Are Electric Cars the Answer to the Growing Environmental Problems?

Thanks to the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” it seems that lately there has been quite a buzz surrounding these vehicles and their potential to help us lead a much more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Back in the late 1990s, the electric car was all the rage.  It was touted not only as an environmentally friendly vehicle, but as a better overall vehicle than the regular internal combustion engine vehicles that dominated (and still dominate) the roads. 

The electric cars essentially worked by running on large batteries that you were able to recharge either at home or at specialized recharging stations by simply plugging in the car to an electric socket.  Really not that difficult.  

Despite the considerable talk surrounding the electric car, it failed due to lack of support from the major car manufacturers, and the plug was pulled on the electric vehicle in the early 2000s (yes, that pun was intentional).

Thanks to vehicles like the Tesla Roadster and the Audi R-Zero concept car, it certainly seems like the electric car is on its way back.

Here’s a list of pros and cons that I was able to pull together from various online resources:


  • Are zero emission vehicles.
  • Provide a quieter ride when compared to regular cars.
  • Are much less expensive to maintain when compared to regular cars.
  • Very little drop off in performance when compared to regular cars.


  • Have a limited driving distance between charges.
  • Even though the vehicle itself doesn’t release any emissions, the electricity used to recharge the car typically comes from a pollution producing power plant.
  • There aren’t many charging stations, so it almost has to be used exclusively as a commuting vehicle.

It seems to me that the most compelling argument against electric cars is the fact it appears that they merely transfer the point of pollution.  While the car itself is pollution free, pollution producing power plants have to do work (recharging the cars) that they probably wouldn’t do otherwise.

That being said, if someone offered me one of those Tesla Roadsters, I certainly wouldn’t turn it down!


  1. The car is MOSTLY pollution free you are “just shifting” the pollution up the line…

    BUT you have to look at the ENTIRE process for both gasoline internal combustion engines as well as electric motors. With gas you have to consider (1) pumping the oil, (2) pumping the oil through pipelines, (3) transporting the oil, (4) offloading the oil and transporting it to a refinery, (5) refining the oil into gasoline, (6) distributing the oil to gas stations, (7) and finally burning the gasoline in your car, it turns out that even the dirtiest coal fed power plant with distribution of the power across the grid and finally into your electric car is CLEANER than using gasoline.

    And we can always use “cleaner” or “greener” sources of energy to feed into the grid.

  2. The “long tailpipe” argument should be pretty easy to debunk. Due to its high efficiency, even an electric car powered completely from coal-burning plants (which is really the worst case) should produce somewhat less pollution than a gasoline powered car. As you add other electricity sources to the mix — any other sources, because they’re all cleaner than coal — then the advantage of the electric car increases.

    Furthermore. . . Many power plants sit “idling” at night when demand for electricity is low, producing power that isn’t needed. It isn’t practical to shut the plant down at night and cold-start it every morning. We could support at least several million electric cars in the USA powered solely from this otherwise wasted energy production.

    And furthermore again. . . Gasoline refineries also consume a lot of electrical power! As the quality of crude oil has gradually declined worldwide, more energy (and large amounts of hydrogen) are being required to refine it into gasoline. We may be near the point where refining a gallon of gasoline takes more energy that it would take to propel an electric car the same distance.

  3. Joe – thanks for the comment, and that is a great point. To be honest, I didn’t even take that into consideration when writing the post, so thanks for pointing that out.

  4. Tony – thanks for the comment. Again, I failed to take many of your points into consideration when writing the post. These are certainly all very valid and help to show that the electric car may very well be a great alternative to the internal combustion car.

  5. Dr. Peter Roberts says

    But where and when can I buy an electric car with a range in excess of 200 miles. I live in UK. Will the Japanese beat us to it?

  6. Dr. Roberts – thanks for the comment. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea about where or when you might be able to purchase an electric car. However, like all of these other alternative vehicles, it seems to me that you’re probably going to be waiting at least three years.

  7. I don’t have a crystal ball. However, the first Tesla Roadsters are meant to ship near the end of 2007, and they have a stated range of 250 miles. They are somewhat specialized vehicles (2-seater, high-performance sports cars) and will be sold only in USA for the time being. The pre-order waiting list already extends well into 2008 for those, and a hefty deposit is required to get onto the list.

    I also have read that Tesla Motors are targeting a range of 200 miles or better for a four-door car, which they hope to begin selling in 2009. It will be produced in larger numbers and sold more widely. They want to take their sales international as soon as their production volume and other resources allow.

    General Motors is working on the Chevy Volt, which is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) rather than pure electric, but they intend that it can drive 40 miles on battery power before switching on its range extender, which comprises an internal combustion engine and generator. GM are aiming for 2010 production at the earliest, depending on how battery technology develops.

    There are a number of other companies, both large and small, working on electric vehicles and their close relatives PHEVs. Some, such as Tesla and General Motors, are talking openly about what they are working on, while others are secretive. For example, Toyota have announced they want to make a PHEV, but nothing else is known about it. If this new generation of electrics are successful, I’m sure more car makers will bring models to the market.

    The main obstacles holding things up are the cost and service life of lithium-ion batteries. Tesla’s batteries are good for 100,000 miles, but car companies would really like to double that and make them last the full life of the car. To bring costs down, mass production will be needed. Even with mass production, a premium will remain over the price of gasoline-powered cars in return for much reduced operating costs (fuel and maintenance).

  8. How does Tesla know what is the “life of their batteries”?
    Seems to me, it’d depend on how the battery was used and cared for, i.e., how often run flat, how often recharged, how hard was it driven… etc.
    I dunno but I suspect there’s some black magic goin on here…

  9. Jeff,

    Although I don’t have first-hand experience with the batteries that Tesla is using, I do know a little about the batteries used in the Toyota Prius.

    The “life of a battery” (any battery) can be statistically estimated based on average load placed on the battery, the number of recharges (and what type, deep cycle, trickle, etc.).

    Just like the battery in your current car, it has a load rating and all that fun stuff.

    Toyota specifically disabled their “Electric Only” mode for the US Prii so as to reduce the DEEP cycles on the battery pack and increase the length of the effective battery use (in months/years).

    Anyhow, don’t know if it helps, but there’s my two bits.

  10. Paul Garingo says

    How I wish that electric cars would come to my country’s shores soon. Philippine pump prices have been rising almost weekly. We are heavily dependent upon petrol and it would certainly take a while to wean us out of our dependency. Surely, Big Oil and their cohorts in politics will make that a difficult task.

  11. kia manu says

    I live in hawii we are veryself concins about being green but I think that the eletric cars are a good idea because you do use less gas my husband Kona does not have a good paying I am a stay at home mom to Maci and Kaloni. Personaly it is a great idea because of all of te money you save.

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