I understand why the Biden administration is pushing electric vehicles so hard. To stop the planet from overheating, we will eventually need motor vehicles to produce zero greenhouse gases, and only fully electric vehicles can do that. Hybrids that have combustion engines along with electric motors will always blow some carbon dioxide (and other bad stuff) out of their tailpipes.
Right now, though, there’s a good argument to be made that the government and automakers are leaning too much toward all-electric and neglecting the virtues of hybrid technology. When I first heard this counter-intuitive argument from Toyota, I dismissed it as heel-dragging by a company lagging behind in electrics, but I’ve come around to the idea that hybrids – at least for now – have a lot of advantages over all. -electric vehicles.
Imagine some wheelbarrows filled with stones. The rocks contain lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, graphite and other materials for lithium-ion batteries. According to Toyota’s calculation, the amount of batteries needed for one long-range electric vehicle would be enough for either six additional hybrids or 90 of the type of hybrid that cannot be plugged in for recharging. (Namely, the type whose batteries are recharged by the engine or by braking.)
“The overall carbon reduction of those 90 hybrids over their lifetimes is 37 times more than a single battery electric vehicle,” Toyota argues. That is an amazing statistic if true.
“People involved in the auto industry are largely a silent majority,” then-Toyota chief executive Akio Toyoda told reporters during a trip to Thailand in December. according to The Wall Street Journal. “That silent majority is asking if EVs are really good to have as a single option. But they think it’s the trend, so they can’t speak up.”
Advocacy against an all-electric approach is what you might expect from an automaker that has bet big on hydrogen fuel cells and hybrids and has only a sliver of the market in battery-powered EVs. I have no doubt that Toyota is motivated at least in part by self-interest. But some people I spoke to who are not connected with the company had similar views.
“Toyota’s claim is accurate. We found the numbers on that,” Ashley Nunes told me. He is a senior research fellow at Harvard Law School and the director for federal policy, climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank. He witnessed on the subject in April before the House Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials.
I will rush through his points. Electric vehicles consume huge amounts of lithium and other materials because they have huge batteries. And they have huge batteries because customers suffer from “range anxiety” and won’t buy an EV unless it can go hundreds of miles without charging – even though the vast majority of trips are short. The Nissan Leaf gets 149 miles with its standard battery, which seems sufficient for most purposes, yet Nissan sold only 12,026 Leaves (Leaves?) last year.
In part because of ever-larger batteries, EVs are getting more expensive on average, not cheaper as had been predicted. They are out of the price range of many buyers. Some people will continue to drive old ICE mobiles (cars with internal combustion engines) because they cannot afford an EV And those ICE mobiles will continue to be major emitters of greenhouse gases.
The production of electric cars produces more greenhouse gases than the production of cars with combustion engines. So EVs have to travel between 28,000 and 68,000 miles before they have an emissions advantage over similarly sized and equipped ICE vehicles, according to Nunes. That can last 10 years or more if the EV is not driven much.
Then there is the problem of where to get all the minerals from. Domestic production, even combined with extensive recycling, cannot meet the need for cobalt, graphite, lithium and manganese, Nunes. wrote in his prepared House testimony. Allies might help, but they also increase consumption. “There is, so to speak, only so much mineral supply to go around,” he wrote. Lithium iron phosphate is a promising alternative battery chemistry, but its energy density is lower, so batteries would have to be even larger to give the same range. (Sodium-ion batteries and solid-state lithium-ion batteries are another options.)
The Biden administration clearly does not trust electric vehicles to win over the buying public on their merits alone. That’s why in April the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules to ensure that two-thirds of new passenger cars and a quarter of new heavy-duty trucks sold in the United States are all-electric by 2032.
That would be a stressful change. Sometimes it seems like EVs are everywhere, but in fact they made up just 5.8 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. last year, The Times reported. All-electric trucks accounted for less than 2 percent of new heavy-duty trucks.
Of course, drivers could be bribed into buying EVs if enough money was shoved in their faces. But Nunes said greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced much more cost-effectively through subsidies from clean electricity generation, especially wind turbines.
For another perspective, I exchanged emails with Nafisa Lohawala, Ph.D. an economist who is a fellow at Resources for the Future, a think tank. She focused on the benefits of plug-in hybrids, which use less metal than all-electric EVs but more than non-plug-in hybrids. “From a consumer perspective,” she wrote, “having a gas backup helps alleviate range anxiety, allowing them to adopt plug-in hybrids even when the charging network around them is sparse. Plus, given their lower price, middle- and low-income communities also would find adopting them easier than battery electric vehicles.”
Lohawala wrote that if drivers frequently recharge their plug-in hybrids, they will be able to run on battery power almost all the time and emissions will be nearly as low as with an all-electric EV. This will tend to happen as more charging stations with faster chargers are installed. “As long as the battery ranges of plug-in hybrids are long enough and electricity prices are low, consumers would voluntarily charge them rather than rely on gasoline,” she wrote.
Again, I understand that climate change is an existential crisis. (Take it from my Opinion colleague, David Wallace-Wells.) I also understand that hybrids are not as clean as all-electric EVs “The fact is: Hybrid today is not a green technology,” Katherine García, the director of the Clean Transport for All Campaign, wrote last year “The Prius hybrid is powered by a pollution-emitting combustion engine found in any gas-powered car.”
However, reaching the destination of all-electric for all will require more minerals, better battery chemistry and better and better chargers, among other things. That’s a big project. Nowadays, hybrids seem like a valuable part of the vehicle mix.
The Readers Write
Amazon is in a world of hurt. They entered an established category (grocery) with entrenched competitors, including Walmart. I like to compare the position the Amazon is in with that of the French troops at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French thought they had a superior army. The Viet Minh put their focus on having a superior strategy. The French troops had to surrender.
I don’t know, Peter. Aren’t HANK’s predictive powers basically just common sense? Maybe economists need to get out a little more.
Quote of the Day
“When the writer in each individual is revived (and that time is not far off), we are in an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”
– Milan Kundera, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1979)