EV myths abound. Most of them spread by EV detractors have been covered in these forums in great detail – some, perhaps, in too much detail.
Just for a change of pace, I’d like to open a little discussion on some EV myths that I often hear uttered by EV advocates. I’ll suck some of the fun out of it right off the bat by saying that most of these might not really be best described as “myths.” Perhaps a more accurate description would be “mis-applied principles, technical misunderstandings, unwarranted assumptions and inadvertent exaggerations,” but I think you can see why I didn’t use that in the title.
I care less about what they are called, and more about accuracy – no matter which “side” you are on, and regardless of your intentions. When talking about EVs, I think we all want to make sure that we are clarifying agents. There is already too much mud in the waters.
MYTH: EV owners and supporters are left-wing environmentalists
This is not often stated outright; but is often a clear implication of another statement. For example, posting an article about possible future leaks from a proposed oil pipeline in an EV forum with a comment like “I know everybody here wants to see this dirty thing stopped.” I see a statement like this several times a week.
Yes, EVs are far better for the environment than gas cars, and this is one of the great social benefits of their general adoption. Many buyers and supporters are environmentalists; in the early days, it is likely that most were.
But it was never all of them; and things have changed. Numbers differ widely in surveys based on wording, but it is pretty clearly not true that most current buyers are primarily purchasing for environmental reasons. Nor is it likely true of others in the space, such as industry, government and NGO employees and volunteers. As we advocates have been saying for a long time, there are many good reasons to support EVs; so it is not helpful to assume that all of us have the same motivations or place the same weight on all of the benefits.
This is a complicated topic so I’ll just barely skim here, but the blanket assumption that EV owners and supporters are all environmentalists is not just incorrect – it is slowing down EV adoption. Some people really don’t like being associated with environmentalists, or in seeing environmentalist causes succeed. Even those that largely root for them don’t generally make their car purchases based on it, as a quick look at the market share of various types of ICE vehicles will tell you. The blanket, unexamined assumption that EVs are “for the environment” is behind a lot of the pushback from both the far right and the far left. And it is likely the main driver behind the following myth.
MYTH: EV detractors are right-wing shills for Big Oil
This is the most common dismissal I see EV advocates use when somebody mentions a downside to EVs (even when the downside happens to be a real one; though that is not often).
The most annoying part of this is that many conservatives are EV owners and fans – and why not, as there is much to appreciate including performance, convenience, TCO savings, national security implications, savings from air and water mitigation efforts and health effects, and local economic benefits. The idea that only liberals like EVs is absurd (as noted with the previous myth).
But it is also plain incorrect to state that most detractors are big oil fans, paid or not. Yes, oil companies have been caught paying think tanks for friendly white-papers and op-ed placements, and some oil executives have made statements about EVs that display a startling lack of understanding (or a disappointing disingenuousness). But the quantity of this pales in comparison to the efforts of some of the other detractors: TSLA shorts, executives of alternative companies (power-dense batteries, H2, CNG, etc), liberals afraid that EVs might slow progress towards bicycles and buses, gearheads that are unaware of electric performance implications, free-market purists or economic justice advocates that are unaware that petroleum has huge subsidies, auto dealers trying to avoid a tectonic shift that may not include them, auto manufacturers trying to slow down a risky transition, etc. Or, regular consumers that have seen some of these arguments but have not examined them in detail.
Incorrectly assuming the motivations of detractors derails the conversation, and muddles the opportunity for education about EV benefits. I find it more effective to focus on the message than on possible motivations of the messenger.
MYTH: Most trips are under 40 miles, so there is no reason for anybody to not buy an EV now
Yes, it is true that most trips are under 40 miles. And in fact, UCS and CR did a study that determined that 42% of car buyers could buy a short-range battery electric vehicle and not change ANY of their driving habits or require public charging – there are that many people in the new car market that have electricity where they park, and NEVER carry more or go farther than a LEAF is capable of. It is definitely true that more of the existing plug-in electric vehicles could be sold.
That said, there is still a majority of new car buyers (plus all the people that typically don’t buy new cars) that are not well-served by the current offerings. Some people really need a pickup truck, or a minivan, or something with a lot of clearance. Most can’t afford Tesla’s current offerings but may still need six seats or AWD. There are plenty of good reasons to not buy one of the existing EVs.
Just as important, people don’t buy cars based on statistical averages, especially averages that are not their own. Many people DO regularly take trips well over 40 miles (I take a 100-mile trip almost every week; a LEAF won’t work for me). Or even if it’s not regular – say they only take it once every three months – that is still four times per year. If a car sharing service parks vehicles on your block, no problem – but such services only cover small parts of the country. Renting a car four times a year is a considerable burden for many buyers.
