Three Truths About Electric Vehicles

March 3, 2021 | 3:50 pm
Ford Media Center
David Reichmuth
Senior Engineer, Clean Transportation Program

Over the last month, I’ve seen a number of opinion articles attacking electric vehicles (EVs). Sadly, this comes as no surprise: now that the Biden administration is introducing federal policies to accelerate the roll out of electric vehicles, we were bound to see a reaction from those that oppose reducing climate changing emissions and petroleum use.

Some of the opposition will come from auto companies that want to delay the transition to electric vehicles, but others will be from fossil fuel interests or climate deniers. But it really doesn’t matter why they’re trying to mislead the public about electric vehicles.The important thing is that you know that this is familiar and worn-out disinformation, designed to sow doubt and confusion. Here are some of the truths about EVs so that you can spot misleading attacks.

1. EVs aren’t the perfect solution for the future of transportation, they’re just much, much better than gasoline vehicles

EVs offer us a way to have personal mobility with much fewer global warming emissions than gasoline vehicles. It’s clear that the emissions from driving on electricity are lower than those from using a gasoline vehicle, even when accounting for electricity generation. Our most recent analysis shows that, across the country, driving electric is cleaner than even the most efficient gasoline car. As our electric grid continues to get cleaner (with lower coal use and more renewable energy sources), the climate benefit from electric vehicles is increasing. And, of course, because they avoid burning gasoline, electric vehicles can reduce tailpipe emissions that lead to harmful air pollution across the country and put us on the path to reducing the pollution and environmental degradation that is associated with extracting and refining petroleum.

Of course, there are emissions from building every vehicle. Because of battery manufacturing, climate emissions from building electric vehicles are slightly higher those from manufacturing a gasoline vehicle. However, those increased emissions are quickly (within 6 to 16 months depending on location) made up from the savings from using electricity in place of gasoline. As we increase the production of EVs, it will be important to work to minimize manufacturing emissions by reducing energy use in the extraction and preparation of battery materials and by the recycling and reuse of used batteries.

It will also be important to hold all companies to environmental and human rights standards for their manufacturing and supply chains. Auto companies and battery suppliers need to source products and raw materials in a sustainable and ethical way. Greater transparency from manufacturers would be helpful in this area. Some have started to disclose details on their supply chain and make commitments to improve their practices. We also need to remember this goes beyond electric cars; we should be asking the same sorts of questions about our consumer-electronics companies and yes even the companies that produce and extract petroleum products and other fossil fuels.

2. EV sales are a small fraction of US autos now, but that’s going to change

A common line used to argue against EVs is that they have historically made up a small fraction of the sales in the US and therefore they can’t possibly make a difference in our emissions. Others try to use the fact that fewer EVs were sold than gasoline cars to mean that EV’s just aren’t very popular.

These backwards-looking approaches could be used to dismiss any new technology, not just EVs. For example, in 2000 only 2.5% of households had broadband internet access. Of course that didn’t mean that home internet wasn’t going to be a transformative technology. We can’t look in the rear view mirror to see the road ahead for EVs.

It’s obvious if we look back 10 years ago that the number and the capability of EVs was not at the level needed to replace gasoline vehicles.  The good news is that in 2021, the EV landscape is vastly changed from even 5 years ago.  New car buyers now have multiple options for long range EVs and can choose compelling options from more automakers than ever before. Currently, plug in cars make up about 2 percent of all sales in the US, but the number is higher in areas that have sought to accelerate the market via regulation and incentives. For example, in California, EV sales were over 8% of all new car sales in the state, showing the potential for higher sales elsewhere in the country with the use regulations, incentives, and customer awareness efforts.

3. EVs are much more than the Tesla Model S

Tesla gets the lion’s share of attention in the EV market, and for good reason. Tesla has led in plug-in car sales and the introduction of the Tesla Model S in 2012 changed many people’s impression of what an electric car is. While some may have thought EVs were “golf carts”, unstylish, or boring before, it would be hard to apply those labels to Tesla’s Model S. However, Tesla’s success (and press coverage) has now meant that the Tesla brand or the Model S is used synonymously with “EV”.

Tesla has been a game changer in the EV market, but there are many more plug-in options now than the Tesla Model S. We’re seeing many more affordable EVs on the market, though they often get much less press coverage. As more automakers introduce EV models and production volumes of plug-in vehicles increase, we are seeing even long-range battery electric cars being offered for lower than the MSRP (Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price) of the average new car in the US (estimated to be over $40,000 in 2019). The majority of EVs sold in 2020 were models with a base model MSRP under $40,000 and only a fifth of models had a starting price over $60,000. Those who are critical of EVs would like to portray all plug-ins as high-priced luxury vehicles, but that simply isn’t the case in 2021. Both here and abroad, automakers are increasing electric vehicle production, pushing down prices and making more options available to buyers.

bar graph of 2020 EV sales by MSRP

The majority of EVs sold in 2020 were models with a starting price (Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price) under $40,000 and only a fifth of models had a starting price over $60,000.

Despite the proliferation of anti-EV arguments in the press, these arguments are old and long-debunked—dubious even when they were introduced, but downright silly after a decade of advancement in the EV market.

Now is the time to accelerate the switch to EVs

With the impacts of climate change becoming more evident every year and the clear science on the health harms of air pollution, it’s imperative that we switch from gasoline to electric vehicles as soon as possible. To make this happen, we need to use all of the policy tools available.

Federal and state incentives are vital in the short term to make buying EVs easier for more people. Battery prices (and therefore EV prices) are dropping as the scale of production ramps up, but incentives are vital now to offset the extra initial cost of EVs.

We also need to use existing greenhouse gas emissions and air quality regulations to make sure the aspirations of automakers to go electric become reality. This means setting both strong federal standards for emissions and using California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to require zero emission vehicles. Because the Clean Air Act also allows other states to adopt the California standards, there are now 11 states representing 30% of the US population now moving forward with zero emission clean car standards to reduce their residents’ exposure to tailpipe pollution and put their states on a path to lower carbon emissions and more states are poised to enact these standards.

Some have argued that we shouldn’t rush this transition or wait until electricity and EVs are perfectly clean to start rolling out electric vehicles. There might be value in those propositions if there was not such urgency in the need to reduce emissions and clear costs for delay. Every gasoline vehicle we put on the road today means 10 to 20 years of pollution over its lifetime, and the climate-warming tailpipe pollutants accumulate in the atmosphere accumulate over time. If we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we can’t afford to keep putting tailpipes on the road.

About the author

More from David

David Reichmuth's work focuses on analyzing new vehicle technologies and advocating for policies that support the increased electrification of transportation. Dr. Reichmuth has testified at hearings before the US House of Representatives, the California State Legislature, and the California Air Resources Board, and he is an expert on California’s Zero Emission Vehicles regulation.