The vast majority of the 1.5 billion cars on the world’s roads are powered by gas engines, but their stronghold is being challenged by electric vehicles.
A decade ago, electric cars were a rarity reserved for tech-savvy trailblazers on the West Coast. But thanks in large part to Tesla, they have become the latest must-have among environmentally conscious drivers everywhere.
U.S. sales of all-electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) nearly doubled from 308,000 in 2020 to 608,000 in 2021.
Although that represents around 10% of all the new cars sold in the country in 2021, under a plan introduced by the Biden Administration, half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2030 will have to be “clean,” including EVs, PHEVs, and fuel cell cars.
Prospective car buyers now face a choice: Getting a gas car, which many consider the “tried and tested” option, or diving into the deep end by buying an electric vehicle. And, of course, there is also the middle-of-the-road choice: Buying a plug-in hybrid car.
Making the right choice should be done with diligence and research—but we hope to help with this guide comparing electric cars vs. gas cars. If minimizing environmental impact is your main concern, electric vehicles are the no brainer decision—but not everyone may be able to afford an EV or has the right home setup for charging.
Gas vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines, which typically burn gasoline or diesel to produce thrust. The combustion inside the cylinder generates gases that push pistons connected to the cylinder. A crankshaft then turns the motion of the pistons into rotation that is transmitted to the wheels through the gearbox.
Vehicles powered by combustion engines have been around since Ford began mass-producing the Model T in 1908. The Model T became a mainstay of American roads in just a few years because it was cheap, reliable, and sturdy. By the time it went out of production two decades later, Ford had sold 15 million Model Ts worldwide.
Since then, many other models have sold more than ten million units, including the Volkswagen Beetle, the Lada Classic, the Toyota Corolla, and the Ford F-150, which has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. since the 1970s.
Americans have used gas cars to go places for generations because they are fast, reliable, and convenient, making them ubiquitous throughout the country.
Most Americans regularly rely on gas cars to go places near and far, from taking a quick drive to buy groceries or commute to work, to jumping behind the wheel for a road trip to a national park—gas cars are, without a doubt, the centerpiece of the U.S. transportation system.
Federal, state, and local governments have built plenty of infrastructure for drivers, including a network of nearly 4.2 million miles of roads and some 145,000 gas stations that can refuel a gas vehicle within a few minutes.
In addition, there is a vibrant market for second-hand gas cars that gives buyers plenty of choices. Regardless of where you live, it should be relatively easy for you to find a gas car in good condition at an affordable price—whereas if you want to buy an EV, you may have little choice but to buy a new car with a higher tag price.
Many drivers prefer gas cars simply because they have been around for decades. Indeed, most drivers are familiar with the way combustion engines work and many even know how to change their cars’ fluids, do some basic tune-ups and even identify what’s wrong with an engine by the noise it makes.
Here’s a fact: Gas-powered vehicles are dirty. Passenger cars alone are to blame for nearly 17% of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., a figure that is higher than in most other countries because Americans favor bigger cars that burn more fuel and drive regularly because public transport options are often limited.
According to the International Energy Administration, the increasing popularity of large cars, including SUVs and pickup trucks, is a leading reason behind the surge in carbon emissions in the past decade.
Gas cars also emit scores of pollutants including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and formaldehyde. These toxins stay at ground level and contribute to a wide array of respiratory ailments in humans, including asthma and bronchitis.
They also create noise pollution that contributes to stress and anxiety, and some recent studies have even linked traffic noise with neurological conditions such as dementia.
Battery electric vehicles are powered by an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. The electricity for the engine comes from large battery packs that are by far the most expensive, and heaviest, component of the vehicle. Battery packs are rechargeable and need to be topped up regularly by plugging them into an electrical outlet.
They are better for the environment
The chief benefit of electric vehicles is that they are much cleaner than gas cars because they have zero tailpipe emissions. This has a direct positive impact on our environment as it limits the amount of CO2 and other dangerous gases and fumes that emit from tailpipes, which contribute to global warming.
Although it is true that much of the electricity produced in the U.S. is generated by burning fossil fuels, the country’s grid is getting cleaner—renewables are the fastest-growing energy source and in 2021 accounted for 20% of total power generation.
