It has been a bumpy few weeks for carmakers who sell electric vehicles, which are moving more slowly off the lot than they were earlier this year. What’s going on? It seems that American drivers may be more hesitant about E.V.s than automakers expected.
I am familiar with trepidation about electric vehicles; I hear it when I give talks around the country about how each of us can take small steps to slow and stop climate change, when I chat with my neighbors and when I go on a road trip in my own E.V. Some people worry about running out of battery power far from a charging station; others are dissuaded by the upfront costs. The electric Volkswagen ID. 4, for example, sells for about $40,000, while the similarly sized, gas-powered Volkswagen Tiguan sells for about $30,000 — though the E.V. has a lower total cost over the life of the car.
Those concerns will likely diminish in 2024 as money from the Inflation Reduction Act flows into building more charging stations and making discounts for electric vehicles available right at the dealership. But I think something else may explain why so many Americans, including those who consider themselves climate conscious, have been hesitant to buy an electric vehicle. It’s a fear that such vehicles aren’t really all that much better for the environment than hybrid vehicles that have both gas and electric motors, and might even be worse, because of everything required to manufacture batteries and mine the materials that go into them. This worry is keeping some would-be buyers on the sidelines of the E.V. revolution.
If you look under the hood, so to speak, these concerns share two fundamental misunderstandings: They assume that the electric vehicle industry is locked in to today’s technology, and they discount the huge environmental drawbacks of gas-powered alternatives. Electric vehicles are like digital cameras in their early iterations. They are already better than the alternative for almost everyone, and improving at a breathtakingly fast clip. And while there are environmental concerns with them, they are dwarfed by the benefit they provide regarding climate change — the biggest environmental threat to human well-being in the 21st century.
Let’s start with the concern about emissions during battery construction, a topic that comes up in almost every talk I give on this subject. Electric vehicle batteries require a lot of materials and electricity to manufacture, and that process does produce more greenhouse gas emissions than not making a battery.
But let’s do the math as I’ve done for my family’s two E.V.s. We got the first to replace our 10-year-old, gas-powered Subaru, and after only two years of driving, the E.V. has createdfewer emissions over its lifetime than if we had kept the old car. It will take our second E.V. only four years to create fewer emissions over its lifetime than the 2005 hybrid Prius it replaced. That’s counting the production of the batteries and the emissions from charging the E.V.s, and the emissions payback time will only continue to drop as more emissions-free wind and solar power comes onto the grid and battery technology improves.
My colleague Yue Qi, a battery researcher, recently told me, “Every prediction made 10 years ago about the change in price, efficiency and energy density of batteries was too pessimistic.” For instance, an assessment from the Argonne National Laboratory found that the lifetime emissions of E.V.s dropped 40 percent between 2015 and 2020. Even 2020 is ancient history when you look at another oft-cited concern — that we will run out of materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel to make batteries. Here again, it’s a mistake to think present constraints will continue into the future given that the price of lithium has fallen roughly 70 percent from its high in 2022.
Cobalt, another key component of batteries, has been in the public eye because of its scarcity and the horrific working conditions for miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those conditions need to be addressed, but it’s a mistake to view them in isolation. Oil extraction has its own horrific human and environmental costs, as does climate change. In my view, relying on gas cars over electric vehicles is the bigger contributor to environmental injustice.
Happily, an increasing number of E.V.s, including those of Tesla and the Chinese automaker BYD, no longer use cobalt in their batteries in most markets because the performance of cobalt-free alternatives is rapidly improving. Within a decade, many batteries may be built with sodium in place of lithium, a trend already accelerating in China, the world’s biggest market for electric vehicles. Again, our present concerns will most likely fade in the near future.
After batteries, the second most common question that comes up is about plug-in hybrids, which are cars that can run for about 25 to 50 miles on a smallish battery and then switch to a gas engine for longer trips. You might think that that’s a pretty good compromise — most car trips in the United States are, after all, under 25 miles, and if everyone had a plug-in hybrid, a vast majority of trips would be solely battery powered.
But what matters for emissions is not trips but miles, and long trips are where we really pile on the miles. That means about half of all miles driven in plug-in hybrids would still be driven using gas on long trips. Thus, buying a hybrid, rather than an electric vehicle, perpetuates our dependence on gas production and distribution, slowing — rather than hastening — the transition to a zero-emissions future. Simply put, we can’t solve the climate crisis if we keep our gas infrastructure; only fully electric vehicles (coupled with clean electricity) can eliminate emissions from our cars.
Even without considering climate, anyone who has already switched to an electric vehicle knows it is more fun to drive, and saves time. My family doesn’t have to spend time charging our E.V. every week for the simple reason that we charge our vehicle overnight at home and wake up to a full battery. And because electric vehicles have fewer parts — no gas tank, no exhaust system, no catalytic converter, no radiator, no fuel injector, no timing belt — downtime for repairs is practically eliminated.
Given all the benefits of electric vehicles, it’s clear they should be the next car purchased by a vast majority of American drivers. And getting over our uncertainty is one of the biggest steps we can take toward a safer climate future.
Stephen Porder, the Acacia professor of ecology, environment and society and the associate provost for sustainability at Brown University, is the author of “Elemental: How Five Elements Changed Earth’s Past and Will Shape Our Future.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.