All-Electric Cars: Do They Truly Have Potential?

Anybody growing up before the turn of the century probably had their own ideas of what things might look like by the time, say, the year 2020 came along. Besides toys like tablets and smartwatches, it’s quite likely these ideas included—if not hovercars—at least some fancy new method of powering our automobiles. Perhaps it’s time to prepare ourselves to be amazed, as more and more automotive manufacturers are making commitments to go all-electric by the mid-2020s.

It would take a lot of effort to truly determine who made the first move, but it’s become the hippest thing among high-end auto makers. Mercedes, BMW, and Volvo are among the top makers, with Mercedes committing to offering all-electric versions of each of its models by 2022.

What started the all-electric push?

It’s not overly difficult to determine who started the all-electric craze. Tesla’s Roadster and Model S was many people’s first conscious experience with an all-electric car. Tesla doesn’t deserve credit for making the first all-electric car, but they do deserve the credit for making all-electric cars exciting.

Major auto manufacturers were apprehensive to jump on the bandwagon after the likes of Honda and Nissan’s failures in the early market. But it’s a different era now, and the primary shortcoming of these early attempts, the batteries, have undergone dramatic technological improvements in recent years. The fact is, it’s never been easier to make an all-electric vehicle.

Is it feasible?

It’s never been easier to make an all-electric vehicle, but it’s far from easy to make a successful all-electric vehicle. For one thing, the vast majority of auto manufacturers eyeballing the market have never strayed far from their petroleum-drinking roots. Further, while there’s certainly interest in all-electric vehicles, not everybody is going to be willing to commit to the all-electric version of their choice car when it comes down to crunch time at the dealer.

This is especially the case as electric cars are still rightfully seen as a new technology. Consumers invariably are going to look at things like total range, battery depletion (replacing the battery packs can cost several thousands of dollars), as well as more day-to-day issues like how their electric car takes several hours to recharge at home, as opposed to three minutes at the fuel station. And after a couple years, when something invariably goes wrong, their local mechanic probably won’t yet have the skills to fix the problem. It’s off to the dealer for what will likely be a far more expensive repair.

Frankly, I have no doubts that automakers like Mercedes and BMW will be able to make good, quality all-electric vehicles. My curiosity wonders instead exactly why they’re making such drama with their commitments to go all-electric. I’m not being cynical, but if it looks like marketing hype, and smells like marketing hype… well…

It’s marketing hype.

Or, at least marketing founded on an emotional response based on fears of the environmentally conscious. Sheesh, maybe I am cynical after all.

Petroleum powered cars emit exhaust. Electric powered cars do not. Therefore, electric cars are cleaner, right? Well, probably. But not by much. And even then, it’s not necessarily better.

Much of our power still comes from sources like coal and gas. While both of these sources are cleaner than they used to be, they’re not nearly as clean as wind, hydro, solar, or nuclear. And while the production and processing of petroleum products like diesel and gasoline is relatively safe, the use of coal as an energy source claims well over 100,000 lives per trillion kilowatt-hours across the world. These deaths occur across the timeline of the process from the dangerous mining of the coal from the earth, to the breathing in of carbonaceous particulate outputs from combustion.

Speaking of mining, the batteries required for electric cars to operate are hardly made from the most friendliest of materials. Cobalt, a necessary component of the lithium-ion batteries found in electric vehicles everywhere, is a very toxic material. The richest deposits are found in places like Congo, Africa where the mining is often performed in dangerous conditions by unprotected workers—many of whom are children, and most of whom have not been educated on the dangers of exposure to toxic metals.

The story of lithium mining isn’t any more palatable.

Out of sight, out of mind

All-electric cars aren’t free from their own set of vices. Along the line, whether from manufacturing or daily operation, they’re still nearly as dirty as gasoline powered cars. The only difference is that you don’t have to see it. You can safely either fool yourself, or let the marketing and media gurus fool you into thinking you’re doing something important.

You’re helping save the world! Sure.

Mine isn’t the only voice. Mazda, while planning on developing more hybrid models, has their opinion too. Head of powertrain development Ichiro Hirose said when interviewed:

If you take Japan, for example, the media is harking on about EVs having zero CO2 – as if that is the absolute truth – it’s almost like they are controlling the minds of the media to make them believe this. I think the basis of the discussion must be first, what is the truth and where to do we go from there?

The fact is, all-electric cars are cool. They have the potential to be faster, they’re inherently more energy efficient, and from a tech or auto enthusiast point of view, they’re a fun new mode of powering high-performance cars with vastly different characteristics than their internal combustion counterparts.

But many consumers are likely to purchase things like hybrids and all-electric cars based on emotional responses. They’re afraid of man-made climate change. They’re afraid of pollution. And ignorant of the facts, they assume things like all-electric cars are the be-all and end-all.

A long road ahead

Ultimately, if a handful of gutsy automakers want to make arbitrary commitments to all-electric fleets, I’m excited to see what happens. The fact is, electric cars probably are the future. But we’re not quite there yet, and along with our choice method of electricity production, I think all-electric technology still has a long road to travel before it begins to replace the tried and true, and still arguably safer, gasoline engine.

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