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The Argument That Electric Cars Generate More Tire Pollution Is Flawed

Recently I surveyed 30 fellow electric vehicle (EV) drivers via social media to ask them how many miles they have gotten out of their factory supplied tires, and a little bit about how they drive, the brand of tires, etc. The results were surprising.

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As I wrote in a previous article, there have been multiple stories in the media this year about the “dirty secret” of EVs and tire pollution according to the Daily Mail or how EV drivers’ “biggest complaint” is about the premature wear of their tires according to J.D. Powers and The Atlantic. In fact The Atlantic piece went so far as to claim “with both tire-emissions analysis and EV adoption still in their infancy, it’s hard to say how much worse the pollution problems could grow. Masen hopes that the urgency of the issue will push researchers and the industry to look for potential fixes, but developing solutions will take time, and heavy, quick EVs make the problem tougher.” This notion of urgency and the worsening of the problem are 100% truthful and accurate; tire pollution is a serious form of pollution that is causing significant ecosystem damage (not to mention harming our own bodies since tire particle pollution can be small enough to be breathed in and even enter our blood). However, all the electric vehicles currently on the world’s roads today are but a small fraction of the total number of vehicles chewing through tires. No, the urgency of the problem is not being driven by the adoption of EVs, the problem is almost entirely due to the proliferation of relatively cheap gasoline powered vehicles which vastly outnumber EVs and will for years to come.

That also isn’t to say that the heavier weight and more gratuitous torque that EVs provide don’t increase the friction on tires and potentially wear them out faster, but it is something of a myth that EVs are somehow dirtier or exacerbating pollution more than non EVs, at this point. It is a myth that may be created by the media, anxious for eyeballs and perhaps vested interests in the fossil fuel industry or those otherwise opposed to EV adoption, focusing on the experiences of some EV drivers combined with a failure to examine the conditions experienced by and behaviors of the EV drivers themselves. Perhaps it comes from a spirit of wanting to poke holes in the “green” image EVs have. But nothing that is manufactured could ever be “green” (which we might say is the condition of something being pure, natural, or essentially clean and not harmful to the planet). So let’s not think of EVs or any other manufactured products as green, let’s think of EVs as they are: far more energy efficient, and less polluting over their lifetime of use than the alternatives. Because that’s what the facts tell us (thanks EPA!).

What were the findings of my survey of Kia, Chevy and Tesla EV drivers and why were they surprising? First, the brands of tires, weight and power of the EVs my respondents drove, and how they described their driving patterns and conditions varied significantly. Second, since the Atlantic referenced 40,000 miles as the expected lifespan of OEM EV tires, I am also going to use the same figure as the assumed capability of my respondent’s tires. Approximately one third of the respondents reported that they got less than 40,000 miles from their tires, however all but two said they drove “aggressively” at least sometimes, and all but four said they covered between 32,000 - 38,000 miles before needing to replace their tires (so their tires only wore out a little bit earlier than expected). I do not know if anyone actually replaced their tires earlier than they needed to (sometimes people may do this if a tire shop convinces them or if they are just proactive). But given that only 3 respondents reported getting less than 30,000 miles from their tires (and of those two drove their vehicle hard or in rough conditions), that sounds like a minority of drivers (in this very limited “study”) are reporting significantly premature wear and that could be exacerbated by driving conditions or behavior, or frankly the quality of the tires. A slightly larger number experienced somewhat premature wear, and about 65% of drivers are reporting better to far better lifespan from their tires than the expected 40,000 miles. This was the surprising part: 5 drivers reported getting 45,000 - 76,000 miles from their factory tires! Thus, at the end of this small, brief study, I can summarize my findings as follows: about one third of EV drivers surveyed got at least slightly worse than expected life from their factory tires, a little more than one third got the expected lifespan, and about a third far exceeded the lifespan of their factory tires. Doesn’t this sound kind of random? It should, because it is. But it is also fairly easy to see what is going on: the way people drive their EVs, the road conditions and their behaviors on and off those roads, combined with the quality of the tires (multiple respondents confirmed that their second sets of tires, which were not the same brands/versions as the factory tires, were significantly longer lasting) are really the main driving factors in how much tire pollution an EV generates. It is not simply about how much EVs weigh or how much torque they have, those are only contributing factors.

And what do we do about tire pollution? First, we need to make better, longer lasting and or more biodegradable/less toxic tires. Then, we need to reduce our dependence on personal vehicles (via public transportation, car sharing, better walking and biking paths, etc.). We also need to invest in mitigation techniques (better catchment and filtration of tire pollution along the most trafficked roads that are closest to water, housing, and farmlands). We may also consider taxing heavier vehicles more, as some states already have, to encourage drivers to move away from big heavy vehicles (not just heavy EVs) into smaller, lighter options.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever considered the impacts your tires have on the world around you, or the way you drive on them? Will you consider taking any action (looking for tires that may last longer/be less toxic, or simply finding ways to drive your personal vehicle less)? Please leave any feedback or questions below.

Image courtesy of Justin Hart.

Justin Hart has owned and driven electric vehicles for over 15 years, including a first generation Nissan LEAF, second generation Chevy Volt, Tesla Model 3, an electric bicycle and most recently a Kia Sorento PHEV. He is also an avid SUP rider, poet, photographer and wine lover. He enjoys taking long EV and PHEV road trips to beautiful and serene places with the people he loves. Follow Justin on Torque News Kia or X for regular electric and hybrid news coverage.

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Robert Futscher (not verified)    November 29, 2023 - 11:26AM

You also have to think about pollution from the brakes. With regenerative braking there is a lot less pollution.