In fact, it’s a common myth that electric vehicles aren’t so clean because the energy used to charge them is “dirty.” In a game-changing study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), analysis found that that argument doesn’t hold true over time. Lifetime emissions for an EV in Europe are between 66-69% lower compared to that of a gas-guzzling vehicle. In the U.S., an EV produces between 60-68% percent fewer lifetime emissions. This study was a major breakthrough that debunks one of the loudest arguments against EVs.
Indeed, owning an electric vehicle vs. a gas car means you’re playing a significant role in helping slow down global warming and protect the future of our planet.
One of the top reasons to choose an electric vehicle is that they are cheaper to drive.
That’s in large part because EVs are more efficient. They turn about 80% of the energy they use into motion, whereas for gas vehicles that number is between 12% and 30% because the combustion process converts much of the energy into heat that is literally wasted away.
But also because electricity prices tend to be lower than gas prices and unlike gas prices, they rarely go through big fluctuations in short periods of time.
A study by the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA) released in March 2022 estimated that the per-mile cost of driving an EV is on average three to five times lower than driving a gas-powered vehicle—and in states that charge less for electricity, such as Nevada, Florida, and Arizona, some EVs can be up to six times cheaper to drive.
For an up-to-date estimate of how much it would cost to recharge an EV in your state, check out the Department of Energy’s eGallon tool.
Low maintenance costs
Another clear benefit of owning an electric vehicle over a gas car is that EVs are cheaper to maintain and operate.
That’s mainly because they have fewer parts and simpler powertrains, meaning that electric car owners typically save thousands of dollars in repairs and maintenance, when compared to drivers who own gas vehicles.
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.
Special highway lanes, parking spaces and other perks
There are also other practical advantages. For example, many states, including California, Colorado, Florida, and Maryland, provide high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane access for electric and hybrid vehicles, meaning that EVs can effectively allow drivers to bypass congested roads.
In addition, some commercial and public buildings set aside parking spaces for EVs only and some cities and scores of businesses, including hotels and shopping malls, offer free EV charging.
Manufacturing emissions due to battery production are quickly made up for
Critics claim that electric cars are not the Holy Grail of clean transportation. They say that’s because manufacturing an electric or hybrid car is associated with higher emissions than the production of a gas vehicle due to electric batteries containing scores of metals and minerals that need to be extracted from the ground—often from high-impact open-pit mines—processed, refined, and transported. These activities often require huge amounts of energy and water, which comes at a high price for the environment.
And buying a used electric car would be a good way to keep your environmental footprint low, but used electric cars are hard to come by for the simple reason that EVs are not as common.
However, a 2018 report from the ICCT suggests that battery manufacturing life-cycle emissions debt is quickly paid off. The report says: “An electric vehicle’s higher emissions during the manufacturing stage are paid off after only 2 years compared to driving an average conventional vehicle, a time frame that drops to about one and a half years if the car is charged using renewable energy.”
Additionally, the report says that grid decarbonization offers a significant opportunity to reduce the impact of battery manufacturing. From the report: “The emissions from battery manufacturing are likely to decline significantly in coming decades, especially with the use of cleaner electricity throughout the production cycle. A 30% decrease in grid carbon intensity would reduce emissions from the battery production chain by about 17%.
Use of recycled materials and battery chemistries with lower carbon intensity could also reduce emissions in the manufacturing phase. Furthermore, the establishment of a second-life battery market could allow for electric car batteries to support the electric grid for years after their life in the vehicle, which would further reduce the emissions attributable to electric cars. Even as electric vehicles use larger batteries to allow longer electric-range travel, these improvements will allow for lower life-cycle emissions and will further increase electric cars’ life-cycle advantage over internal combustion engine vehicles.”
With all the science, research, innovation and investment going into EV manufacturing and EV battery recycling improvements, there’s no reason to think production emissions won’t be reduced very soon.
Concerns over limited range or lack of charging stations are quickly going away
One of the main fears that drivers have when they consider buying an electric vehicle over a gas car is that EVs have a limited range.
However, that’s unlikely to be a problem for the majority of drivers, since official statistics show that about 95% of all the daily trips taken by U.S. drivers are under 30 miles, meaning that electric batteries will have plenty of juice for your daily commute.
