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Can the Problems of the Future be Solved with Technology from the Past?

Are electrical cars winning the race towards a more sustainable future?

Electric cars are often portrayed as an invention created to solve the issue of pollution generated from the exhaust emission of gasoline cars, but the electric car has been around the block before! The first electric vehicle (EV) was developed by Robert Anderson – a Scottish inventor – in 1847. And while the world has drastically changed in the past 176 years, both the benefits and problems of EV’s remain much the same. Will the same reasons that caused EV’s to fade into the background all those years ago cause its downfall once more – or will EV’s finally get the spotlight they deserve?

One of the main reasons why EV’s were left in the past was that gasoline powered cars were simply the more affordable option. When faced between paying $1750 for an electric car as opposed to $650 for a gasoline car, most of the population chose the latter, more economic option. This price discrepancy is the same dilemma most consumers face today. Due to the high demand and short supply, the most basic EV model available currently available comes to a total of $42,000. However, in contrast to the past, governments are offering incentives in the form of rebates and insurance companies are offering lower insurance rates for EV’s in the hopes that this will help consumers take the plunge. The Government of Quebec provides up to $7,000 rebate on purchases of new EV’s and the Government of Canada offers up to $5000. While this still leaves a hefty price tag up front, the overall cost in the long term is significantly lower for EV’s. This is primarily due to discrepancy between the cost of electricity and the ever-rising cost of gasoline. According to a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, the average cost of “fueling” an EV was $485 a year, compared to $1,117 for a gas-powered vehicle. In addition to this, EV’s require a lot less maintenance, thus saving you an additional $100/month. The hope is that in the coming years, the increased production and availability of EV’s puts them at a price that most people can afford up front.

There was no doubt in the 1800’s that EV’s provided a more sophisticated form of transport. EV’s didn’t come along with smoky air, noisy roads or the need for changing gears. These characteristics remain true today! Implementing more EV’s will reduce noise pollution in addition to the exhaust emissions, which may – as a bonus- reduce health problems related to breathing polluted air. However, driving an EV is likely to be a learning curve for most individuals. The smaller ranges and longer charging times require more planning than most people are used to. For longer trips during the day, it might be a good idea to look for chargers along the route to avoid “range anxiety”. I have experienced this myself, especially during winter months, when the range can change suddenly under harsh conditions. Since charging stations are still relatively sparse – there are 2.15 charging stalls per 100 EV’s in Quebec – the likelihood of being stranded on the side of the road is slightly higher than most people are comfortable with. Although, the Government of Canada is hoping to drastically increase the number of charging stations throughout the country in the upcoming years – some may even be wireless! If you are planning on charging during the day, it is also important to consider the charging time in advance. Recharging the battery of an EV can take anywhere from 1 hour to 12 hours. This is not typically a problem for people who drive short range, as they can charge it overnight at home, but for people with longer commutes, it may generate greater inconveniences. Finally, the efficiency of EV’s is largely reduced due to the heavy batteries they are equipped with as these normally weigh around 1000lbs! That’s akin to carrying a baby elephant in the hood of your car everywhere you go.

Interest in EV was reignited at the end of the 20th century due to increasing oil prices, gasoline shortages and emerging concern over greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since then, interest in EV’s has surged particularly in an attempt to reduce environmental damage caused by exhaust emissions from gasoline cars. This is because they account for 27 percent of the total GHG emissions in Canada. While EV’s are often promoted as “zero emission vehicles”, this isn’t the whole story. EV’s are zero exhaust emission vehicles. That is, they do not rely on the combustion of fuel and thus don’t produce emissions while operating. However, manufacturing of EV’s -primarily the lithium batteries – heavily relies on burning of fossil fuel and can generate between 2.5 and 16 metric tons of CO2 per battery. This is significantly higher than the CO2 produced when manufacturing a gas car. This being said, the total sum of GHG emissions produced by an EV throughout its life is significantly lower than that of a gas car. These emissions can be further reduced if the electricity grid that is used to charge EV’s is generated by green energy sources such as, hydro, wind or solar. The use of clean electrical grid’s for EV’s is essential to reducing the emissions resulting from passenger transport.

There are several questions still being asked regarding the viability of adopting EV’s as the transportation method of choice. What will happen to the gasoline cars that are traded in for EV’s? Can these be remodelled to EV’s? Is the production of lithium batteries more harmful than the production of gasoline cars? Can the batteries be recycled in a green manner once they are no longer efficient? Will the price difference further increase the discrepancies between different socio-economic classes?

Transitioning from gasoline vehicles to EV’s is no easy task. It requires changes on both an individual level as well as a collective level. While it has the potential to reduce the GHG emissions from the passenger transport sector significantly, one must ask themselves – is there a more sustainable, accessible and effective solution?


@DanielaPadres

Daniela is a third-year Physiology student at McGill University.

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