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The False Promise of Electric Vehicles

Manufacturers and purchasers of electric and hybrid vehicles are some of the big winners in the stimulus package which Congress passed last month. The bill includes both tax cuts and outright grants. Next year, for example, the purchasers of the first 200,000 cars sold by each manufacturer will be able to take a tax credit for the first $7,500 of the car’s purchase price. The manufacturers will be offered $10 million in loans for “advanced vehicle” research. They will also be able to deduct up to 30% of their research expenses. $400 million in grants will go to local governments to improve “charging infrastructure” and buy electric and alternative fuel vehicles for municipal fleets (Stimulus Bill). The bill is one of the biggest packages of electric vehicle aid in history. It is part of a long series of aid packages, tax cuts, and special treatment given to the alternative vehicle interests.

Alternative vehicles are fashionable these days, but are they good public policy?  An efficient, low-emission car is still a car.  As a technology, cars have numerous serious drawbacks which have nothing to do with gas mileage for emissions.   It is easy to listen to the hybrid hype or buy into the pre-packaged utopian visions of electric vehicles.  To do so, however, requires ignoring a number of basic problems.

Cars pollute and consume at every stage of their life cycle, not just when they are being driven.  The factories themselves are powered by coal-burning electrical plants.    Like every large scale manufacturing enterprise they pollute the air and produce solid waste at an alarming rate.  It has been estimated that “By the time a car leaves the assembly line, its manufacture – including extraction and transport of the raw materials that go into it – has generated 29 tons of solid waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of air emissions.” (Alvord 84).  The completed cars are usually shipped thousands of miles to a dealership by big, dirty freighters and trucks.  A car continues to consume fresh water, lubricants, and other resources throughout its life.  Some of these can be recycled but it is an energy intensive process.  When a car is worn out (often after only ten years or so) it is crushed so its metals can be extracted.  Everything else goes straight to the landfill.  Modern cars have a lot of plastic parts, few of which can be easily recycled.  Every one of these environmental objections is as true for an electric car or a hybrid as for a conventional car.

Cars need roads to operate.  Busy roads divide neighborhoods.  They are a hazard to pedestrians, bicyclists and animals.  Electric vehicles are even more dangerous than conventional vehicles because they are so quiet.  Furthermore, large paved surfaces create their own environmental problems such as point source pollution, urban heat island effects, and toxic run-off from road deicing.  From an aesthetic point of view, freeways and parking lots are simply ugly.   

Many people argue that we simply can not live without cars.  They claim that cars are a necessary evil.  Thy claim that people will never give up cars, so the government needs to support the development of the cleanest cars possible.  This argument does not hold up when you consider than no other county in the world uses cars as much as we do.  In fact, the only reason cars have such a hold on American culture is because our government has been subsidizing roads and automotive companies for the last century.  If the government ceases to support cars, then people will quickly learn that they do not need them so much.

Even in this country many people live quite happily without a car.  Others use their cars only on weekends or share a car with someone else.  In other countries most people ride bikes, walk, or take trains.  Rather than funneling money into the latest fad in automotive technology, the government should be supporting grants for neglected areas such as public transportation, bicycle safety education, and urban planning for walkable neighborhoods.  Every dollar spent to subsidize alternative vehicles is a dollar that can not be spent elsewhere.  Other transportation options can be a far more efficient use of the same money.

Public transportation vehicles like buses and trains are just as damaging to manufacture as cars.  However, they last much longer and serve more people.  A typical hybrid car is used by a single person to get to work, where it then sits idle all day until it is time to go home.  A train or bus, on the other hand, is generally in constant service for twelve or more hours a day.  Trains carry hundreds of passengers and buses dozens.  Many car commuters can not even find one other person to carpool with them.  When the resource cost of various vehicles are amortized over their useful life or the number of people transported, all passenger cars are many times as expensive as public transportation.

Public transportation also takes up less road space than individual passenger cars.  A simple two-lane bus-way can carry more people per hour than the largest freeways.   Train tracks are much narrower than roads.  Neither cars nor buses require a parking lot in the sense that cars do.  Public transportation is more efficient than private car ownership in every way.

Lovers of hybrids and electric vehicles would do well to remember that all trains are electric.  Light rail trains run directly off of the city power grid while larger trains are hybrids.  A diesel generator creates energy to run the electric motors in the wheels. Hybrid busses are becoming viable.  Those that burn clean alternative fuels are already common.  The Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles, for instance, runs mostly natural gas buses.

Even public transportation, as efficient as it is, can never compare with bicycles.  Bicycles are human powered.  They produce no emissions, encourage public health, and last nearly forever.  A strong cyclist can haul hundreds of pounds of cargo in a trailer or rickshaw.  Unfortunately bicycling receives very little funding (almost none at the federal level).  American highways are designed in such a way as to be very dangerous for cyclists.  Dedicated bike paths are usually poorly maintained and often go nowhere.   An investment in cycling infrastructure would go much further than an investment in electric vehicle recharging infrastructure.  Likewise, the government should be giving tax credits to people who buy bicycles, not hybrids.  Since bicycles are so much cheaper, the money could be used to help many more people.

Government aid for alternative vehicles is a misuse of money.  By encouraging people to buy hybrid and public cars, they are really just encouraging cars in general.  By telling people that it is alright to drive as long as they drive an electric vehicle, they are really telling them to ignore all of the other horrible environmental impacts of automotive technology.  If the government insists on funding transportation, it should put the money into things that will actually help this country like trains, buses, and bike paths.  



Alvord, Katie.  (2000).  Divorce Your Car.  Gabriola Island:  New Society Publishers.
Electric Drive Transportation Association.  Stimulus Bill Recognizes Electric Drive Transportation as Critical for Creating Jobs and Breaking Oil Dependence.  Press Release.  13 February 2009.  Retrieved from