Like many things these days, electric cars have become a polarizing topic and the subject of much online hate. Indeed, the vitriol and visceral hatred exhibited against EVs border on the fanatical unseen in reaction against any other products. Detractors regularly describe EVs as scams (environmental, financial, and otherwise), glorified toys/golf carts, unworkable/dangerous products, unsustainable drains on the electrical grid, or tools for totalitarian government control. Some of these concerns are warranted, though most result from a lack of understanding of the product adoption process and lifecycles, as well as of progress itself. In this article I would like to debunk the myth EVs are a scam.
First, I’d like to point out that I am fairly neutral in my views regarding both internal combustion engines (ICE) and electric vehicles. I currently own four cars: an ICE/mild hybrid (2020 Mercedes GLB), a hybrid (2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid), a plug-in hybrid (2018 Audi A3 e-tron), and a BEV (2021 Audi e-tron). I’ve previously owned four pure ICE vehicles, including two minivans. I can rewrite the sentence in the active voice as follows: I have handed down my two oldest model-year cars to my teenage children. Throughout the years of car ownership, I’ve enjoyed driving all of them as each has its own strengths and shortcomings.
Objection 1: EVs are a scam; they cost too much; they are not much greener than ICE cars
While it is true that EVs generally cost more to purchase, the higher price tag does not make them a scam. As EVs are still relatively new products, manufacturers are expected to charge higher prices due to the ongoing innovations and improvements being made at a rapid pace. The petrol-based internal combustion drivetrain has largely exhausted its innovations in the past 100 years since the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908. While the electric drive motor is a relatively simple technology, battery technology and chemistry are extremely complex, and we are still in the infancy of energy storage technology.
For example, the improvement in lithium battery energy density is progressing at an exponential rate while the price for battery has been dropping exponentially. That’s not to mention other promising technologies in various stages of development, such as solid-state, graphene, liquid, and nuclear batteries. At the same time, charging speed in EVs and charging stations is projected to increase, with the average range of EVs improving as well. At the current pace of progress, it is highly probable that within a decade EVs will have longer range than ICE vehicles and cost less. Additionally, on a personal note, I justify paying extra for my EV by acknowledging the value I am receiving in additional performance (comparable ICE model is $2,750 cheaper but 0.2 seconds slower 0-60).
Environmental Impact of EVs vs. Public Transportation
The claim that EVs create less environmental impact has been shown to be true by research into the numbers and data. While there are many variables to consider—such as the impact of battery production and recycling, the source of electricity, wear and tear of heavier EVs on roadways—over the lifetime of the vehicle, EVs on average produce less climate impact per MIT.
However, I personally almost never rely on environmental arguments to make my purchasing decisions, as any form of public transportation is far more climate-friendly than car ownership (which represents a certain lifestyle). Growing up in the 1980s, I’ve always thought the point of transitioning away from oil is to reduce our dependence on the Middle East (or countries that are not friendly to American interests) as electricity generation in the U.S. relies on non-oil sources—though in recent years oil imports have also shifted from Saudi Arabia to Canada and Mexico.
Objection 2: EVs are just toys or glorified golf carts
Usually, someone who has little to no experience with an EV makes this argument. I’ve had my Audi e-tron for about three years now and have driven over 32,000 miles in it (including some on 400+ mile roadtrips). This is one beast of a performance vehicle with a 0-60 acceleration time of 5.5 seconds (which is fast by normal ICE standards but not even close to the times achieved by smaller or newer EVs). Functionally, it works like any normal ICE SUV, and I’ve made countless Costco shopping trips in it.
On longer trips, the ride quality is exceptionally smooth and comparable to any typical ICE luxury vehicle. The only downside is that the vehicle is heavy (close to 6,000 pounds) and the EPA range is only 220 miles. Perhaps the first-generation Nissan Leaf, which was the world’s first mass-market EV, deserved the negative comparison to a golf cart due to its EPA range of only 73 miles. However, EVs have come a long way since then and are rapidly progressing. For instance, the latest model year Q8 e-tron, previously known as e-tron, has a range of 285 miles, which is a 30% increase in range in just three years.
Objection 3: EVs spontaneously combust or just don’t work
The media is guilty in the spread of this misinformation. There has been a spate of sensationalist headlines calling attention to EV fires. While there have indeed been occasional EV fires (which do burn much hotter than ICE fires), statistics show that ICE fires occur at much greater frequency than EV fires, though no ICE fire will ever attract the attention of any headline (which, again, proves that it is so common as to be un-newsworthy). As reported by Kelley Blue Book, data show that ICE fires happen at 4-5 times the frequency of EV fires in Norway and more than 17 times in Sweden, two countries that have much higher rates of EV adoption than the U.S..
