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Souring on Electric Cars

I’ve been interested in electric cars since the release of the original Tesla Roadster. After I graduated from college and started my first full-time job I eyed the release of the Tesla Model 3, thinking I’d buy one when I needed a new car. At the time I was driving a 2012 Chevy Equinox which met all of my needs. In 2019 I bought a Chevy Bolt on the last day the dealer was open before the federal tax credit for GM halved. I loved that car. Initially I loved the zero emissions thing and the idea that it was better for the environment. Being able to just plug in at home instead of taking trips to the gas station was great. The car handled well, was fun to drive, and could fit a surprising amount of stuff in the back with the seats down, despite the small footprint (by American standards). I remember one time in the Home Depot parking lot I was loading bags of soil and mulch in the back and some guy got out of his truck and said, “betcha wish you had a truck right about now.” No sir, I do not, thank you very much.

With the first round of recalls for battery fires, GM bought back the car for what I paid for it. It was a frustrating experience, but worked out well for me because I got to drive the car for two years effectively for free. After the Bolt recall debacle I bought a first edition Volkswagen ID4, which is what I drive now. It has some quirks, but in many ways it’s a better car than the Bolt. From a pure driving perpective, I love electric cars.

The thing is, instead of recycled dinosaurs, electric cars run on externalities. Driving an electric car is great for me, not so much for everyone else. My ID4 weighs a hefty 4800 pounds. The weight of electric cars is frequently referenced in the context of additional damage to roads, which is certainly a valid concern, but not where I focus my attention. While all vehicle weights in the US have been creeping up, the significant weight the drive battery contributes to electric vehicles accelerates this trend. Combine this with the lack of pedestrian safety requirements in new vehicle testing, the additional weight raises significant safety concerns for pedestrians and other non-car road users. The ID4 is by no means the worst offender in the weight category. That title held by the comically ridiculous Hummer EV at over 9000 pounds, beating out the F150 Lightning at 6500 pounds and the Cybertruck (don’t even get me started) at 6600. In addition to safety issues, the additional weight contributes to excessive tire wear and excessive tire wear means more pollution.

Continuing on the pollution front, the idea that electric vehicles are zero-emission is naive at best. It is true that electric cars are more energy efficient than gas cars, which helps with emissions even if the electricity isn’t coming from a renewable source. However, carbon emissions at the time of the drive are nowhere close to the whole picture. The desire to convert all personal vehicles to electric power results in a massive increase in demand for lithium and other metals. The large-scale mining of these metals has a horrific environmental and human impact, which takes place largely outside of the countries where electric cars are sold. Transitioning to electric cars simply moves some of the pollution of driving to another location, making it somebody else’s problem.

Although battery-only cars catch fire significantly less often than gas or hybrid cars fires are still a major concern. Fires can be an issue both on the road and at production facilities. EV fires are particularly nasty because they are hot and difficult to put out, taking significantly more time and water to extinguish than other car fires. That, combined with the toxic gases put out by burning batteries, presents another problem that’s pushed off to somebody other than the driver. Fire departments and municipalities are forced to deal with this problem.

While the average time Americans keep their car is rising, many people keep their car less than 5 years, including between 20 and 26 percent of new cars being leased. I doubt the popular lifestyle of getting a new car every few years will change drastically when the majority of new cars are electric. Certainly many of these cars stay in use through the used market for years after, but the insatiable demand for new cars invevitably leads to the question of what happens with all of these batteries after the cars are no longer used. I was surprised to find this isn’t as bad as I expected. Many batteries can be repaired and put in another car and recycling lithium-ion batteries is something that is already done and could potentially recover around 95% of the useful materials for use in new batteries. If battery recycling takes off a large scale that could reduce the demand for new metals and lessen the environmental impact of producing batteries. That would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath given how expensive buildling new recycling facilities could be.

Finally, the biggest problem with switching to electric cars is that it doesn’t solve any of the issues that arise from being a car-centric society. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 people die in car crashes every year in the United States, a number which almost certainly won’t go down because of a different propulsion method. Construction of highways destroyed communities of color often because of and certainly perpectuating racism and inequality. Electric vehicles travel on those same highways and won’t do anything to address rampant traffic congestion, a problem that seems to dominate every part of the country and contributed to the death of a vibrant streetcar system. Focusing on electric cars rather than more sustainable mass transit, especially massive government subsidies for cars and roads, is a theft of a potential future in which we fix the rampant inequities of a car-based society. Access to safe, affordable transportation is unequivocally a social justice issue that electric cars do nothing to address.

What does this mean for me? In short, not much. I’m still dependent on driving and my ID4 is paid off, so it doesn’t make much sense to switch to something else. I’m taking public transit when I can and trying to reduce car trips as much as possible. Longer term I want to start taking trips by bicycle, but that’s difficult because almost nowhere around me has a safe place to store a bike when I’m there. This is more of a mindset shift than an actual change in my life. I was distracted by the messaging of the auto industry’s push for electric vehicles as the future, but now I see through the fog to the reality of the situation. Electric cars may be cool, but they aren’t a suitable solution for any of our transportation problems.