After years of making inroads, electric vehicles are here to stay. Under a plan unveiled by the administration of President Joe Biden in 2021, all new cars sold by 2030 have to be zero-emissions—which include fully electric, hybrid, and fuel cell vehicles. These types of vehicles accounted for just under 10% of all the new cars sold in 2021, meaning that the U.S. is at the threshold of a transportation revolution that will see tens of millions of new electric vehicles hitting the roads over the next decade.
Up until recently, if you wanted to buy an electric car in the U.S., choices were limited to about 20 models, most of which were produced by European and Asian carmakers, as well as those manufactured by Tesla and the Chevrolet Volt. But now, legacy automakers such as Ford and GM, startups like Rivian, Lucid, and Fisker, and leading European and Asian carmakers including Volkswagen and Toyota, have unveiled plans to launch scores of new electric vehicles.
There is no doubt that the future of transportation is electric and that is good news for the environment because electric cars don’t have tailpipes—meaning that they don’t spit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or any other toxic fumes that cause air pollution.
The transportation sector accounts for about 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but that figure is much higher in the U.S., at around 30% of the country’s emissions, because Americans tend to drive bigger cars that burn more fuel and public transport options are often limited.
Climate change is the biggest threat that humanity has ever faced, and large cars are a big part of the problem—research shows that, after the power sector, SUVs are the second largest cause behind the surge in carbon emissions in the past decade.
Buying an electric car instead of a gas-powered one will allow millions of drivers to reduce their personal carbon footprint, which will bring benefits to future generations, who will bear the brunt of the cataclysmic weather events caused by climate change.
Although this decrease in emissions is a key benefit for both humans and the environment, once you peek under the hood, you will realize that electric cars have many other advantages.
The magic of electric cars is that they are super efficient compared to combustion engine vehicles (fancy talk for a traditional gas-powered car).
Traditional cars typically convert just 12%-30% of the energy contained in the fuel they burn, with the remainder lost through mechanical processes, used to power parts of the engine like the water, fuel, and oil pumps, or turned into heat—that’s why motor vehicles get really hot and need cooling systems to prevent overheating.
Electric cars, however, are much more efficient since they turn about 80% of the energy provided by their lithium batteries into movement. That’s because they have fewer parts and feature regenerative braking, a system that recaptures energy during braking and is more resistant to wear and tear than traditional brake discs.
That basically means that to take people from A to B, electric cars would use substantially less energy than gas-powered vehicles!
Another key advantage of electric vehicles is that they don’t need to be filled with gas, which is becoming increasingly expensive.
Instead, electric vehicles are powered by batteries that are typically charged using electricity from the grid. Electricity prices vary throughout the year and depend on location but tend to be more stable than fuel prices. Regardless of eventual price increases, in the long run, it is always cheaper to recharge a car battery than to fill up a gas tank because of how efficient electric vehicles are.
For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the 2020 Corolla makes 34 miles per gallon, but if charged with the energy equivalent of one gallon of gas, a light-duty electric car would be able to travel over 130 miles! To find out exactly how much it costs to refuel an electric vehicle in your state, check out the Department of Energy’s eGallon tool.
To lower charging costs, drivers can take advantage of off-peak electricity rates while charging at home and some carmakers, including Tesla, BMW, and Nissan offer free charging stations as do some cities and scores of businesses, including hotels and shopping malls—even some national parks!
But that’s not all. Unlike gas-powered cars, electric vehicles feature two or three times less engine fluid—such as oil, transmission fuel, and coolants—that need to be changed regularly.
And because they have fewer parts and simpler powertrains, electric car owners typically save thousands of dollars in repairs and maintenance, when compared to drivers who own gas vehicles.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers a tax credit to encourage ownership of electric vehicles. You could receive anywhere between $2,500 and $7,500 in credit depending on when you buy your EV, the exact type of EV it is (or more specifically, its battery capacity), and your own income tax bracket. The folks at Elektrek have a thorough breakdown of what vehicles qualify and how much credit you could receive.
But it’s important to know that the credit phases out after a car manufacturer passes 200,000 EV sales. So if you’re hoping for $7,500 back as a reward for buying a Tesla, unfortunately you’re out of luck. Additionally, the credit is only for the original registered owner, meaning those looking to buy a used EV also cannot benefit. But there are still plenty of great new EV options on the market that do qualify.
Another key advantage of electric vehicles is that they are whisper quiet, meaning that they make very little noise when they move on the road. Gas vehicles, however, create noise pollution that contributes to stress and anxiety in urban areas, and some recent studies have even linked traffic noise with Alzheimer's disease.
They accelerate faster than gas-powered cars, with many models capable of going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under three seconds. The drawback of that is that their top speeds are slightly lower than those of comparable fuel cars but most drivers won’t notice because electric cars can easily top 170mph, well over the speed limit.
Electric cars of today (and the future) feature sleek interiors with large flat screens and top-notch onboard entertainment systems, as well as technologies such as self-driving, a feature that allows cars to control the accelerator, brakes, and even the steering wheel.