EVs also happen to work better than ICE cars as they involve far fewer moving parts and thus are less prone to breaking down. ICE cars on average contain over 200 parts in the drivetrain whereas EVs less than 20. Because of this reduced complexity, accounting data from government fleet of both EV and ICE cars show that the maintenance cost of EVs is about 40% less than for ICE cars. However, it is true that EVs cost more to insure than ICE vehicles. This is due to several factors, among them higher price tag of the car and more expensive parts to fix (mainly the battery pack) that also require special skill in the case of accident, though this cost is trending down and will approach parity with ICE cars.
Comparing Battery Degradation in EVs and ICE Cars
What about battery degradation over time? According to data from Tesla vehicles, the capacity loss is about 10% after over 186,000 miles, while the next 10% loss takes 500,000 miles to reach. While this tradeoff decision is for each consumer to make, it is important to point out that ICE cars do also suffer from age related degradation in performance as well. Anyone who has owned an ICE car for more than a few years will note that the car performs more sluggishly over time due to engine and transmission wear. In the case that an EV needs a battery replacement, a study by the EV battery data research company Recurrent found that the battery replacement rate is only about 1.5%, with most of them in cars sold before 2015 and still under warranty.
In contrast, an average modern ICE drivetrain’s life expectancy is estimated by experts to be about 200,000 miles. When we compare warranties, we notice that the government mandates EV battery warranties for 8 years or 100,000 miles, whereas most ICE drivetrain warranties typically average 5 years or 60,000 miles. This difference shows manufacturers expect EV batteries to last longer than ICE drivetrains. Finally, as pointed out earlier, new battery technologies in development also aim to solve the battery degradation issue and we should see longer-lived batteries in the near future.
Objection 4: EVs will crash the grid and cause massive blackouts if everyone switched over
This issue has already been considered by Consumer Reports and their finding is that the grid is fully capable of handling the electricity demand, assuming a natural gradual shift in EV market share. Yes, it is true that states like California still regularly suffer from blackouts during hot summers when air conditioners are in wide use. However, utility companies have implemented time-of-day rate differentials to encourage people to charge vehicles at night or in times of lower power demand. Also, blackouts happen on average only 1.42 times per year per person, lasting over seven hours on average. As a reminder, blackouts affect most gas stations too, which means that blackouts similarly impact ICE vehicles.
Objection 5: EVs are a plot for the government to control more aspects of our lives
While I do value my privacy and freedom from government intrusion, EVs are no more subject to government or other third-party control than ICE cars. I think the objection here is to the developing trend of internet of Things (IOT), which is just the mass collection of data from devices connected to the internet (e.g. thermostats, geotracking tags, smart home appliances). Cars (EVs and ICE alike) are increasingly built with data connections and smartphone companion apps. Many people are rightfully concerned with remote kill switches, but these are not unique to EVs.
Also, it is (disturbingly) quite easy for the government to mandate restrictions on our travel (as the collective pandemic experience has shown) without having to do more than simply issuing a command for us to be locked down or imposing curfews. I doubt you’d be able to go anywhere in that case whether in a Model T or a Tesla. Also, as other governments have done, there are numerous other ways to restrict travel that have nothing to do with car technology (e.g. rationing fuel/energy, imposing mileage tax, issuing new regulations/driving schedules on car ownership/driving, increasing tax on car purchases, changing the funding of public roadways such as via toll roads).
So, with all that said, do I think EVs are better than ICE cars? The short answer is no. They are different and have different ideal use cases where each shines in its own right. For me, 90% of my driving is local (i.e. work, grocery shopping, social functions, leisure) within the range of the car. In these situations, the EV outshines ICE. Visits to the gas station are unnecessary as I charge at home using a level 2 charger overnight which can easily replenish the battery fully (and costs less per mile than gasoline).
Over the 32,000+ miles of ownership, the car has needed exactly 0 maintenance visits to the service shop (no oil changes, tune ups, transmission fluids, timing belts, spark plugs, engine air filters) aside from the recalls and repairs under warranty (which affect ICE cars alike). I expect the same for the next 30,000 miles (but much less wear on the brake pads due to the EV’s regenerative braking). It’s also neat to think of charging at home as having an oil rig in your backyard that gives you a discounted full tank of gas everyday.
