Electric cars have generated a lot of discussion in recent years. Often hailed as the future of transportation – primarily due to growing environmental concerns around burning fossil fuels – their popularity has soared. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Despite their reputation as ‘zero emission’ vehicles, there are many aspects that point to how electric vehicles need to improve before they are the final solution for environmental issues.
It all depends how the electricity is generated
In the US, only 18% of electricity is generated by renewable sources, such as hydroelectric and solar. In regions where most of the electricity is generated by ‘dirty’ sources (i.e. by burning fossil fuels), ‘zero emission’ cars only transfer the problem of the places where they circulate to the region where the plant is located.
If the energy that arrives at the charging outlet is generated by a coal or oil plant, the pollution generated will not be very different from that of a conventional engine. If it is generated by hydroelectric plants or natural gas the impact may be lower. Yet if the energy comes from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, or even a nuclear power plant, the net emissions of gases will be much smaller than those of a conventional vehicle.
Range still a major issue
The benefits of electric cars are indisputable, but the relatively short range provided by the current battery technology is still a big disadvantage compared to conventional cars. Studies are still being carried out and the expectation is that the batteries and the whole process of production of electric cars will evolve greatly in the years to come.
Today, the battery is the most complex factor in an electric vehicle. They contain metals such as lithium and, in some cases, cobalt and nickel. As the extraction of these metals is complex and requires a lot of energy it is important to make significant advances in this area before EVs can fully replace conventional cars.
Beyond the battery
But it’s not only the technology used in batteries that is improving. Manufacturers are also selecting better materials in the construction of electric vehicles. Aluminium and advanced steel alloys – and sometimes more expensive composites – are being selected because they are strong and lightweight. Selecting lighter materials can improve the range of electric vehicles without improvements to the batteries themselves. But those improvements comes at a cost. Tesla cars current hold among the the best range for electric vehicles, but they can cost over 80 thousand dollars. Such prices makes the mass adoption of electric vehicles cost prohibitive for large swathes of the population.
A step towards the future
Even though there are many questions about the source of energy used to power electric vehicles, this new technology is still our best hope to substitute fossil fuel. It just shows that we have a long way until we have a viable alternative to our current transportation model.