The biggest issue I have with this, really, is that I have never seen it be effective as an argument. So why use it? I think a far more useful argument is that any ICE driver can switch to a PHEV with no change in driving habits. That can be good enough to switch most of their driving to electricity so the discussion could end there. But note that once a PHEV is accepted, it is usually easier to argue for the merits of BEVs, or explain how a two-car household with a BEV and an ICE can be similar to a PHEV.
MYTH: It takes 6kWh of electricity to refine a gallon of gas
It does take an enormous amount of energy to refine petroleum, and 6kWh seems to be a reasonable guess. That is not even counting energy used to locate, extract, transport (at least twice), and pump it. Refineries are the second-largest electricity consumers in California. Petroleum is FAR less efficient than electricity for transportation.
But “6kWh of electricity” is simply not correct – the energy is indeed needed, but much of it (exact amounts are elusive) is not grid electricity, but rather a byproduct of the refining process. Also, petroleum refining typically produces multiple products (i.e. diesel and gasoline) that muddles the amount of energy per gallon.
I understand the desire to use this number – it sounds like you can take the petroleum middleman out of the equation and just power the car directly on that electricity, which would render all further arguments about cost and emissions moot. But while electricity is far superior to petroleum on both counts, I am afraid that this shortcut to explain the difference doesn’t really work.
MYTH: An EV is cleaner than any gas car even when the electricity is generated from 100% coal
This is kind of close. EVs are way cleaner than gas cars on the current U.S. grid. The grid is getting cleaner, enabling EV owners to choose cleaner sources of electricity.
It is true to say that the average EV is better than the average ICE even with 100% coal, or that an EV is better than a comparable ICE with 100% coal. But the average EV is not as good as the best hybrid with 100% coal.
According to UCS, the US-sales weighted-average EV consumption can be as low as 35mpg (based on 2012 data; it is probably better now, but still likely less than a Prius).
MYTH: The $7,500 federal tax credit is to make EVs more affordable
Many people seem to think that the $7,500 federal tax credit is in place to help poor people afford an electric car. Or at least to get middle-class people that might be stretching to be able to finally make it.
The government has no particular interest in selling EVs to people with little money; and the poor don’t buy new cars. New cars – especially expensive cars with new technology – are almost always purchased by people with lots of money, and the government is fine with leveraging their dollars. The tax credit is a buying incentive, designed to help shift the balance so that somebody thinking about buying an ICE might decide on an EV instead.
The public benefits of EVs – better national security, lower trade deficit, a cash injection to the economy, less fouling of air and water, fewer carbon emissions – don’t depend on who buys the cars. In any event, poor people are rarely able to take advantage of a large tax credit, or float the cash until tax refund time even if they could. Sure, there are some buyers on the edge that are enabled by the tax credit, but the objective is to alter buying behavior, not subsidize the poor. That is why it is a tax credit, and not subject to income or vehicle price limitations. Having rich people buy new technology is the best way to increase volumes, reduce prices, and create a used market – those are how the poor will eventually afford EVs.
Electric vehicles are new technology that was starting off in small quantities, and in the auto market that means higher prices. In 2008 the Bush administration asked the DOE how much to subsidize EVs to help drive buying decisions. The US Government Accountability Office estimated that petroleum subsidies (payments and tax credits to petroleum companies only; this did not include pollution mitigation, health effects, patrolling Hormuz, etc) benefited the average gas car by about $12,000 over its lifetime. The $7,500 was calculated to be the net present value of that amount, and that’s how EVs got their tax credit.
MYTH: Other automakers can’t build a competitive car because they can’t duplicate Tesla’s technology
I am confident that engineers at any major automaker could make a great competitor to the Model S and X. Tesla has great engineers, and they do have some technical advantages that other automakers are not yet using, but engineering skill and technology are not why the Model S and X are in a class by themselves. Especially not since Tesla has said other automakers will not be sued for copying their technology.
Until Model 3 demand was demonstrated, many automakers didn’t really think there was demand for EVs. Perhaps they had convinced themselves of this, since they kept arguing so to keep governments from forcing them to make EVs. Even if they thought consumers wanted them, they are legally required to sell through dealers, and dealers have generally been happier selling gas cars (although this is changing). Plus, EVs have that refueling problem that all of their current cars don’t have – who wants to think through all that when they already have a solution? And once you have a solution, there’s the whole marketing problem about how to sell your new product as superior when you are still mostly moving the old product.
It might be short-sighted thinking. It might be waiting until the technology is ready. It might be misunderstanding how to apply the technology to best attract consumers. It might be waiting until somebody else proves the market and then following quickly to reduce the risk. But it’s not that they aren’t capable of building the cars.
TMC Member Chad Schwitters is a retired mobile software executive. He has been an EV driver since 2008 and a Tesla driver since 2009. Additionally, he served as Event Coordinator for the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association and as a board member for Plug In America.