Despite having a lower carbon footprint than gas cars, electric cars are by no means “green.”
The production of car batteries is an energy-intensive process. More energy means higher greenhouse gas emissions because a handful of countries that rely heavily on fossil fuels to produce electricity—namely China, South Korea, and Japan—have a stronghold on global battery production.
A 2021 analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that to manufacture a Model 3, Tesla emits 12.2 tons of greenhouse gases, 65% more emissions than the gas-powered Toyota RAV4.
In addition, EV batteries feature scores of metals and minerals, including cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese, and rare earth elements, all of which have to be extracted—often from far away countries—processed, refined, and transported.
The extraction of these minerals is linked with environmental degradation and toxic pollution in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, China, and Indonesia, among others.
But electric carmakers are expected to become greener over time because efforts to use more renewable energy and recycle batteries are already underway.
Since much of the electricity produced in the world is generated by burning fossil fuels, electric cars cause a good deal of “indirect emissions.” That’s also true for the U.S., which generates about 61% of its electricity by burning fossil fuels, especially natural gas and coal. So while EV owners are charging up their cars all week, it’s more likely than not the electricity is being powered by fossil fuels, which are notoriously harmful to our environment and considered a leading cause of climate change.
In states that have a deregulated electricity market, households can try to combat this problem and choose to source their electricity directly from third-party renewable energy suppliers (instead of their local utility which may be delivering electricity backed by fossil fuels). Additionally, electric car owners are increasingly installing solar panels in their homes to ensure that the power they use to charge their vehicles is clean as a whistle.
Although solar panels are expensive, buyers can receive financial help from federal and state governments, including low-interest loans and tax credits.
The Biden administration has pledged to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035, meaning that by then, most of the power produced in the country will come from renewable resources, including hydroelectric dams, wind, and solar, as well as nuclear plants.
But despite record growth in recent years, the renewable energy sector is not expanding fast enough to replace fossil fuel plants, in part because energy demand boomed after the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic. This is creating an “energy crunch” that has prompted the world’s four largest carbon dioxide emitters—China, the U.S., the European Union, and India— to burn more coal and natural gas to produce electricity.
Until the U.S.—and the world—fully transition to clean energy, EV owners may continue to cause indirect emissions unless you install your own solar system or switch to renewables for your home’s electricity.
Good things don’t come cheap. Electric cars typically sell for around $10,000 more than an equivalent gas-powered vehicle and at-home fast chargers can set you back another $2,000.
But is not as bad as it looks since prospective buyers can obtain hefty tax credits from the federal government that can offset some of the extra costs. And several states offer additional economic incentives to help people buy electric cars—for example, both California and New York state offer up to $2,000 in rebates.
Many buyers fear that electric cars could limit their ability to take long trips because they have a limited range and charging stations are few and far between. Those are fair concerns but things are changing fast.
For starters, the federal government has unveiled a plan to build a network of 500,000 public chargers across the U.S. by 2030, in addition to the around 110,000 already in operation. The White House has pledged to build an “equitable” network that would include charging stations in rural areas, disadvantaged communities, and tribal land to “make EVs accessible to all Americas for both local and long-distance trips.”
But charging ports don’t need to be as widespread as gas stations because many drivers will be able to charge their cars at home and in parking lots, while they do their shopping or eat a meal. Battery range has increased dramatically over the past few years with most modern cars capable of driving over 250 miles on one charge, while some top-of-the-line models have a range of over 300 miles, including the Ford Mustang Mach-E RWD California Route 1 SUV and several long-range Teslas.
Charging times vary depending on many factors, such as the size of the battery, the vehicle’s maximum charging rate, and the type of charger that you use but the latest fast chargers can provide 80% capacity in 30 minutes.
And researchers are working on next-generation “solid state” batteries that could one day revolutionize electric cars because they will be able to fully charge in just 20 minutes, will be much lighter, and less likely to burst into flames—which sometimes happens with existing car batteries.
Batteries are the most expensive component of electric cars and replacing them could potentially cost hefty sums but they are designed to last 12 to 15 years and many carmakers offer extensive guarantees.
Government policies to promote clean transportation and hefty investments by carmakers show that electric cars are here to stay. Electric vehicles have many advantages, but they also have a pretty big environmental footprint due in part to the many metals and minerals in their large batteries.
But the good thing about electric cars is that you don’t need to own one to enjoy their benefits. Major rental companies including Hertz and Avis have announced plans to offer more electric vehicles to their customers while the two leading ride-share firms, Lyft and Uber, have pledged to go all-electric by 2030 and 2040, respectively.
Some National Parks and airports already offer fully electric bus and shuttle services and schools across the country are expected to switch to electric buses over the next few years thanks in part to a federal plan to slash emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, which also include freight trucks and city buses.
The federal government, which owns some 650,000 vehicles, as well as many states and cities, are increasingly buying electric vehicles, which will help decrease air pollution and carbon emissions for all, even those who don’t own electric cars!
About two dozen countries and several states, including New York and California, plan to ban the sale of new fuel cars altogether over the next couple of decades, signaling that the future of cars is most certainly electric.