Why Electric Cars Are Cleaner

Critics say electric cars just have “longer tailpipes,” but in fact these vehicles produce less overall pollution than most other cars.

| February/March 2011

As of 2011, the electric car is no longer a hypothetical car of the future. Thanks to unveilings from major automakers, corporate investment, dedicated government backing and steady improvements to the technology itself, electric cars are ready to claim a spot as a car of the present. It’s been quite a ride. After first appearing in the early 1900s and then flirting with a return in the 1990s, electric cars (sometimes called EVs, for electric vehicles) fell back to niche status. But recent history has seen nearly the entire auto industry recharge about electric cars. Some notable buzz:

  • General Motors is back in the game with production of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid capable of traveling 25 to 50 miles on electricity alone. The Volt has already won several notable awards, including the Motor Trend 2011 Car of the Year and the 2011 Green Car of the Year from Green Car Journal.
  • Toyota is working on a small electric car, the FT-EV II, and has bought a significant stake in electric car specialist Tesla Motors, maker of the electric Roadster sports car. Tesla and Toyota are developing an electric version of Toyota’s RAV4, a small SUV.
  • Nissan sold out the preorder waiting list for its all-electric Leaf sedan (pictured at right) in 2010, and the car is expected to go on sale nationwide for about $25,000 (after tax credits) by the end of 2011.
  • Honda plans to sell its Fit EV, which will have a 70-mile driving range, in 2012.
  • Mitsubishi plans to bring its electric compact car, the i-MiEV, to U.S. showrooms by the end of 2011.
  • Fisker Automotive, maker of the luxury Karma sedan, received a $529 million federal loan to help develop its plug-in hybrid vehicles.

This resurgence is a testament to recent advances in electric car technology. While pure electric cars will continue to face challenges — such as expensive batteries, a limited driving range compared with conventional cars (although the 70 to 100 miles per charge offered by most electric cars is sufficient for many drivers), somewhat lengthy charging times, and a limited number of public recharging stations — they bring numerous benefits to the table.

Because electric cars consume no gasoline at all, they are a great option for drivers concerned with energy security and our nation’s oil dependence. They offer the convenience of being able to “refuel” a vehicle at home, and they’re more efficient and less expensive to operate compared with gas-only cars (see “How Much Does It Cost to Power an Electric Car?” near the end of this article). They also reduce noise pollution in most driving circumstances. Finally, of course, they’re perhaps best known for being zero-emission vehicles, and their lack of tailpipe emissions is a great step toward an improved environment.

Hold it right there, say some critics. Aren’t electric cars simply moving emissions from the vehicle’s tailpipe to a power plant smokestack? (This is the “long tailpipe” critique.) Aren’t there still greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants associated with creating the electricity these vehicles use? And if that’s the case, are electric cars really all they’re cracked up to be?

“These are valid questions deserving of a thorough assessment,” says Bill Moore, editor in chief of EV World, a transportation technology and news website. While lamenting misinformation that perpetuates in the blogosphere and elsewhere, Moore values criticism that encourages progress. “We don’t want [electric cars] to become a burden on society, so we need to hear those criticisms, we need to weigh them, and we need to move forward to improve the technology,” he says.

Electric car emissions depend on multiple factors — particularly how your electricity is generated, which, for most, depends on where you live. Smog-forming pollution at the power plant from the use of an electric car can have higher emissions rates than typical gas-only or hybrid cars (such as the Toyota Prius), a fact owed largely to the effectiveness of catalytic converters in today’s gas cars. It’s important to note, though, that from a health standpoint, one major advantage of “moving” pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant is that it gets pollutants farther away from pedestrians and other drivers, lowering the pollutants’ adverse health impacts on the concentrated population.

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