You might have heard the future of cars are electric. Here’s a shortlist from mashable that includes all the car manufacturers going electric only.
- Bentley - 2030
- Jaguar - 2030
- GM - 2035
- Volvo - 2030
- Ford - 2026 (EU only)
- Volkswagen - 2026
- Toyota - 2040
- Mercedes - 2035
This list means they are pledging to no longer produce cars that have combustion engines. Many other auto manufacturers are pledging to sell mostly electric vehicles and sell a small number traditional gas cars.
However, going forward there are a few problems.
- Charging infrastructure
- Roads without gas taxes
- Lithium supply
- Gas prices without scale
Perhaps a better solution might be moving towards plug-in hybrid electric cars rather than electric only. But first, let’s talk about some of the issues with electric only.
Electric cars draw huge amounts of power. Everyone running their A/C in the summer during a heat wave can cause rolling blackouts, imagine everyone plugging in their car. In some ways, electric cars can help as during high loads some cars (mainly Ford) can dump energy back into the grid, acting as a grid stabilizer. Power generation can scale, we can built more power plants, have bigger batteries , and generally scale that up. What is far harder and expensive is to scale up power delivery. We hear all the time that here in the US our infrastructure is crumbling. While I don’t have any hard data on that state of the grid as a whole, I think we can agree that it is expensive to maintain and every american household charging their car would put a strain on cars.
Roads are incredibly expensive. So expensive that I wrote a whole piece on it though it is a bit lengthy. Roads are massively expensive and we as the public don’t open think about it. In most cases, cities cannot fund roads as most of the property taxes you pay go to schools, libraries, and the state. Your city might only get a few hundred dollars a year from your home or apartment complex. Your share of road maintenance (depending on how much you drive) could easily reach the tens of thousands. Gax taxes are one way to capture funding for infrastructure and we rely on them to the degree that some states have fees for electric vehicles to try and capture the taxes from what you would have spent on gas. Federal gas taxes maintain interstates and state gas taxes try to do the same for local roads and highways. Some states (such as Washington, Maine, and Nevada) are experimenting with Road Use Charges (RUCs) which assesses extra taxes at registration time for the amount of miles you have driven. This might be more appealing than paying a large several thousand dollar lump sum when you buy an electric vehicle to some, but it isn’t ideal when many forces are pushing so hard for the public to buy more electric.
Hackaday has an excellent writeup about lithium, how it is turned into batteries, and if we have enough but the short answer is yes and no. We definitely have enough to give everyone a car on the planet but no we don’t have enough that’s easily accessible. To have enough, we’d need to perfect new technology for extraction and recycling that currently don’t exist. However, looking at oil, as demand grew, we found new techniques that increased production and economic viability. So it is entirely possible there. Rare earth materials such as cobalt are a large problem. Half the entire world’s supply is DR Congo, which is an infamously exploited area of the world. When you need to certify that your battery is likely child slavery free, maybe it is time to rethink a few things. The amount of cobalt in each battery has been steadily declined and new batteries such as the LFP in the Tesla Model 3 are cobalt free but moving the world to cobalt-free is a long journey.
There will be a pain point in between gas and electric. When half the nation has electric and the other half has gas, what happens to gas stations when half their demand dries up? What happens to gasoline producers? Some might close and some might cut back production. The artificially low prices of gas that Americans have enjoyed for decades will continue to rise as it becomes less of a commodity and more of a luxury good. Obviously that is from a large macro scale and a prediction that might not hold true. Diesel is used primarily by trucks and it usually isn’t that much more than gas and fairly readily available. Additionally, I suspect that cities will more likely to electrify before rural communities, so the gas pump in your small town might go anywhere anytime soon.
But if we continue on this path, there will come when a traditional ICU car will run out of gas in town and there won’t be a gas pump for miles.
The Case For Plugins
None of these things are insurmountable obstacles in the way of our march towards electrification. They can be overcome. But let me explain how a plugin hybrid (PHEV) might alleviate some of these issues.
For starters, the term PHEV has a bit of a range. It can be a traditional car with a small motor and battery for an assist around town. Or it can be a full electric car with a small gas engine as a generator.
Between the two I prefer the latter but we’ll get to that.
The basic idea is that for going around town you can use the battery and on road trips you use the gas. The average american drives around 37 miles a day, which is an average electric only range for PHEVs.
While I’m having trouble finding good data about the distribution of miles driven on a highway vs city driving., this chart from 2009 shows that trips that are 31 miles or more make up around 5% of trips that americans take. Could you take multiple trips in one day? Yes. But the point I’m making is that if you just upgraded every american to an PHEV, you could cut the average american’s gas mileage from 14,263 to just 700 miles (just one or two roadtrips a year). You could capture 95% of the benefit of electric cars in terms of emissions for 20% of the lithium.
You might point out that we are using almost the same amount of power and the electrical grid will still need augmentation. I’ll counter that you’re not charging huge batteries up and a PHEV battery can fill up on a charger in just an hour or two versus the four or five that a full EV takes. This reduces the number of concurrent grid users, which reduces strain.
Gas prices are still an issue but as there is still some need, it might stay a commodity for longer. With an electric vehicle on roadtrips, you need to stop at superchargers, which per mile, are often close to or more than what gas costs , though this might change in the future.
Local roads are still an issue since you are buying 95% less gas but the gas you buy to drive on highways and freeways can still go towards those roads.
So when you’re thinking about a new car, think about a PHEV. I got a fully electric vehicle for my last car purchase and I love it, but I think next time I might look a little more closely at PHEVs.