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Essay: Electric Vehicles - The Way of the Future

· 15 min read
Ryan Reece

Electric vehicles appear to be everywhere these days, and many are packed with fancy features such as large format touchscreen displays and the ability to park and even drive themselves. However, there is more to the fancy bells and whistles adorned onto the latest Tesla, Ford, and Chevrolet electric vehicles compared to their traditional gas guzzling counterparts. Research shows in the United States that electric vehicles are a better alternative to gas-powered, internal combustion engine vehicles because they are just as safe, have lower operational costs, offer improved fuel efficiency, eliminate the need for traditional refueling, and provide environmental benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Electric vehicles are ostensibly the same as gas-powered, internal combustion engine vehicles, but they mainly differ in how their propulsion system operates. Internal combustion engine vehicles are powered by fossil fuels such as unleaded gasoline, diesel, or natural gas and operate by a chemical explosive reaction inside the engine which releases energy from the fuel to push a series of pistons. The movement of the pistons rotate a crankshaft which is connected to the vehicle’s axels to propel the wheels forward or backward depending on the gear setting. The chemical reaction inside the engine releases greenhouse gasses in the form of hydrofluorocarbons which are expelled through the vehicle’s exhaust system into the environment. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2013).

By comparison, electric vehicles operate using an electric traction motor attached to the drive train which is powered by chemical energy stored inside an electrical traction battery pack. The battery pack provides energy to the traction motor which drives the vehicle’s wheels forward or backwards depending on the gear setting controlled by the vehicle’s central computer. Energy coming from the battery pack is used to either drive the vehicle or for auxiliary electrical systems such as the speedometer, air conditioner, exterior and interior lights, and any other passenger comfort devices such as heated seats. Since the vehicle is powered by a closed-circuit electrical system, there is no need for an explosive chemical reaction which means that electric vehicles produce no exhaust and do not directly emit harmful greenhouse gasses into the environment. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2016).

Electric vehicles have certainly seen a rise in popularity over the last decade, but the first electric vehicles were introduced more than 100 years ago. In the late 1890s, a chemist by the name of William Morrison introduced a six-passenger electric vehicle which was capable of speeds up to 14 miles per hour and his work helped to foster interest the concept of electric vehicles among the public. Automakers took notice and began producing electric vehicles and municipalities such as New York City even deployed a fleet of electric taxis on their urban streets. Around the turn of the century in the early 1900s, electric vehicles accounted for nearly one third of all vehicles on the road. (Matulka, 2014).

Throughout the proceeding decades, the popularity and utility of electric vehicles continued to rise and then fall for a variety of reasons. Around the same time as the introduction of electric vehicles, gas-powered vehicles were brought to market due to the advances in technology surrounding the internal combustion engine. Initially, electric vehicles were easier to start, drive, and more pleasant compared to gas-powered vehicles which required a hand crank to start, were loud, and produced thick smoke from their exhaust system. Electric vehicles also provided limited utility because they required recharging with electricity which was only available in urban areas and their range was limited to 20-40 miles based on the size of the battery. Gas-powered vehicles continued to improve with the introduction of the electric starter which removed the need for a hand crank and the discovery of crude oil in Texas which caused gasoline to become cheaper and more available for rural Americans. (Matulka, 2014).

A critical blow was dealt to electric vehicles in 1908 when Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced Model T gas-powered vehicle which retailed for only $650 and then later reduced to $300. Compared to an electric roaster which cost $1,750, gas-powered vehicles became much more affordable and practical for American consumers. The United States continued to develop more sophisticated and interconnected road systems and the desire for people to get out and explore made gas-powered vehicles the only practical choice. Over the next 30 to 40 years electric vehicles received few enhancements compared to the many improvements to gas-powered, internal combustion engine vehicles and it was not until the 1970s when Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act that renewed interest in electric vehicles developed. (Matulka, 2014).

