The following post is based on my notes for two speeches completed in my local Toastmasters club earlier this year.
The transportation sector in Canada is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in Canada accounting for 25% of the emissions, second to the oil and gas sector (at 26%)1. In the U.S transportation accounts for the highest greenhouse emissions at 28%2. The carbon emissions of an electric car are around 17 – 30% lower than driving a petrol or diesel car as per European Energy Agency3. It is also believed that a single electric car on the road can save an average of 1.5 million grams of CO2. That’s the equivalent of four return flights from London to Barcelona4.
For the past two centuries, there had been a concentrated effort to develop a commercially operated electric vehicle. The first electric vehicle was introduced in 1828 using galvanic cell technology. Rechargeable batteries, the main power driver behind these types of vehicles were invented in 1859 with the introduction of lead-acid batteries. Electric-powered taxis, then known as ‘hummingbirds’ were introduced in London as early as 1897. The electric starter was discovered in 1912. However, with the mass production of gasoline vehicles, the production of electric vehicles ceased in the 1910s. There were sporadic, unsuccessful developments in electric car technology till 2000s5,.
One of the biggest reasons for the failure of electric vehicles were the following:
- High Cost
- Low Top Speed
- The short range of travelled distances
Path-breaking developments in the transistor, microprocessor and lithium-ion battery technologies helped to renew interest in electric vehicles during the early 2000s. They were:
- Metal oxide semiconductor technology field-effect transistor (MOSFET) by Hitachi. This helped with higher switching frequencies that made these vehicles easier to drive. It also helped reduce power losses, and significantly reduced prices.
- In 1971 Intel introduced the single-chip microprocessor which helped improve drive control and improved capacity for battery management.
- Developments in lithium-ion battery improved energy storage enabling long-distance travel6.
In 2006, Tesla introduced the first viable all-electric vehicle option driving the general acceptance of these vehicles in the market. In the year 2016 for the first time, 1 million units were delivered and 4.8 million electric cars were in use around the world. Currently, the fully electric Tesla Model 3 is the world’s all-time best-selling plug-in electric passenger car, with around 645,000 units sold. In 2020 alone, there were 3 million electric cars sold.
Electric cars are known to run very quietly, especially while they are on full battery power leading to the requirement in some jurisdictions to have noisemakers installed and let pedestrians know they’re coming7.
It is to be noted that aggressive targets are being set by automotive manufactures to go completely electric by 20508. This raises concerns especially around the sourcing of raw materials. The supply chain is heavily monopolized with the extraction and processing of these minerals being overwhelmingly controlled by one single state actor: China9. China’s proactive industrial policy loaded with enormous subsidies has led its companies to dominate, at home and abroad, the extraction and processing of the critical raw materials necessary for EV production. It can be categorically stated that Beijing’s aims to dominate the entire EV supply chain and the nascent EV vehicle industry, reminiscent of the erstwhile Standard Oil (which was declared as an illegal monopoly in 1911 by the U.S Supreme Court). Last year the impact of a monopolized PPE supply from China created significant challenges to world economies during the COVID-19 outbreak10.
There is also negligible discussion on the lasting environmental footprint the production of electric cars creates. Lithium is concentrated in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the world’s dominant source of cobalt. Mineral extraction in all these locales is rife with environmental degradation. Lithium mining, a water-intensive business, has impacted the agricultural sector and has contributed to increased soil contamination. The enormous demand for copper, lithium and rare earth elements needed for a complete transformation of the existing automobile market currently at 1.4 billion cars will definitely leave a lasting environmental and ecological mark on this planet11. For the environmentalists that lampoon the Alberta oilsands and its tailings ponds, this issue alone should offer some retrospection.
Another threat to the adoption of electric cars is not understanding ‘Lifecycle Emissions’12. For example, a car with its battery made in China and charged up in Poland (where coal is used for power generation) emits 193 gm of C/km (C=Carbon). If the same car is used in Sweden/ France with a low carbon grid it is 50 gm of C/km. Comparitively a gasoline-powered car emits 284 gm of C/ km. The electric grid thus will have to be decarbonized extensively for many meaningful benefits from the electric vehicle transition. This opens new challenges as seen recently in Germany and Texas during the winter outages of 2021.
To summarize, electric vehicles are a true paradox. On one hand, they are important to obtain a step change at reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the world, but on the other hand, their accelerated development can result in a permanent ecologic disaster of enormous proportions that can scar the extremely fragile earth that we live in. I do believe that transportation would need to be reimagined to address the problem of climate change, but I am not yet convinced that the answer lies in electric vehicles.