Are electric vehicles good for the environment? No. Let’s not kid ourselves. Are they driving us towards a cleaner environment than conventional vehicles? That’s not so easy to answer. One has to balance the advantages against the disadvantages.
Electric vehicles (EV’s) are powered by electricity, obviously. Therefore, unlike fossil fuel powered internal combustion engines (ICE), they produce no pollutants when powering the electric motor.
But that electricity has to be generated. Kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) can provide some of it, although not all electric cars have a KERS system. Mainly, it comes from the power grid, some of which is generated by solar and wind, some of which comes from come coal fired power stations. Also, that power needs to be transported from where it is generated to where it is delivered. There are energy losses along the way, so the electricity that is needed to be generated to fuel an electric car is greater than the car actually uses.
How much fossil fuel is used to power an electric car compared to a petrol- or diesel-powered ICE car? I don’t know, but I know the answer is not none. How close is it to the same amount? Show me some data.
Most electric and hybrid cars use batteries to store the electricity to power the car. Those batteries currently use 5 main minerals: cobalt, graphite, magnesium, nickel and lithium. Extracting and processing those minerals present challenges. Concerns over future supplies of these has prompted the US Department of the Interior to add them to its list of critical minerals. In addition, there are other critical minerals and rare earth elements required for today’s Lithium-Ion batteries. (Rare earth elements are called “rare” for a reason.) It also takes a lot of water to extract those minerals.
EV batteries are expensive, likely to become more so, they are heavy and they have a short life span.
Life Span Of An EV Battery
The current life span of an EV battery is – depending where you read – from 10-20 years. Most manufacturers will offer a warranty of 5-8 years. If we say an average distance travelled in a year is 20,000 km, your warranty should be good for about 160,000 km (100,000 miles). That’s not too bad, but it’s nowhere near the life span of the rest of the vehicle. It’s going to need replacing sometime.
When these batteries approach the end of their lives, they don’t usually just die. They give an indication by a drop off in performance. So there is going to be a period where they start to annoy you with that gradually more noticeable drop-off. Now what? The owner is going to have to decide between re-purposing or disposal.
Reusing Old EV Batteries
Unlike an old phone or torch battery, you’re not going to be able to stick your old car battery in a cupboard until you have enough of them to make it worthwhile trundling down to have them recycled. The good news is, the EV battery can be used as a storage medium for solar panels. If you have those. And if you have space for the battery. And if you know how to connect the two or are willing to pay for it.
There will also likely be commercial applications for re-use. At some stage, though, it’s gonna have to go.
AT THE END OF THEIR USABLE LIFE, BATTERIES ARE CRUSHED INTO “BLACK MASS”
Disposal of EV Batteries
As the materials used in EV batteries are valuable, the batteries have residual value in the raw materials, so that makes recycling appealing. They just need to be recovered. But extracting those materials is “challenging”, according to Dr Collis, the principal research scientist with the CSIRO’s Manufacturing Business Unit. (Ref 1)
According to Dr Collis:
“Current batteries are not designed for a circular economy, so they’re not designed to be disassembled easily and valuable components recovered.”
At the end of their usable life, batteries are crushed into “black mass” before often energy-intensive processes are used to separate the materials.
Energy-intensive, huh? Where does that energy come from?
“Separating the black mass is still a challenge,” says Dr Collis. “There are lots of groups working to improve that process.”
It doesn’t help that there are different chemistries used in different lithium-ion batteries.
Collis’ opinion is echoed by materials scientist Dana Thompson, of the University of Leicester and research fellow at the Faraday Institution, who also says that EV batteries are really not designed to be recycled. (Ref 2) In a landfill, its cells can release toxins, including heavy metals. As for recycling, cut in the wrong place or too deeply into a Tesla cell, for example, and it can short-circuit, combust and release toxic fumes. These are some of the challenges to which Dr Collis refers.
A Down Side To EV Batteries
As mentioned before, they’re heavy. So an EV car is going to weigh more than a comparatively-sized ICE car. Let’s say a manufacturer provides the choice of a car in EV or ICE, such as Volvo’s XC40 (2000kg vs 1700kg). An extra 300kg is like carrying around an extra 4 people all the time. This is significant, particularly in two areas: brakes and tyres. This extra weight means that, unless the EV vehicle has bigger brakes than a conventional equivalent, it is going to take longer to stop under braking.
- Bigger brakes will use more raw material (with an associated increase in energy for manufacture) which will cost more.
- Standard brakes will result in an increased stopping distance, meaning a reduction in safety margin.
The extra weight of the battery will also increase wear on the tyres, so there will be an increased cost for tyres. That cost is both economic and environmental.
What Are Tyres Made Of?