While Congressional action led to a renewal in the development and market offerings of electric vehicles, limitations of the technology still existed such as the fact that most vehicles could only drive up to 45 miles-per-hour and their travel range was about 40 miles before needing to be recharged. It was not until additional legislation such as the Clean Air Act Amendment, the Energy Policy Act, and emissions regulations imposed by the California Air Resources Board that automakers began additional investments into electric vehicle technology which helped to improve top speeds and ranges from 60 to 80 miles. (Matulka, 2014). Additional advancements such as the introduction of Toyota’s hybrid-electric vehicle, the Prius, and improvements in battery technology continued to bring the manufacturing cost down for electric vehicles and improve the range and utility of the technology. Industry disruptors such as Tesla Motors nurtured competition among automakers and helped to shift consumer sentiment towards the adoption of electric vehicles which resulted in many varieties of cars being available on the market today. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2021).

A common concern among consumers is whether electrical vehicles are as safe as traditional gas-powered vehicles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which is a governmental organization tasked with rating the overall safety of all passenger vehicles sold in the United States based on their frontal, side, and rollover crash results, electric vehicles from manufacturers such as Tesla, Chevrolet, and Ford have consistently scored four out of five-stars and in most cases five out of five-stars in their ratings from 2015 to 2021. (, 2015-2021). Many electric vehicle manufacturers such as Tesla Motors consistently achieve perfect five out of five-star ratings on every vehicle they make due to their superior vehicle design and company commitment to safety. Tesla electric vehicles are even equipped with advanced sensor arrays which can detect impending collisions to take evasive maneuvers and properly deploy air bags in an ergonomic method to maximize passenger survivability in accidents. (Tesla Motors, 2021).

While some electric vehicles may have a higher upfront purchase price, they are typically cheaper to operate in the long run compared to internal combustion engine vehicles due to their lower average cost per mile. Based on a study performed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity, internal combustion engine vehicles cost between $0.09 and $0.22 per mile to operate, depending on the market price for fossil fuels. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2014). In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration performed a market study and discovered that gasoline accounts for nearly 4% of pretax income for Americans and has been steadily rising from 2000 to 2013. According to the study, the average American family spends an average of $2,912 annually on fuel costs for their vehicles. (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2013).

The operational cost per mile for electrical vehicles is much lower at only $0.01 to $0.14 per mile based on the configuration of the electrical motor and on geographic electricity costs. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2014). Electric vehicles do not have the same maintenance needs and typical requirements for changing oil, transmission fluid, spark plugs, fuel filters, and drive belts are not needed. Their brakes usually last longer too due to regenerative braking technology which allows the kinetic energy from the vehicle’s movement to be transferred to energy for charging the vehicle’s battery. This action naturally slows the vehicle which results in less wear on the brake pads. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2016).

The dollar benefits for electric vehicles are not only limited to operational costs. Since 2010, the United States government provides tax incentives of up to $7,500 in federal tax credits for the purchase of a new electric vehicle. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2021). Additionally, many state and local municipal governments will provide more tax incentives for the adoption of electrical vehicles. In some states such as California, using an electric vehicle will also permit the driver to use the carpool or high occupancy vehicle lane on highways which results in quicker commute times and less time spent behind the wheel.

Electric vehicles convert the chemical energy stored inside their batteries into kinetic energy to drive with great efficiently. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, electric vehicles convert between 69% to 73% of the energy from the traction battery pack to power and rotate the wheels. Moreover, due to the process of regenerative braking, electric vehicles can recover about 17% of their lost electricity and transfer recovered energy to recharge the battery. This results in the total combined city and highway energy efficiency of electric vehicles to be between 86% and 90%. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2021). Therefore, most of the electrical energy stored in the battery is used to operate the vehicle and is not wasted.

By comparison, due to the explosive chemical reaction from fuel in internal combustion engine vehicles, between 68% and 72% of the fuel’s energy is lost in the form of heat transfer to the radiator, exhaust, combustion, pumping, and friction. Only about 12% to 30% of the energy from the fuel pumped into internal combustion engine vehicles is transferred into kinetic energy to rotate the wheels. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2021). Therefore, internal combustion engine vehicles lose most of their fuel energy and are overall less efficient to operate than electric vehicles.

