Are electric or hybrid cars a green marketing myth, or a real solution?
Will adopting electric or hybrid cars solve any of the problems it's hoped they'll solve? A lot of money and effort is being spent on them, but so too is money being spent on developing gasoline cars. The question is, what is the best allocation of research resources to solve transportation system problems?
When we set out to solve a problem it's best to describe the problem correctly. The solution we end up with is controlled by how we define the problem.
Many are promising big things about electric and hybrid cars, while some are saying it's a bunch of hype. One thing we do know is the big payoff only comes when electrified vehicles become common.
Most of the focus is on environmental issues, primarily greenhouse gas reduction. Electric and hybrid cars are largely seen as solving environmental problems because of their tailpipe emissions. Electric cars have zero tailpipe emissions, and hybrid cars tend to have much less tailpipe emissions than equivalent gasoline powered cars.
But, of course, the tailpipe emissions aren't the whole environmental impact story, not even for gasoline powered cars. Mining gasoline from fossil oil resources requires many kinds of environmental disasters at wellheads, transportation systems, refineries, more transportation systems, not to mention the final consumption as an explosion in an internal combustion engine. Similarly electricity tends to come from coal-fired or natural gas-fired, or nuclear plants, or hydroelectric dams, each of which have negative environmental side effects. However repeated studies show that even if the electricity comes from a coal fired power plant, the electric car "tailpipe" is cleaner than the "tailpipe" of the equivalent gasoline car.
Many see the problem to solve as solely the environmental impact of cars. This means the solutions being offered cluster around the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts. It's been shown over and over that electrified cars do provide some environmental benefit over gasoline powered cars, even for coal-fired-electricity, but the benefit is not terribly large, especially for coal-fired-electricity. Which understandably leads some to question the push for electrified cars.
There are other problems with the transportation system begging to be solved, but these problems largely go unrecognized and aren't part of the problem statement being addressed.
One of these issues is the resources to build and power the cars. Primarily it's the gasoline to drive the gasoline powered cars, and the effect known as "peak oil". Gas cars can largely only be driven with gasoline, diesel cars can largely only be driven with diesel, both of which come from fossil oil resources. "Peak oil" is the condition in which oil companies will reach a point where they can no longer increase oil supplies, because every barrel of oil that's extracted from the ground makes the next barrel more expensive to extract. The supply of oil from conventional resources (the kind where you drill a hole in the ground to pump "nice" crude oil) is already diminishing, and the oil companies are having to turn to expensive resources such as the Alberta Tar Sands. The oil supply problem will set in soon enough with oil prices going up and up and up.
Because electric cars aren't powered by fossil oil they'll be immune to the coming crunch in oil supply. But very few of us know about the coming decline in oil production, or recognize its potential impact. Those who are unaware of the coming peak oil based oil supply problem won't recognize electric cars as a solution to this problem they're unaware of.
An electric or hybrid car, no matter how clean it is, does not solve anything about an issue some call "automobile dependence". Worse, an electric car might cause some to drive their cars more because they think the electric car is their contribution to saving the environment. Automobile dependence causes several issues not solved by electric cars, problems that again are not widely recognized. Traffic congestion causes problems all around the world, diminishing quality of life and economic vitality everywhere traffic congestion is a problem. Road deaths and injuries are a consequence of the current system of roads and cars, and costs the lives of a couple million people a year around the world. Health problems such as obesity can be attributed in part to a sedentary lifestyle that is in part exacerbated by sitting inert in a car while driving. Cars driving on the highway creates social exclusion between drivers, especially with the many areas that are set up for cars exclusively. Cars dominate our urban spaces, for example consider all the parking lots used to store cars when not in use, this is land that could be used for other purposes.
Rising population will exacerbate these problems because the configuration for society is that everybody owns at least one car. As population grows these problems will only get worse. Traffic congestion will rise unless more roads are built, but that means more land is tied up in using and storing cars, taking land away from other uses, and in the mean time congested traffic means more time sitting inert in a car, and more opportunity for death or injury in a car accident.
Some researchers working for automakers, governments and other organizations recognize these problems. For example when Daimler's Dr. Zetsche talked about internet-connected electric cars at CES, a large part of his presentation focused on reducing traffic congestion and a different model of car ownership.
Car-sharing programs like ZipCar or CityCarShare let urban residents have the advantages of easy access to a car, without having to personally own the car, and more importantly while reducing the total number of cars that must exist. The large parking lots infesting our cities are there because of individually owned cars, and the need to park those cars on every trip. If instead car ownership is shared then cars don't need to remain parked while we go inside to shop, but can be left at a parking stand where the next person who needs a car can drive it away. Daimler's car2go experiments is a car sharing program being deployed in several U.S. cities.
Robotically driven cars are being researched as a way to reduce traffic congestion, and reduce the rate of death and injury. We'd have to learn to trust a foible computer to drive better than a foible human. The result would be allowing cars to drive more closely packed on the highway, and for the cars to drive themselves freeing us to do other things (ahem) while waiting for the car to bring us to the destination.
Some of the oil companies recognize the threat of peak oil, and see electric or hybrid cars as a way to mitigate this problem. Unfortunately most politicians refuse to recognize peak oil, or else spread delusional thinking that drilling for new oil wells ("drill baby drill") will solve the coming oil supply problem.
Preferring an electric car solely to solve environmental problems is like taking an aspirin for a headache without addressing the real cause of the pain. If we collectively understand the bigger picture we can begin to understand that electric cars are the solution for other problems beyond environmental ones, and that to solve for automobile dependency problems we may need to develop solutions other than electric cars.