Hybrid and electric vehicles (EV) have been around since the early 1900s. It wasn’t until Toyota debuted the Prius in 2000 as the first mass-produced hybrid, that the general public caught wind of new advancements. Apart from the trailblazers Tesla, Nissan, and Toyota, several other auto companies now offer more affordable options. With so many companies catching on, people are beginning to ask what effect this production uptake will have on the environment? Does it have the potential to cause more harm than good?
Benefits of EVs vs internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) include higher energy efficiency, a reduction in fossil fuel consumption and lower lifetime maintenance costs. Although ICEVs have successfully driven down their emissions since the early 2000s, electric vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce the number of greenhouse gases produced by the transport sector. But, the environmental impacts of a large scale introduction of electric vehicles present some concerns. The critics are quick to speculate if EVs are actually as “clean” as environmentalists make them out to be. Both manufacturing and battery power sourcing are prime concerns from skeptics.
First, let’s take a look at how they function. The three main varieties are differentiated by the amount of electricity used as their primary energy source. The types include HEVs, or hybrid electric vehicles featuring both a full-size ICE and an electric motor plus a battery pack, PHEVs or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, that if charged every night drastically extend the distance you can go on a tank of gas and BEVs, or battery electric vehicles. BEVs use a large traction battery pack to power the electric motor and need to be plugged into a charging station to charge. A power distribution center is used to send the positive battery power throughout the vehicle using relays and fuses. Because it runs on electricity, the car does not need a tailpipe to emit exhaust particles and has no need for the typical liquid fuel components.
Your well-to-wheel emissions are not only dependent on the type of vehicle you drive, but also your geographic region and energy source as well. Well-to-wheel emissions include everything from fuel production, processing, distribution, and usage. The average ICEV will emit over 11k pounds of CO2 every year, which is double that of the average BEV. The only way to ensure the lowest environmental impact is to charge your car with hydro or solar renewable energy sources.
One key difference between electric and internal combustion cars is their manufacturing process. A comparative study between EVs and ICEVs in China confirms that infrastructure and efficient manufacturing techniques are the keys to reducing emissions during production. The full environmental impact of EVs is mainly reflected in their lifetime value. Even if in some countries where the production process contributes slightly more CO2, this is only relevant during its conception. Once in the hands of the driver, throughout its lifetime the particle emissions are far less, although it may take up to approximately 40k miles to recoup the manufacturing “debt.”
Lithium, cobalt, and nickel supplies; the materials EV batteries are mainly comprised of are expected to take a hit based on the predicted boom in EV production over the next few decades. However, as they become more mainstream, battery recycling will become more efficient and reduce the need for increased mining of global reserves of lithium and other rare earth metals for new battery production.
The increased consumer awareness and interest in going green has prompted global governments to reevaluate their fuel economy standards and set new automotive technology goals. EV advancements likely won’t reach maturity for another 5-10 years, and government support and investment in infrastructure is needed to facilitate such innovation. Almost every major automaker is planning for a shift to electric vehicles and Europe, China, and India are leading the auto industry’s shift to electric vehicles by being on their way to the banning of the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars. Electric vehicles as they currently stand are far less polluting than their combustion engine counterparts. As long as policies and infrastructure can adapt to the potential discrepancies that studies have predicted, the environmental benefits of an EV dominated society are unparalleled.