Imagine the amount of time drivers spend commuting to the gas station or when a person leaves for work in the morning only to discover that they are low on fuel and need to make an extra stop. This situation does not typically exist with electric vehicles because most charging needs can be accomplished overnight at home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, many electric vehicle owners can achieve their charging needs for their daily commutes using only Level 1 electrical equipment from inside their homes. Level 1 equipment is standard in American homes, consists of a typical three prong 120-volt AC outlet, and can provide 2 to 5 miles of range per 1 hour of charging. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2021). Therefore, depending on the vehicle, most consumers can expect to receive 24 to 60 miles of range for each 12-hour period of charging.

For longer commutes, the U.S. Department of Energy indicates that charging needs can be achieved by Level 2 electrical equipment which is common in newer homes and can be retrofitted into older homes by an electrician. Level 2 equipment uses the same type of power connectors as electric dryers, provide 240-volts of AC power in typical residential applications, and results in 10 to 20 miles of range per 1 hour of charging. This means that consumers can gain 120 to 240 miles of range in a 12-hour period of charging.

If charging is needed while on the road, manufacturers of electric vehicles and public utilities have built out a vast network of supercharging stations. As of August 2021, there are 43,395 charging stations in the continental United States. Many supercharging stations can provide DC Fast Charging power which allows for 60 to 80 miles of range per 20 minutes of charging. (U.S. Department of Energy, 2021). Companies such as Tesla Motors have made commitments to expand both their vehicle range and their supercharging network. Tesla’s new Model S Long Range Plus vehicle can now drive up to 20% further and have achieved an official EPA-rated range of 402 miles. Companies such as Tesla are continuing to improve their supercharging capabilities and have launched their V3 supercharger in three continents which can deliver a 50% decrease in charge time compared to their previous generation of superchargers. (Tesla Motors, 2020).

The environmental benefits of switching from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles are difficult to ignore. Based on the annual “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks” report provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2019, transportation accounted for 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions primarily come from the burning of fossil fuels for cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes and over 90% of fuel used in transportation mainly comes from petroleum-based gasoline and diesel fuel. (U.S. EPA, 2019). The EPA also indicates that the average passenger vehicle produces roughly 404 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per mile and emits a total of about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. (U.S. EPA, 2021).

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics aggregates data about the number of registered aircrafts, vehicles, vessels, and other conveyances and indicates that as of 2019, there are over 276 million registered operational vehicles in the United States. (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2019). If each operational vehicle is producing about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, then the total amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year by all registered vehicles is astounding. 1.27 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the environment annually in the United States alone.

While electric vehicles do not directly emit harmful greenhouse gasses from tailpipes, emissions are still produced from upstream sources in the form of power generation from power plants. According to the EPA in 2019, electricity generation accounted for 25% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions primarily come from fossil fuel-based power generation such as the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas to produce electricity. However, since 1990 the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation has decreased by about 12% and continues to fall due to the adoption of cleaner, non-fossil fuel power plants such as nuclear, hydro dams, biomass, wind, and solar. (U.S. EPA, 2019). With the continued adoption of cleaner power generation capabilities, the source of electricity used to charge electric vehicles will improve and result in a lower environmental footprint.

Electric vehicles are not just the latest new technology or product that consumers must-have. While many electric vehicles boast amazing features and state-of-the-art technologies such as autopilot, they also represent an important step forward for human civilization and the sustainability of the planet. It has been demonstrated that electric vehicles are just as safe as their gas-powered counterparts according to safety ratings, they are overall much more economical and fuel efficient based on scientific data, provide the convenience to be able to refuel them at home, and have the potential to vastly reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the environment. It is time consumers embrace the reality that electric vehicles are here to stay and that they are the way of the future.