No more petrol or diesel cars, buses, or trucks will be sold anywhere in the world within eight years. The entire market for land transport will switch to electrification, leading to a collapse of oil prices and the demise of the petroleum industry as we have known it for a century. This is the futuristic forecast by Stanford University economist Tony Seba, whose report, with the deceptively bland title Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030, has gone viral in green circles and is causing spasms of anxiety in the established industries and the media. Seba’s premise is that people will stop driving altogether; only nostalgic guys will cling to the old habit of car ownership. They will, almost completely, switch to self-drive electric vehicles (EVs) that are ten times cheaper to run than fossil-based cars, with a near-zero marginal cost of fuel and an expected lifespan of 1 million miles. Seba’s scenario is an existential threat to Ford, General Motors, and the German car industry. Automakers will face a choice between manufacturing EVs in a brutal low-profit market, or reinventing themselves as self-drive service companies, variants of Uber and Lyft. The implications concerning the mighty oil industry and the oil productive countries are also staggering, with an estimated 30% reduction in oil consumption forecasted for 2030.
I do hope that such predictions will be realistic. But it’s time to go beyond environmental folklore. I mean that the real benefits and costs of EVs must be subject of a detailed scientific analysis rather than super-hype articles that are more proper for fashion magazines. If this is not the case, we are shifting from science to advertising, and this is something that we all need to avoid!
It’s the energy source first!
Undoubtedly, the use of EVs will provide substantial benefits to the urban areas that right now are suffering from the car emissions. Air pollution will be gradually decreased as particles, NOx and other car-pollutants will be almost eliminated. Air pollution now kills 3.3 million people prematurely every year– more than HIV, malaria and influenza combined – with cars being a major contributor. But the improvements in the urban areas might be meaningless on a national or a global scale, as long as the energy consumed by EVs comes from conventional sources like coal. Yes, urban air pollution will be decreased and the quality of lives in cities will definitely be improved by EVs. But this urban improvement might be very easily rebalanced by a national or global deterioration if we continue to increase the energy spent for our transportation.
In reality, EVs (as battery-powered vehicles) are only as green as batteries’ electricity supplier. Although the battery-powered car itself doesn’t produce any emissions, the power plant that generates the electricity used to charge those batteries probably does. Low emissions are only true in certain places where most of the electricity comes from a mix of low-carbon sources such as the sun, wind or nuclear reactors.
Electric cars are great for eliminating oil from transportation, but electric cars may or may not help the country combat climate change—and it all depends on where the electricity comes from. Take the example of US. Coal-fired power plants are the single-largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. A massive shift to coal- powered EVs can amplify the extent of smog, acid rain, lung-damaging microscopic soot and other ills that arise from burning fossil fuels.
How about Life Cycle Analysis?
Devonshire Research Group, an investment firm that specializes in valuing tech companies, dug into the data and concluded that Tesla’s environmental benefits may be more hyped than warranted. It’s arguing that Tesla (and, by extension, all electric vehicles) create pollution and carbon emissions in other ways. Each stage of an EV’s life has environmental impacts, and while they aren’t as obvious as a tailpipe pumping out fumes, that doesn’t make them any less damaging. The math gets trickier when you include other forms of environmental damage. Electric cars need to be light, which means they include a lot of high-performing metals. The lithium in the batteries, for example, is super light and conductive—that’s how you get a lot of energy without adding a lot of weight. But those rare metals come from somewhere—often, from environmentally destructive mines. It’s not just Tesla, of course. All electric vehicles rely on parts with similar environmental issues. The Union of Concerned Scientists has found that, ultimately, manufacturing an electric vehicle generates more carbon emissions than building a conventional car, mostly because of its battery. But even so, EVs generate half the emissions of a conventional car over the course of its life. Overall, the greenhouse-gas-emissions footprint of electric vehicles can be pretty high on the front end, as they’re being built.
But what about their end of cycle fate? Will EVs be modular and fully recyclable? Will EV providers be part of Extended Producer Responsibility networks? Inventing an efficient and cost-effective recycling process will take some work, and only a few companies specialize in recycling lithium batteries right now. Disposing lithium-ion batteries isn’t exactly clean, but they’re designated landfill-safe, given that car batteries have not been accepted into landfills for decades. And what about our current 1.2 billion cars? If, as the good scenario says, we would shift to EVs and the traditional vehicles would have been replaced, where are all those vehicles going to end up? Are we going to recycle them, are we going to reuse materials and spare parts or we will simply dump them? And who is entitled or obliged to organize such a pharaonic recycling program?
Thiking out of the box
As long as we stay at the fossil fuels consumption, we just face the tip of the iceberg. EVs will resolve several problems, but they will create new ones. This is called dialectics. No matter what the EVs industry might say, the switch was never driven by the environmental threat of climate change. “We are on the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruptions of transportation in history,” the RethinkX think tank founder said in a press release. “But there is nothing magical about it. This is driven by the economics.”
Still, there is a possibility that the use of EVs will drive not just substantial improvements in cities but an overall reduction of CO2 emissions and pollution. But this possibility is directly linked with three disruptions:
- Automakers will shift to “car as a service”. In this case we speak about the end of car ownership.
- Digital car sharing platforms will become the dominant players worldwide and will ensure transportation services on demand, with roughly 10-15% of the current cars in use. Such a shift will be easier achieved with driverless cars.
- Consumers will completely change their attitudes and perspectives regarding car-ownership, especially the so-called Car Culture.
All those disruptions are already on the way. In any case, the solution required for a global and radical reduction of emissions from cars is not EVs, but a completely new business model that should overcome a lot of social structures and cultures. But at least, we can still hope…