We often refer to tyres as being made of rubber. Partly right. The percentages vary depending on the performance characteristics the tyre will have, but as a general guideline, a tyre is made from:
- 19% natural rubber
- 24% synthetic rubber (including styrene, butadiene and isoprene, all from petroleum – also known as gasoline in the US)
- 4% textiles (this includes polyester and nylon, both made from petroleum)
- 26% fillers (including oil and carbon black, made from petroleum and coal)
- 12% steel
- 14% antioxidants, antiozanants and curing systems
How Much Oil Does It Take To Make One Tyre?
OK. So there’s oil in tyres. How much? Are you sitting down? It takes about 26 litres of oil to make one car tyre. 19 litres are used to produce the synthetic rubber and over 7 litres for the whole tyre manufacturing process. This includes fuelling the energy needed to prepare the materials and assemble the tyre. For 4 tyres, then, that’s more than 75 litres. Throw in a spare tyre and call it 95 litres (~21 gallons or 25 US gallons).
This is talking about a standard car tyre, not larger SUV’s, vans, buses or trucks. An EV has the same number of tyres as an ICE car. The EV owner is wearing his tyres quicker than the ICE driver because of the weight of the battery, so he is using more oil.
Working Hybrids Into The Equation
Many cars that currently use electric power are hybrid, using both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine.
How much of the time will the electric motor be used compared to the ICE? That will vary depending on how the vehicle is used, so there’s no simple answer to that question.
However, the manufacturers often don’t help in trying to see the full picture. Consider the 2023 Toyota Corolla with US specs (Ref 3):
- Petrol consumption in the hybrid is better than in the conventional by a long way for city driving – 47mpg vs 32mpg – but there is no difference for highway driving – both 41mpg. Why might that be?
- The hybrid version has an ultra-low emission vehicle rating (ELEV-70), whereas the conventional version has a super ultra-low emission vehicle rating (ELEV-30). Simply stated, the hybrid puts out more polluting emissions when using petrol than the conventional version. (Think about that when highway driving)
- Petrol consumption is not a comparison of the ICE motors in both versions. In the case of the hybrid version, it factors in electric motor use for distance travelled. However, it does not factor in the cost of that electric power.
- Electric range and time to refuel the electric motor is not provided.
- The conventional version has a kerb weight of 1343kg. For some reason, the hybrid doesn’t seem to weigh anything. I’m sure they know, but they’re not telling us. Draw your own conclusions.
- Both versions have the same braking system. Remember we were talking about stopping distances and safety margins?
Each of these points cover up a part of the full picture.
EVEN IF EV’S COULD REPLACE ALL THE ICE CARS ON ROADS AROUND THE WORLD, IT WON’T RESULT IN “NET CARBON ZERO”
What Is The Future Of Electric Vehicles?
None of this is intended to give the impression that EVs do not reduce the amount of pollution going into the atmosphere. Correctly or incorrectly, I assume they do. Maybe hybrids do, too. The question we should ask ourselves is not just “does it make a difference?” but “how much difference does it make?”
And more importantly, “what effect does that difference make?”
Governments around the world have “net carbon zero” targets and many want to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced by ICE cars, so they are pushing for electric vehicles.
Currently, there are many obstacles to having EVs completely replace ICE cars.
- Raw Materials
It is unknown, but believed to be unlikely, that there are enough raw materials available to make enough current generation of EV batteries. There are roughly 1.4 billion vehicles on the roads worldwide.
- There is currently insufficient electricity being produced to power the number of cars on our roads.
- Range can be restrictive.
- Time to refuel can be problematic.
EV batteries are generally designed to be recharged slowly. This helps to increase their life. Having fast time-to-recharge batteries may mean either the battery has less capacity – meaning less range – or it has a shorter lifespan.
- They weigh more, increasing wear and tear and reducing safety margins.
- Recycling batteries is difficult and expensive.
- Disposal of the batteries can be dangerous and they can leach toxins. Think of this for 1.4 billion batteries over the next 10-20 years and continuing into the future.
- They may be less polluting to run, but they still pollute and they use more tyres over their lifetime than a conventional vehicle.
- They cost more.
Even if EV’s could replace all the ICE cars on roads around the world, it won’t result in “net carbon zero,” even for cars. 1.4 billion EVs is somewhere between 35 million and 44 million barrels of oil for tyres (depending on spare tyres.)
Although an extensive infrastructure will need to be developed to support EV’s, this should not necessarily be considered an impediment. Such infrastructure was developed for petrol, diesel and LPG vehicles.
IT IS DIFFICULT TO MEASURE THE NET DIFFERENCE ELECTRIC VEHICLES WOULD MAKE
The Way Forward With Research And Development
Research And Development (R&D) is always producing better, more efficient, or cleaner options. It may be that subsequent generations of batteries can be produced much more cheaply, in greater quantities, be easier to recycle and safer to dispose of.
