It's Okay to Like Electric Vehicles
The reflexive conservative opposition to automobile innovation ought to be reconsidered.
Conservatives tend to dislike electric vehicles, or E.V.s. There are pretty good reasons for that. For one, environmentalists love them and usually environmentalists are wrong. If only all decision-making were so easy.
Another is that we’re, well, conservative. Internal combustion (I.C.) vehicles are not “broken” by our standards (viz., most of us don’t care about “carbon footprints” since, at some or several levels, we’re skeptical about anthropogenic global warming) so why fix them? In fact, cars overall have made amazing strides in the past few decades in terms of safety and performance. You can buy Plain Jane sedans now that beat a ‘70s muscle car off the line. In fact, as much as Americans love complaining about gasoline prices (while driving alone in their Jurassic Park-sized SUVs) it’s stunning how far a bit of refined petroleum can take a vehicle compared to the hay and oats needed for their predecessors.
To be sure, environmentalists and E.V. supporters generally want you to believe they are superior in many important respects today. Were that true, why the subsidies and mandates? Ipso facto, on the whole E.V.s of today are inferior. But that will change, and for some purposes, they’re already ahead of I.C. cars.
E.V.s have amazing torque relative to their small-sized motors—motors that also allow the exotic body sculpting we’ve come to associate with them. That means your E.V. family sedan can give you whiplash off the starting line. I was in a Tesla Plaid model that has something called “Ludicrous Mode” (from the 1987 Mel Brooks film Space Balls) that does zero-to-60 in about two seconds, using a triple-motor system that produces a staggering 1,020 horsepower and 1,050 pound-feet of torque. (I was told it’s supposed to have more G-force than jumping from a plane. Former paratrooper here; um, no…)
In fact, E.V.s are perhaps becoming too fast for some people. Bentley says its forthcoming car will be able to do zero-to-60 MPH in just 1.5 seconds, but since that speed may make some drivers or passengers nauseous, the company plans to optionally throttle the car to reduce the G-force to “only 2.7 seconds.” You lead-footed drivers can relax.
So sports-car drivers are already in the E.V. corner, nor do you have to be an aficionado to benefit from that torque. A friend has both an electric Porsche Taycan SUV and an Audi e-tron SUV. He says he gets around town a lot more quickly because he can zip through lights before they turn red. That can put him into the light-synchronization loop and thus a single light makes the whole trip much faster.
I drove the Audi, which per MotorTrend delivers 355 ponies and 414 foot-pounds of torque to all wheels, with a zero-to-60-MPH time of 5.1 seconds. That’s slightly faster than my last vehicle, a Nissan 350-Z (about 300 and 300)—a two-seater sports car with just enough trunk space for golf clubs.
Meanwhile, that same torque means you can pull heavy loads without going through a mess of gears. Hence, short-haul electric trucks and buses are becoming popular.
Upfront, E.V.s are clearly more expensive. The average transaction price for one is $56,437 according to Kelley Blue Book—roughly $10,000 higher than the overall industry average of $46,329 that includes both I.C.s and E.V.s. So an E.V. is about equivalent to an entry-level luxury car. But part of that is the result of a market distortion caused by tax subsidies. Federal E.V. subsidies are as much as $7,500 for the first 200,000 cars. But both Tesla and GM have gone beyond that. And lo! the 2023 Chevy Bolt E.V. and EUVs are having their prices cut by nearly $6,000.
Where the E.V. is supposed to pay off is operational costs.
In terms of fueling, the calculations have myriad variables. According to AAA, “the electricity required to drive 15,000 miles per year in a compact electric vehicle costs an average of $546, while the amount of gas required to drive the same distance costs $1,255 (or 130%) more.” That was before the current spike in gas prices, so you’d think the gap would be greater.
So I left it to Car & Driver to actually crunch the numbers rather than some presumably biased entity such as environmentalist groups on the one hand and the Anderson Economic Group on the other. (Although even the latter only concluded, “Electric vehicles can be more expensive to fuel,” notwithstanding many dubious inputs.) Car & Driver concluded that in terms of fuel, with various cars, current E.V.s are basically a wash.
Car & Driver included a Department of Energy calculator with many variables, but the two not included are your area’s gasoline prices and electricity rates—rather important since about 80 percent of E.V. owners charge at home and not a public station. “Electric utility rates in the United States vary wildly,” noted the magazine. “Louisiana pays only $0.0897 per kW while Hawaii electric rates are a wallet-busting $0.3244 per kW.” So the biggest determinant may well be where you happen to live.
More clear-cut are the lower ongoing and maintenance costs of E.V.s. That’s because E.V.s have vastly fewer parts. While gasoline-powered vehicles typically have about 30,000 components, E.V.s require about half of that. It’s not one of Newton’s Laws, but generally fewer moving parts means less maintenance and breakage. According to AAA, “If maintained according to the automakers’ recommendations, electric vehicles cost $330 less than a gas-powered car, a total of $949/annually.”
Aside from the up-front cost, by far the biggest E.V. disadvantage is what’s called “range anxiety.” Overwhelmingly, E.V.s don’t go as far as I.C. vehicles, nor are there nearly as many “filling” stations for E.V.s as I.C.s. Finally, even if you do reach such a filling station, you’re going to find that it takes, well, rather longer to charge your battery than fill your tank, even if you only need enough to get home to your own charger.
