Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Case For and Against Electric Vehicles in the US

By Jineet PatelPublished October 2, 2016

Electric cars represent the next evolution of the automobile industry. Cited as safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly, electric cars are often considered the best way to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector. However, there are also certain disadvantages with electric vehicles that are often overlooked or even unknown by the general public. It is important to investigate both sides of the story before committing to an automobile evolution.

By Jineet Patel, 10/2/16

In our world where climate change is a concern, countries need to do everything in their power to reduce carbon emissions and work towards a sustainable future. One way to tackle this is in the transportation sector where majority of greenhouse gas emissions are due to conventional combustion engines run on gasoline and diesel. In 2011's State of the Union Address, President Obama set a goal for the US to have 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. To support this initiative, he pledged over 2 billion dollars of federal funds support research and development of efficient and cost-effective electric vehicles.
An electric vehicle is defined as "any motor vehicle that can be recharged from an external source of electricity where the charge is stored in rechargeable battery packs which drive or contributes to drive the wheels." Though electric cars seem very novel and futuristic, it is important for the public to understand both the advantages and disadvantages. This is especially important as countries start initiatives to make electric cars as popular and common as conventional vehicles. 
As of May 2016, the US has hit the 500,000 electric car milestone and represents the largest electric vehicle share of any country in the world. Each of those cars comes with wide array of benefits both to the direct consumer as well as to society as a whole.  One of the most beneficial aspects of owning an electric vehicle over a conventional one is lower operating and maintenance costs. On a general level, internal combustion engines are not efficient at converting fuel to motor force. On the other hand, electric vehicles are very efficient and only consume energy when in motion.  Apart from this, electric vehicles are much cheaper to run as the price of electricity is very low and more consistent than the price of gasoline and diesel, which fluctuates greatly. For an all-electric car, the cost per mile is less than 5 cents while conventional cars, assuming a 3-dollar per gallon average, cost more than 10 cents per mile. Even plug-in hybrid cars have much cheaper operating costs than normal cars. Another advantage with electric vehicles is the lack of local tail-pipe pollutions. By utilizing electricity, and ultimately the electric grid, there are no local greenhouse gas emissions that are associated with conventional vehicles. Another advantage of electric vehicles is that regulation of environmental impacts is easier to handle. Because of the difficulties in regulating individual sources of emissions, conventional vehicles are not regulated directly. On the other hand, electric vehicles can be regulated together as they are all connected to the electric grid. Lastly, electric vehicle technology is still in its infant phase and will continue to get more efficient and effective. Overall, the arrow is pointed up for electric vehicles in terms of performance and efficiency.
            However, it is easy to get lost in the novelty of electric vehicles. It is equally important to examine the disadvantages that are associated with manufacturing and operating electric vehicles. The most important point is that electric cars are not really zero-emission technology. In fact, the manufacturing and development of most electric cars require emission-heavy processes, with special metals and alloys being the main culprit. Electric cars still require electricity to run, which comes from an added load to the nation's electric grid. The US, and most major countries, primarily utilize fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas to produce electricity. The point here is that although electric cars are more efficient at converting fuel to force, that fuel still indirectly comes primarily from fossil fuels, which limits the benefits of electric cars. Another major issue with electric cars is the significantly higher starting price. Primarily driven by the high cost of large battery packs, electric vehicles are much more expensive to produce. In the US and most developed countries, the government (and often the states) have to provide significant subsidies in order to increase sales. Overall, electric vehicles are expensive for both the government and the auto industry. The last issue with implementing electric vehicles on the national scale is the lack of charging infrastructure. Most electric cars do not have all-electric ranges over 200 miles so public charging stations are a must for long-distance trips. The lack of charging stations turns away many potential customers.  
            Overall, electric vehicles represent the latest evolution of the automobile industry. Governments, both national and state, and automobile companies are pumping money into the development of electric vehicles. It is now more important than ever to investigate both the advantages and disadvantages of replacing conventional cars with electric cars.  On the individual level, electric vehicles offer a safe and efficient alternative to conventional vehicles. However, multiple problems arise on the national level. These include the costs of developing and manufacturing electric vehicles, the subsidies that the government has to provide in order to convince people to purchase electric vehicles, and the potential overloading of the electric grid because of electric vehicles. Both sides of the story need to be shared with the public before taxpayer dollars and valuable time is spent on replacing conventional vehicles with electric cars.  The presence of electric vehicles is increasing in the United States and although President Obama's goal was not achieved in 2015, the arrow is still pointed up for electric vehicles.