Do EVs make sense economically? Environmentally? For people? For business? … You get the idea. The honest answer is “it depends”. But, on what. In this article I want to answer the question honestly. But, what I don’t want to do is get distracted by such questions as “can the electric grid handle it”? The answer to that is simple: it will need to. That’s infrastructure just like roads. If we need it we can build it. The good news is that electric infrastructure built today will be better than what we built in the past. It’s a good topic for discussion but it doesn’t belong in this article.
Cost of Ownership
For most people this is the first question. The answer will, of course, depend on two things: the initial cost of the vehicle and its operating cost. Today, electric vehicles generally have a higher purchase price than an equivalent ICE vehicle. But, electric vehicles have a lower cost of operation. One important word here is “today”. An electric vehicle has many less parts than an ICE vehicle. They are easier to build so there will be less in the way of labor costs to build them. So, why are they more expensive?
The answer is the battery. With an ICE vehicle you store the energy you need to propel the vehicle in a fuel tank. With an electric vehicle you store the energy in a battery. Building a fuel tank costs a lot less than building a battery. Thus, reducing the cost of the battery is the most significant change you can make to lowering the cost of an electric vehicle. The good news is that change is happening.
First, battery energy density has been increasing. That means more energy storage with less material. Battery technology is changing — for example the materials for a lithium iron phosphate battery cost less than those for a lithium ternary battery. Also, totally different battery technology is appearing in the market. In particular, using sodium instead of lithium.
In addition to the batteries themselves, vehicle efficiency needs to be considered. The efficiency can be increased by the use of more efficient motors and control electronics. Body changes to decrease the coefficient of drag (wind resistance) of the vehicle can also increase efficiency. If you can travel a longer distance on the same amount of energy, a smaller and, thus, less costly battery can be used.
Putting this together, at today’s prices if you don’t travel very far, an ICE vehicle may cost you less than an electric vehicle. But, as you travel distances increase, the lower operating cost of an electric vehicle will more than offset the purchase cost.
Electric vehicles will make the most sense for taxis, trucks and buses. Next come people who need to travel a lot for their work — traveling salespeople, for example.
Do electric vehicles pollute more than ICE vehicles? In a word, no. While some make the argument that there is more pollution created in the manufacture of an electric vehicle it is not really a valid point unless you don’t really intend to use the vehicle. The more you use it the less any possible manufacturing pollution will matter in the long run.
Electric vehicles are way more efficient than ICE vehicles. A typical electric vehicle delivers over 90% of the energy it consumes to the wheels. For an ICE vehicle, 25% would be about the best it could do and many due far worse. One of the standard anti-EV memes is an electric vehicle charging from electricity produced by a coal-fired power plant. While this is not optimal, it is still better than an ICE vehicle because 1) the EV uses less energy per kilometer and 2) the power plant pollution is at least not in the middle of a city.
There is also an amazingly efficient option for an electric vehicle: charging from solar panels on the roof of your house.
For some, this will be a concern. Manufacturing an electric vehicle will require a lot less labor than manufacturing an ICE vehicle. While overall employment in the world may not decrease it will clearly decrease in the auto manufacturing industry. Electric vehicles are easier to build, more production processes can be automated, electric vehicles require less maintenance and they also tend to have a longer life.
If you see this as a major negative for electric vehicles you are very short sighted. There will continue to be employment opportunities in the world. Just looking at the vehicle industry, building and installing charging infrastructure, photovoltaic energy systems and even in-road charging systems will offer opportunities. Somehow we managed to keep people working even though railroads transported more people and goods than stagecoaches. We will all be OK with less of our labor force working in vehicle factories.
Have you ever driven an electric vehicle? If not, you need to drive one. Amazing torque. Instant power. About the only things you will miss is not having to shift gears and not making a lot of noise. But, you can probably get used to it.