While gasoline vehicles have a median range of about 400 miles and a maximum of 765, electric models have a range of about 100 miles for a Mazda MX30 to 405 for the Tesla Model S. But now the startup Lucid Air has models with EPA ratings of up to 520 miles.
Yet all the testing is performed in more or less ideal conditions. No, not going downhill. But, for example, cold weather absolutely clobbers lithium-ion batteries. You can read that at temperatures below freezing “lithium batteries can operate with very little loss providing 95-98% of their capacity.” Total nonsense. The cold itself will probably reduce range to 70-80 percent. But unless you are dressed like Nanook of the North, you’re going to be running your heater. In an I.C. vehicle, heat comes in off the engine, although air conditioning can significantly cut mileage.
With an E.V., though, that battery has to supply the heat. And a 2019 AAA study found that if you use your electric car’s heater while driving in cold temperatures, depending on the vehicle, your range can be temporarily cut by from a third to a half. I confirmed that figure with E.V. owners. As to air conditioning, AAA actually found that while E.V.s lose power and range, they appear to compare favorably to I.C. vehicles. That said, unless you live in one of those places called “The City of Eternal Springtime,” both cold weather and hot weather will reduce E.V. mileage.
One aspect that is improving is charging-station availability. To meet President Biden's 2030 goal of half a million charging stations, nearly 15,000 public E.V. charging ports will have to be installed each quarter for the next nine years, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report in December 2021. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, there are currently almost 56,000 charging stations in the U.S. with about 110,000 charging ports. By comparison, there are an estimated 110,000-150,000 gas stations, almost all of which have multiple pumps.
But even this comparison is facile, because car tanks can fill in five minutes while E.V. batteries take longer. How much longer depends on about a zillion factors, give or take. That includes the type of charger, the type of car, the level of charge at the beginning, and how much you want to “fill up.” You probably rarely charge your cell phone from zero and often don’t go to 100%. But at best you have Tesla Level 3 Superchargers that can provide 200 miles of range in only 15 minutes, while other cars with lower-level chargers will take much longer.
Home charging with your 120-volt plug takes around forever (nah, maybe 17 hours) but is considerably faster if you install a special 240-volt charger for about $2,000. Indeed, my friend with the two E.V.s says he loves that, since he charges in his garage, he never has to stop for gas. Which in North Dakota winters can be a real pain.
Point is, charging stations will need a lot more ports to equal gasoline or diesel stations. Maybe six times as many. As people buy more E.V.s the infrastructure will probably have to stick close to the Biden plan.
Depending on your needs, you probably don’t want to have an E.V. as your sole car anymore than you would want a 2-seater sports car with a trunk just big enough for golf clubs. (As I had. Ahem!) As of 2020, 78 percent of E.V.-owner households also have a second gas-powered vehicle, but most households with only I.C.s also have more than one car.
Yet another disadvantage of E.V.s is while we still have limited experience, performance is expected to drop off at about the 10-year mark. At one time, that would have beaten I.C. vehicles, but that’s an area where we’ve seen tremendous I.C.-vehicle improvements such that they too are rated at an average lifespan of 10 years. So it’s about equal. (Here go with the letters to the editor about “My Ford F-150 is running like a beauty for 22 years;" but averages are just that.)
So, given that alternative batteries theoretically can last longer than LI, we again see that the disadvantage of the E.V. is the battery.
The internal combustion engine beat both steam and electricity way back when and has faithfully served the masses for over a century. But it’s at the end of its development cycle, doomed by the laws of thermodynamics. Gasoline engines have a thermal efficiency of between 30 percent and 36 percent while diesel engines can reach a thermal efficiency of almost 50 percent. But only 3 percent of U.S. cars sold are diesel, which is curious given that in Europe it’s about half. (Whenever I rent a car in Europe I insist on diesel.)
Yet the same can be said for lithium-ion batteries that power almost all electrical vehicles. Most of the problems with current E.V.s come down to those batteries, commercialized back in 1991 and long overdue for a replacement. Many labs are working on many varieties and one or more will eventually prove superior in range, weight, recharging times, environmental friendliness (cobalt mining for lithium is a nightmare in both human and environmental costs) and be commercially viable.
This article has a pretty exhaustive list of newer battery technologies that promise anywhere from a serious improvement over lithium-ion to a quantum leap. Don’t expect any to be commercialized in the next couple of years, despite literally weekly claims of a tremendous breakthrough in some sort of alternative technology. But they will come: The market is huge, not just for E.V.s but for electronics. Ever hear anyone complain that their phone battery lasts too long?
Meanwhile, yet another problem with E.V.s is that the U.S. electric grid isn’t ready, as I earlier wrote in these pages. About 320,000 customers were left without power in at least a dozen states from a mid-June heat wave, according to CNN. E.V.s contributed nothing to that, but if the current mandates remain then they certainly will soon enough. Power companies need time to adapt.
E.V.s will ultimately prevail, but for them to do so we need to stop the subsidies and mandates and force down purchase prices even as we push alternatives to lithium-ion batteries. We also need more practical clean energy, meaning not wind turbines and solar panels but next-generation small modular nuclear plants that are even safer than the behemoths used today, which can be built on an assembly line and moved anywhere, and can be impossible to melt down.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Build the E.V. right and they will come.
The New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.
Editor's note: This piece has been emended since publication to correctly identify the Anderson Economic Group.