Much of this article has focussed on the limitations of EV batteries and electric/hybrid vehicles. Yet EV batteries may be superseded by alternative power sources, one example being hydrogen, where an on-board hydrogen-power cell produces electricity on demand. It can be supplied direct to the power train or for storage. Additionally, hydrogen power is scaleable, so it can be used for buses and trucks. This scaleability is a limitation which current EV batteries have not been able to overcome. Of course, manufacturers such as Toyota, Hyundai, BMW, Chevrolet and start-up H2X are indeed looking beyond pumping in electricity from external sources, so the future for electric is probably as bright as Edison’s lightbulb was.
It is worth considering that the incandescent lightbulb has been superseded by LED, underlining the inevitable effects of R&D.
What Difference Do EVs Make?
It is difficult to measure the net difference EV’s would make to the pollution caused from the use of cars.
It is even more difficult to determine– and currently unknown – what effect that difference would have.
In any case, people shouldn’t imagine that because they’ve got an EV they’re “green and clean.”
That’s far from the truth.
NEW LAW TO TACKLE ELECTRIC CARS’ SILENT MENACE
An excerpt from The Guardian, 6 May, 2018 (Ref 4)
They are green, clean and make very little noise. It is this latter quality, initially seen by many as a good thing, that has become an acute concern for safety campaigners, who fear that the rising number of electric vehicles constitutes a silent menace.
When they travel at under 20kph (12 mph) the vehicles can barely be heard, especially by cyclists or pedestrians listening to music through headphones.
“The greatest risks associated with electric vehicles are when they are travelling at low speeds, such as in urban areas with lower limits, as the noise from tyres and the road surface, and aerodynamic noise, are minimal at those speeds,” said Kevin Clinton, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
But the days of silence are numbered. From July next year, all new electric and hybrid models seeking approval in Europe will have to emit a noise when travelling at low speeds. Existing vehicles are expected gradually to be retrofitted with devices.
The law has been welcomed by campaigners. James White, at the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, is worried about the risk the cars pose to people with sight loss. He said that for people who struggle to see them, the vehicles should indicate their presence in other ways.
Research shows electric cars are about 40% more likely to hit a pedestrian than a conventional vehicle. One study suggests that 93% of blind and partially sighted people have had problems with them. “It is a really important issue,” said White. “Guide dogs are all about giving people confidence and independence and a near miss or an incident with a vehicle of this type could really set people back a long way.”
Chris Hanson-Abbott, whose firm Brigade Electronics is a distributor of vehicle safety products, is an adviser to the UN working group on quiet road transport vehicles
“The object is to have warnings which are audible but which are not the least bit environmentally disturbing,” said Hanson-Abbott.
Maybe I’m simple, but as far as I can see, “warnings that are audible,” and “not the least bit environmentally disturbing,” are mutually exclusive.
The government wants 100% of the vehicles on our roads to be electric. Now envisage this: Big City traffic. Or rush hour traffic in moderate sized cities. Every vehicle is moving at less than 20 kph. Every single one is emitting a warning noise. Presumably, every single one is loud enough to be heard. Together, it’s a cacophony. I’m telling you; that’s going to disturb my environment.
I’m not trying to downplay the issue that the blind may have with being aware of electric vehicles, but I am trying to understand the thinking here. Isn’t a guide dog trained to let its owner know when it’s safe to cross? And stop the owner from crossing when it’s not? Don’t we have crosswalks that emit “walk/don’t walk” tones?
Perhaps we should also consider making every vehicle a hi-viz colour with flashing lights to warn the deaf. Aren’t we discriminating against the deaf if we ignore their issues with vehicles they can’t hear? As well as the bikes.
What about bicycles? Why shouldn’t they have to emit a noise? They’re silent, too. In the Netherlands, every man and his dog ride bikes. Poor bloody pedestrians must be getting knocked over left, right and centre over there.
Maybe those cyclists and pedestrians who are wearing headphones could consider looking around and being more aware of their surroundings before turning into traffic lanes or stepping onto the road.
What do you think, Kevin Clinton from the Ministry of Silly Walks, or whatever it’s called?
Just for the record, this did become law in the EU on 1st July, 2019. The system has its own special name – Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS) – which must emit noise at a minimum level of 56 decibels.
I can’t think of anything more likely to make me want me to pop on some headphones.
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Ref 1 – RAC – https://rac.com.au/car-motoring/info/ev-battery-recycling#:~:text=%E2%80%9CCurrent%20batteries%20are%20not%20designed,used%20to%20separate%20the%20materials
Ref 2 – Science – https://www.science.org/content/article/millions-electric-cars-are-coming-what-happens-all-dead-batteries
Ref 3 – Toyota – https://www.toyota.com/corolla/features/mpg_other_price/1852/1887/1866
Ref 4 – The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/06/new-law-combats-silent-menace-electric-cars#top