Common Myths About Electric Cars, and How to Debunk ‘Em
The enemies of electric cars are out in full force — every hour of every day, a flood of FUD pours forth, not only on the sewers of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but on the sites of respectable newspapers, magazines and other media sites. Sometimes the misinformation is repeated — innocently or intentionally — by politicians and corporate execs.
The majority of these anti-EV screeds make use of a standard repertoire of myths, most of which have been thoroughly debunked. However, it can be hard to pull up the relevant citations at a moment’s notice, and if you rebut a troll without providing a link to a scientific study or other factual source, then you’re just playing their game. An assertion without facts to back it up is the equivalent of something someone told you at a bar.
So, to ease your advocacy efforts, we’ve compiled this handy list of sources that debunk the most common anti-EV myths.
The Long Tailpipe
This one has been around as long as electric cars have, and it will probably never die. Like every great lie, it’s constructed around a grain of truth: the emissions footprint of a particular EV depends on the generation mix of the electric grid that’s used to charge it. However, this issue has been investigated and discussed in great depth for the last decade (despite the false claim that the issue has been “ignored” by the media), and the vast majority of studies have concluded that, even if an EV were charged from a 100% coal-powered grid, it would still emit less pollutants per mile than an average ICE vehicle.
Furthermore, no such ideally dirty grid exists, except possibly in a couple of regions of China, and utilities around the world are steadily cleaning up their fuel mixes, so electric cars get a little cleaner every year, while the emissions from an ICE vehicle remain the same (or get worse) throughout its life.
There are a few contrarian studies out there that support the “EVs’ dirty little secret” narrative, but on closer examination, most of these demonstrably contain errors such as exaggerating the emissions of battery production, underestimating battery lifetime, excluding emissions associated with fossil fuel production, and using lab tests paid for by auto manufacturers. Also — surprise, surprise — most have been funded and/or promoted by fossil-fuel-friendly interests. In one case, a “study” that was widely cited in the media turned out to be a fraud created from whole cloth by an automaker.
In another case, a 2019 study from a German research institute that reached some puzzling conclusions was promptly debunked in detail by German news magazines Focus and WirtschaftsWoche, and, ironically, by Volkswagen, which was once the world’s leading champion of diesel vehicles.
Over the years, I’ve reported on dozens of Long Tailpipe-related studies, and I won’t list them all here. The most recent that I’m aware of was conducted by Ford and the University of Michigan, and published in 2022. In a 2020 article, I included links to over a dozen studies that debunk the Long Tailpipe canard, as well as contrarian ones. In a humorous piece from 2022, I also include a list of links to relevant research.
A recent variant of the Long Tailpipe invokes the environmental footprint of manufacturing EV batteries. This one also accreted around a grain of truth — making batteries is in fact carbon-intensive, but an EV’s lower tailpipe emissions cancel out its “climate backpack” after a fairly short time on the road, as a 2022 Yale study demonstrated. Experts have different estimates of how long this payback period takes, as I pointed out in a letter to The New Yorker, which unfortunately repeated some misleading information about EVs in a recent article.
Another valuable resource is Carbon Counter, which displays the lifetime emissions and costs of most auto models sold in the US market.
Batteries Can’t Be Recycled
This one also crops up quite often, and usually includes the implication that toxic materials from batteries are going to end up in landfills. This one can be refuted with a couple of facts and a dose of common sense (at least for people who are influenced by such things).
According to a 2019 report from Battery Council International, around 99 percent of lead-acid batteries sold in the US are recycled, making them the most recycled consumer product in the country. (This doesn’t mean that they’re green — lead recycling is a highly polluting industry.) It’s too early to tell what percentage of the batteries in electric cars will get recycled, but some of the raw materials used in lithium-ion batteries are much more valuable than lead, so there are strong incentives to recycle them.
Furthermore, like sports stars and politicians, used EV batteries have a highly lucrative second career open to them. Once a battery has lost a substantial amount of its capacity, making it inadequate for use in an EV, it’s still quite valuable in a second-life stationary storage application. Many companies are developing this technology, and at least one is already earning money at it. Once its second life has run its course, it’s off to the recycling facility — not the landfill.