EV Ownership vs ICE Car Ownership: A Comparison
However, given the current inadequate state of public charging infrastructure (and the increasingly expensive charging costs at public chargers), the other 10% of driving on road trips is, at best, unpleasant and, at worst, stressful. I’ve written about my past nightmarish road trips, which I think most EV owners have experienced to some degree. This is where an ICE car provides a far superior experience, as filling up at ubiquitous gas stations prevents travel uncertainties or delays.
EV vs ICE: A Personal Comparison
So, my EV ownership consists of great experience for 90% of the driving and horrible experience for the other 10%. Conversely, my ICE car ownership consists of a good experience for 90% of the driving and a great experience for the other 10%. Of course, in colder climates, EVs will experience a shortened range due to lower temperatures (which exacerbate longer distance travels).
On the whole, I can’t say that either is clearly superior to the other at the moment. However, in the near future when EV range exceeds 450 miles, I can say with certainty that EVs will be superior to ICE cars as range anxiety will disappear (my roadtrips never exceed 450 miles, as that is the limit of my willingness to drive to a destination). For now, the best strategy for me and many others like me is to use EV for daily driving and ICE car for roadtrips—combining the best of both worlds. (Or, simply buy a plug-in hybrid with sufficient range which combines both of these in one car.)
The Importance of Investing in Transportation Infrastructure
On a related note, I also believe we as a nation must focus on building our own infrastructure instead of wasting money on futile overseas military adventures. On a per capita basis, the U.S. does not even rank in the top ten globally in public fast charging stations, while China, South Korea, and Japan are much more developed in charging infrastructure. The Interstate Highway System has demonstrated that investing in transportation infrastructure yields economic dividends over time. In 1956, households owned an average of only 1.28 cars, which is 56% less than the current average of 2.28 cars per household.
I believe the root cause of our transportation difficulties is the lack of infrastructure development, and I think we are placing our frustration with EVs in the wrong place. Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives our national infrastructure a grade of C-, showing the government’s lack of concern over the welfare of average citizens while simultaneously spending unrestrained and irresponsible amounts of tax dollars on foreign entanglements.
EVs: Going through Growing Pains Similar to Other Disruptive Technologies
Let me make one more observation before closing. As I mentioned at the beginning, EVs are still at an early stage in the product lifecycle (at least in the U.S.). All products go through growing pains when one technology is in the process of replacing another.
At the turn of the millennium, while I was working at Kodak, digital photography overtook film, a 100+ year-old technology. I witnessed the gradual acceptance of digital photography as the workflow initially required some computer know-how to operate. Early digital photos had a grainy quality, and only a limited number of retailers offered printing services. However, digital technology was so superior and evolved so quickly that over just one decade, it became easy to use as photography transitioned from film to digital cameras to smartphones, permanently changing the way we consume images (on a screen rather than in physical print).
The Future of EVs: A Promising Evolution
Today, no average consumer would choose to take pictures with a film camera (that’s why no one sells them anymore)—that is where we will be someday with EVs when energy storage technologies will have far exceeded the capabilities of petrol drivetrain that the choice is obvious. Similarly, when the first iPhone came out, there were numerous issues with the product. Yet it was a much hyped and much loved product despite the 2G network. People didn’t hate on the phone because the service was achingly slow. I think we need to think about EVs like all other popular product launches—that with time the product experience will evolve: charging networks will improve and EV range will increase and price will drop. Like with other products, I am looking forward to a future where the next generations will continually be better than the current version.
The Impact of Technology on Employment
In closing, I think the real subtext to this discussion is the concern that this new technology will displace jobs. That is a very serious issue as I myself lost my job during the great digital photography transition (Kodak shrank from a company of 78,000+ worldwide in 2000 to just under 5,000 today, not to mention all the local Fotomats and other film developers that have long since disappeared). But that is the price of progress—I don’t think anyone would argue that we stop using washing machines so that we can keep people employed in laundry shops and pay more to have our clothes cleaned, or that we all return to using film cameras.
As old jobs disappear, new jobs emerge. Indeed, I’ve seen many more local businesses like restaurants and shops spring up next to charging stations along well-traveled highways. But fundamentally, workers being discarded in the wake of market changes is a problem (or feature) with unfettered capitalism. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently put it, “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” The solution, I believe, is a larger social safety net for displaced workers (e.g., skills training, education assistance, relocation assistance), but that is a topic for another day.