Just how clean are electric cars? That’s the question a recent report commissioned by a number of car makers and component suppliers purported to investigate. It came up with an answer that could broadly be summarised as “not as clean as you thought”. It wasn’t long before the whole thing became mired in controversy, and the boss of one of the sponsors, Aston Martin, quickly distanced himself from the report.
One claim in particular attracted a great deal of attention – that a typical electric car would need to be driven 48,000 miles before it could “break even” compared with fossil-fuelled cars, in emissions terms. I don’t think anyone has ever really disputed that electric cars start life with an environmental deficit, because of the energy and raw materials that go into their construction. Their advantage comes from the fact that they are much cleaner in use, so that their overall lifetime environmental impact should be much smaller than that of a petrol or a diesel vehicle.
But while the idea of a “break even” mileage for electric cars is a familiar one, nobody else seems to think the crossover point is as high as the number the report came up with. One leading expert in the field, the Dutch academic Auke Hoekstra, thinks the number is something more like 16,000 miles.
That said, even if the figure of 48,000 miles was correct, with the average car probably being good for 100,000 miles, that still leaves plenty of life left for an electric car to haul things back.
My own view is that the relative carbon savings of electric cars will be bigger because they are likely to last longer than their ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) counterparts. They have fewer moving parts and require less servicing, so will keep going for longer. Cheaper running costs are likely to mean higher residual values, which makes it more likely that an electric car will be fixed, rather than scrapped if a big bill does come along. The biggest fear of most drivers when it comes to electric vehicle longevity, declining battery performance, is turning out to be less of a problem than expected, and in any case, aftermarket specialists, such as Muxsan, have come up with replacement battery options that can rejuvenate an older electric car.
Another powerful – and often underestimated – contributor to carbon savings for electric cars is that they get cleaner as they get older. That’s because the electricity grid is being decarbonised as more renewables, such as wind, come on stream. That means even a decade-old Nissan Leaf is greener now than it was the day it left the showroom. If its owner installs solar panels at home, it will get greener still.
Finally, I don’t think the case for electric cars rests solely on their environmental benefits. Of course, I’m convinced that they are greener and can make a significant contribution to saving the planet. They can also clean up the air that city-dwellers breathe, bringing health benefits. For those reasons, we have to make the switch.
But imagine a world in which electric and fossil-fuelled cars have a level playing field, each having the same overall costs, and exactly the same environmental impact. Even under those conditions, I think electric cars still win – they are simply better. They are much easier to drive than a petrol or a diesel car, including even the automatic variety. That’s because driving a fossil-fuelled automatic still involves a certain amount of unconscious effort because you spend much of your time trying to anticipate or prompt the changes of the automatic gearbox. An electric car usually has a single fixed gear, so you really can just press the throttle and go.
Even inexpensive electric cars deliver what would, a few years ago, have been supercar acceleration, as well as powertrain refinement to match a Rolls-Royce. Which brings us to perhaps the biggest and most unexpected advantage of electric cars – their effortlessness and low levels of what the industry calls NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) makes them the first choice for low-fatigue driving. It’s a quality that was completely obscured by the limited range of early electric models, but has now become clearer as battery capacities have increased.
The conclusion? Electric cars are happening, and it’ll take more than a shaky research report to stop them.