Many, many companies, including automakers, battery-makers and dedicated recycling startups such as Redwood Materials (run by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel), are working to build a “circular supply chain” for batteries. A recent article from CIC energiGUNE presents a primer on the technology and economics of battery recycling, and includes a handy graphic that lists a hundred or so companies and research institutions that are working on battery recycling in Europe alone — that represents an awful lot of effort and investment in recycling a product that supposedly can’t be recycled.
EV Tires And Brakes Cause Particulate Pollution
The idea behind this trope is that because EVs tend to be heavier than ICE vehicles, their brake pads and tires wear more quickly, producing higher amounts of fine particulate matter, a pollutant that contributes to respiratory diseases. The source of this notion is a 2020 press release from Emissions Analytics, which states that pollution from a car’s tires can be 1,000 times higher than its exhaust emissions.
The Royal Automobile Club Foundation (RAC) commissioned battery expert Dr. Euan McTurk to study the issue and prepare a report. In summary, Dr. McTurk found that EVs’ brakes wear far more slowly than those of legacy vehicles (we all know how regenerative braking works, right?), and that tire wear is similar for non-driven wheels, and only slightly worse for driven wheels.
As for the PR from Emissions Analytics, Dr. McTurk notes that it “stated that a car they tested shed 9.28 grams of particulate matter per mile from its tires,” then points out that a typical car tire weighs around 9 kg, so if a car shed as much particulate matter as these public-spirited folks would have us believe, its tires would physically disappear after less than 4,000 miles of driving.
Charging Stations Are Run By Diesel Generators
This one has been showing up a lot lately, in many variations — most feature a photo of an EV charging station next to what appears to be a diesel generator, and some “calculations” demonstrating that an EV being charged in this way gets the equivalent of some abysmally low fuel efficiency, such as 5 mpg. One variant shows “a gas powered van, towing a diesel generator charging an electric car.” In fact, the “generator” is a battery-powered portable charging station.
Another photo, widely circulated on Facebook, shows a charging station at an outlet mall in Texas. In the background are some metal boxes that might look like generators, but aren’t (they’re probably transformers). Electrify America, which operates the charging station, called the claim that it uses electricity from a diesel generator “absolutely false.” (Facebook now labels the claim “partly false information”).
Yet another variation on this popular piece of poppycock shows a Blink charging station at a Texas airport in front of what is indeed a diesel generator. However, the latter has nothing to do with the former. A spokesperson for Blink clarified that “the charging station is not powered by the diesel generator or connected to it. To our knowledge, the generator is for emergency lighting and other amenities for the parking lot only and is designed for backup power for the terminal. The generator is not in operation unless there is an emergency, and the main power is off.”
Now, there are such things as diesel-powered charging stations for electric cars, but they’re designed for remote locations where grid power isn’t available. An Australian engineer named Jon Edwards built one in 2018 as an experiment, to see whether it would be a viable solution for EV drivers facing endless drives across the Outback. A photo of his diesel-powered charging solution, which paired a generator with a Tritium Veefil 50 kW DC charger, has been gleefully circulated by the anti-EV crowd ever since.
Now here’s the ironic part: Edwards and some members of the Tesla Owners Club Western Australia tested it with 10 different electric cars, and found that the resulting fuel efficiency was higher than that of a comparable diesel-powered car — a BMW i3 got the equivalent of around 54 mpg, and a Tesla reached about 34 mpg — slightly better than the efficiency of a VW Touareg. (The physical reasons for this are the same as the ones that invalidate the Long Tailpipe hypothesis: large generators or power plants are more efficient than small engines, and electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines.) Others have estimated that an EV charged by a typical generator would get something between 40 to 60 miles per gallon equivalent.
There’s Always More …
So, dear readers, you’re now equipped to refute some of the most popular anti-EV bugaboos with facts. Unfortunately, there are plenty more out there. What do you say to someone who claims that lithium is going to become “the new oil?” (Lithium isn’t a fuel, it isn’t scarce, and despite the name, lithium-ion batteries don’t use much lithium.) What do you say to your anarchist uncle who’s worried about electromagnetic radiation from electric motors? (A tinfoil hat will keep you perfectly safe.) How do you reassure someone who’s afraid it’s unsafe to charge electric cars in the rain? (Don’t laugh! An article in The New York Times posed this preposterous problem!)
There’s enough material out there for ten more articles like this one, so watch this space.
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