpful way.

Older executives will tell you the advent of cheap, mass-produced, widespread, inefficient home air conditioners from the 1960s through the 1980s was far more disruptive to the grid than electric cars will ever be.

As the chart above from BloombergNEF shows, new sources of electricity are increasingly coming from clean renewables as old fossil-fuel plants are retired. From an emissions standpoint, this trend more than makes up for the increased demand for electricity from electric cars over time. 

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric cars outside dealership [photo: Patrick Reid]

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV electric cars outside dealership [photo: Patrick Reid]

(5) USED ELECTRIC-CAR PRICES

When hoping to sell your electric car after eight years, the prospective buyer is aware of the battery-replacement cost approaching.

This one’s definitely an open question. Used EVs today suffer from a double whammy. Not only are they mostly low-range (70 to 125 miles, except for Teslas), but the high-volume Nissan Leaf will likely have suffered at least some noticeable battery degradation.

But the data is slim, and used Teslas have so far held their prices as well as, or better than, other used luxury cars of similar age and mileage.

The point about range is crucial: A 200-mile battery that degrades to, say, 160 or 180 miles is an entirely different kettle of fish than having a 75-mile battery that now delivers only 45 or 60 miles.

Another reason that short-range electric cars have not held their value well is that buyers know longer-range cars that aren't much more expensive are right around the corner. Who wants a 60 mile EV, when they can get one that goes 150 miles? As 200 or 300-mile EVs become the norm, these discrepancies seem likely to equalize.

This issue certainly remains a concern, but we need more data.

Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge

Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge

(6) RUNNING OUT of RANGE

If due to head winds, hot or cold weather, full loads, aging batteries, hilly terrain, or fast driving, one runs out of batteries in the country or in the Sydney Tunnel, the situation is dire.

Yep, a car that totally dies all of a sudden is a worrisome situation. Ask anyone who ran out of gasoline or had a breakdown in the middle of a tunnel or on a bridge.

Of course, when was the last time you let your car run so low that you actually ran out of gas? Doesn’t happen much, does it? Just as with gasoline cars, electric-car drivers learn the vehicle’s real range and stop obsessing when the remaining-range indicator drops into double digits.

It’s also noteworthy that all EVs have a "turtle mode" that restricts power when the battery is very low. It will give you 1 to 5 miles more, at reduced performance and speed—to get you out of that tunnel, for instance. They don't just shut down without warning, as gas cars do when they run out of fuel.

But when you talk to actual, real-life EV drivers, they'll tell you they all come to understand what their cars are capable of—and very few have ever run entirely out of range. Looking forward, again, 200-mile electric cars change the picture completely compared to those with 75-mile ranges.

2019 Chevrolet Volt

2019 Chevrolet Volt

(7) PLUG-IN HYBRIDS and THEIR PROSPECTS

The Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle reduces the first five concerns by 80 percent, and the sixth entirely—yet gives the same reduction in CO2 emissions.

Plug-In Hybrids are certainly a neat solution to some of the concerns raised above. Indeed, some of the earliest data showed that drivers of Chevy Volts (35 miles of battery range in 2012) covered more miles per day on electricity than did drivers of 75-mile 2012 Nissan Leafs.

The problem is that plug-in hybrids are almost impossible to explain to actual mass-market car shoppers. Fundamentally, they are an engineer's solution to a regulatory problem that consumers don't articulate that way and never directly asked for.

More important, battery costs are falling fast enough that it appears fully electric vehicles with 200-mile-plus batteries will cost less to make and sell by 2025 than will a vehicle that needs two powertrains: a gasoline one and an electric one.

GM, for one, seems to have decided it won't invest any more in plug-in hybrids; it ended production of its groundbreaking Chevrolet Volt in February. VW Group similarly plans to sell 1 million battery-electric cars a year by 2025, out of the 10 million vehicles it sells around the world each year. Its plan five years ago was simply to offer an optional plug-in hybrid version of all its models with conventional powertrains by 2020.

Tesla South Australia lithium-ion battery storage

Tesla South Australia lithium-ion battery storage

FINAL NOTE: China, then Europe

China's government-industrial complex has long had three goals for the country. It wants to dominate global production of photovoltaic solar cells, lithium-ion battery cells, and electric cars.

The first is accomplished, the second is underway (though China's makers still haven't cracked the final quality and reliability barriers that keep Japanese and Korean cell makers on top), and the third effort is just starting.

China's government has a few carrots and a whole bunch of very large sticks to drive its consumers to buy plug-in vehicles and to force its makers to build them. This will position the country very well in global competition in the digital age.

Europe will follow. Now that we're through the diesel infatuation—we know how that story ended—European makers are taking electric cars very seriously. That’s because it's the only viable way to comply with stiff EU laws slashing total CO2 per mile driven.

North America may well lag, however. Our fuel is cheap, our trucks are big and heavy, and we drive longer distances than Chinese or European drivers—who all have access to pervasive, reliable, clean, affordable mass transit between city pairs. North Americans don't.

As for Australia, with respect, it's simply not a large enough vehicle market to make a difference globally one way or the other. I suspect its vehicle use looks more like North America's, and it may well continue to power its vehicles by burning fossil fuels longer.

 
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