How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Electric Cars

, former deputy director, Clean Vehicles | August 29, 2011, 9:39 pm EDT
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Since this is my first blog, I’m going to start with a bit of a personal confession. I love electric cars. I’ve been writing, doing research, and even a little experimenting on them for two decades.

You can see the latest example of this in our new Model E electric car educational project.

Electric cars are exciting

A completely unscientific look at the interest in electric cars tells me that I’m not alone.  A Google web search for “electric car” comes back with 20 million hits. Searching for the more well-known plug-in hybrid, battery, and fuel cell electric cars—Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Honda FCX—each delivers millions of hits. And the last four presidents (perhaps more) have been electric car boosters in one way or another.

Battery Electric Car

The UCS “Model E” Battery Electric Car

There are good reasons for the excitement about electric cars:

  • Battery and fuel cell electric cars don’t need any gasoline for fuel, and plug-in hybrid electric cars only use gasoline when their batteries can’t supply enough power.
  • When paired with natural gas as a source for electricity or hydrogen, electric cars have a lower carbon footprint than even a good hybrid.
  • When paired with renewable power, electric cars can truly approach zero emission status.

Add to that the quiet hum of an electric motor, the potential for great acceleration off the line, the lack of pollution from the tailpipe, and the overall high-tech “cool” factor, and you’ve got  the potential for true love.

From electric car hype to an electric car revolution

Despite their potential, my relationship with electric cars has been rocky at times. They’ve always been there for me, at least their potential has, but sometimes they seem to get used as a distraction. Instead of getting significant increases in fuel economy in the 1990s and much of the 2000s, we got programs like the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) and the FreedomCAR Partnership. These programs tended to focus the bulk of industry attention on unrealistic targets and timelines for hybrid and electric cars instead of actually putting the boring technologies to work to boost fuel economy to 30, 40, or 50 mpg. PNGV, FreedomCAR, and the current incarnation, U.S. Drive, have played a clear and important role in accelerating research. But cutting our oil addiction and curbing global warming can’t be about either action on fuel economy or electrification. It has to be about both.

Thankfully, things could be different this time. We’ve just seen most automakers sign on to what looks like a strong fuel economy proposal from the administration and California. At the same time, automakers are introducing or planning to introduce several battery, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid electric cars over the next few years. It will still take time to see how committed automakers, consumers and policymakers are to an electric car revolution that will take 20-30 years to deliver a large impact, but we’re on the right track.

New electric car web feature

Because electric cars are so important to our future, UCS kicked off a new project on electric cars that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. We call it the Model E in homage to Ford’s Model T, which revolutionized the auto industry about 100 years ago.

Electric cars can help revolutionize the future of the auto industry, but only if they get the support they need. We’re hoping that the Model E will be a resource that will build on the excitement around electric car technology, help answer common questions, and point the way to the policy and technology progresses needed to turn the technology into a market success. You can even take our quiz to find out if you’re ready for a Model-E.

What you see at the site is a labor of love. It is also just the beginning. In the coming months, we’re going to put up a consumer’s guide to vehicle electrification, a detailed assessment of the carbon footprint of electric cars around the country, and more information on the latest electric cars on the market.

So, welcome to the blog and welcome to the wonderful world of Model E.

Illustration Credit: James Provost/Union of Concerned Scientists

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  • S Sharma

    While the potential benefit from electric and hybrid-electric cars AFTER they are manufactured is clearly obvious, I believe that most analysts, and definitely the industry, are misleading people about the total environmental impact of these vehicles. The environmental damage, and the total carbon emissions, that result from manufacturing these vehicles BEFORE they end up in the dealer’s showroom is massive – far in excess of regular gasoline vehicles. The reason is that batteries needed for these vehicles rely on difficult to produce rare-earth metals (nickel, molybdenum, lithium, cadmium, etc), and the process of mining, refining, extracting, shipping, manufacturing of batteries alone is very damaging to the very cause of planet preservation. Not to mention that as demand accelerates, the scarcity of these metals will cause even greater impact on the environment and ecosystems.

    All in all, we are far better off with high-eficiency, small engine gaoline cars than these electric vehicles.

  • Stephen Y.

    Henry, it would help if you used some facts rather than throwing around pointless criticisms. The fact is that if everyone drove electric cars, we’d all benefit. While there is not zero pollution from the power generated for electric cars, it is far less than from the gas hogs most Americans drive. It’s hard to find anywhere in the country not near some power plant, so everyone suffers less if there is less pollution in total. And finally, wind turbine visual pollution – that’s a serious problem? Kids should get asthma because you don’t like the way turbines look? Give me a break.

  • Henry F.

    Electric cars are the ideal NIMBY accessory. Reduces smog emissions in one’s own neighborhood by generating coal plant emissions (and/or nuclear waste, wind turbine visual pollution) in someone else’s neighborhood. Sheer genius!