Topping an EV battery can take several hours but the good thing is that many drivers may be able to charge their cars overnight if they have chargers at home, or take advantage of free charging stations at parking lots and garages.
But regardless, if range is your top concern, there are plenty of EVs with ranges above 300 miles, including several models by Tesla, Rivian, Ford, and Kia. And it seems every year EV range continues to rise.
And 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 (if you want to know if there are any charging stations near you, check out this map.)
Higher sticker purchase price can be offset thanks to tax credits
Understandably, one of the first things that prospective buyers look into is price. Electric cars typically sell for around $10,000 more than an equivalent gas-powered vehicle.
But in actuality, the price difference is rarely as much because EV buyers can receive financial aid from federal and state governments.
All-electric and plug-in hybrid cars are eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500, with the size of the credit depending on the car’s battery capacity.
However, this credit starts phasing out after a carmaker has sold more than 200,000 electric or hybrid cars, meaning that they no longer apply to Tesla cars, which are by far the best selling EVs in the U.S., nor GM cars.
States also offer scores of economic incentives to help people buy electric vehicles and install chargers at home. Both New York and California offer a rebate for up to $2,000 that can be applied to a lease or purchase of an EV.
People living in some areas of California, like the South Coast and the San Francisco Valley, are eligible for additional economic incentives of up to $9,500 to help them replace old, polluting vehicles for clean cars, and in Washington State, many plug-in and electric vehicles qualify for a sales tax exemption.
But that’s not all. EV owners can sometimes insure their vehicles at a discount and some utility companies offer discounted prices for EV charging. Several states also provide rebates to help people purchase EV chargers, and the Revolt program in Minnesota allows EV car owners to ensure that the electricity that powers their cars comes from renewable resources at no additional cost and for the lifetime of the vehicle.
Finding out about all the economic incentives available in your state can feel overwhelming but the U.S. Department of Energy and Consumer Reports both offer comprehensive guides.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) could be a great choice for environmentally conscious drivers, especially those who tend to drive short distances. That’s because these cars are fitted with both a combustion and an electric engine, but they rely on their electric motor for propulsion until their battery packs are nearly depleted. Their batteries typically have enough juice for between 15 and 60 miles, which is often enough for a carbon-free commute. PHEV drivers who have a charger at home are able to top up their batteries regularly, hence drastically reducing their tailpipe emissions.
The federal government, as well as many states, also offers financial aid to help drivers purchase plug-in hybrids and these cars are often entitled to other perks such as access to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and designated spots in public parking lots.
Another option is to buy a standard hybrid car (not plug-in), which are fitted with smaller battery packs that are topped up by the combustion engine and through regenerative breaking but cannot be recharged using electricity from the grid. These cars are more fuel efficient than comparable gas vehicles but because they rely on their gas engines for propulsion, they are still to blame for a good deal of carbon emissions and air pollution.
The top speeds of EVs are slightly lower than those of comparable fuel cars but most models can easily top 170mph, well over the speed limit. In addition, they accelerate faster than gas-powered cars, with many models capable of going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under three seconds.
Yes. The battery packs are placed under the floor of the vehicle, giving EVs additional balance and weight distribution and allowing them to better-handle corners and curves, which makes for a more comfortable drive.
It depends on how often you drive, but the life expectancy of an EV depends largely on the battery packs, which tend to last 12 to 15 years in moderate climates and 8 to 12 years in extreme climates. Some carmakers offer long battery guarantees that can be extended for a fee. For example, both Tesla and Nissan guarantee their batteries for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Electric cars tend to cost more but drivers will save money over time because EVs are more efficient and, on a per-mile basis, it’s cheaper to recharge a battery than to refill a car’s gas tank. To find out more about the costs of owning an electric car in the long term check out the Vehicle Cost Calculator from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Data shows unequivocally that electric cars have a lower environmental footprint than gas cars. Compact EVs may be more environmentally friendly than larger sized EVs because they are powered by smaller battery packs that require fewer metals and minerals during the battery production phase. But if you’re switching from a gas car to an electric car—regardless of size—you’re making an eco-friendly decision.
It depends. Electricity prices vary per state and the time of the year. In addition, many utility companies offer discounted rates for EV charging or lower rates at night time.