Written by Douglas Baumwoll
In July, I was driving to Incheon Airport to head home for my summer vacation. I stopped at a roadside rest area to use the bathroom, as one does, and to get an order of those new delicious deep-fried potatoes available nationwide. Walking back to the car, eagerly stabbing a spud with the heavy, green, plastic toothpick and popping it into my mouth, I noticed something at the edge of the parking lot I’d never seen before in Korea: a public electric car charging station.
A few weeks later, in the U.S., I was riding the bus into New York City. As we descended the ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel to cross under the Hudson River, I saw a huge billboard near the entrance advertising a hybrid car that gets incredible gas mileage. The passers-by riding in 19 million vehicles see that billboard every year. It struck me then that I needed to delve deeper into the growing presence of electric and hybrid cars I’ve noticed in daily life over the past few years.
Why talk about electrifying transportation?
Electric and hybrid car owners are no longer only the wealthy or super-eco types. In fact, most of you probably know someone who owns an EV (electric vehicle) or hybrid. I do, yet my specific knowledge about this facet of our overwhelmingly technologically driven world was sorely lacking. As I began writing this article, I quickly discovered that, as seemingly with most topics of interest these days, the whole electric car/hybrid world is way, way more complicated than it appears at first glance. There are many intertwined issues involving science, technology, environment, climate change, energy, and economics. Following is the rundown on these issues, written in the most straightforward jargon I can muster. If you get to the end of the article, I’ve done my job. If you go and research some facts further, then I’ve really done my job. With an estimated 1.2 billion motorized vehicles burning fossil fuels (and spewing noxious emissions) on the world’s roads today, talking about automotive transportation is one of the most important conversations we can have now. Future generations will be glad we did so.
What is happening in Korea with respect to EVs and hybrids?
The Korean government is optimistic that 30 percent of new car sales will be EV sales by 2030. More immediately, it intends to increase the number of fast charging stations nationwide to 6,000 by 2020 (up from 1,500 stations currently). These stations can provide a full battery charge in just 30 minutes. The government is also offering subsidies to carmakers so they can increase production to meet buyer demand. On the local level, there are many examples of promotion and investment in EVs in Korea. In Suncheon, the local government will provide, gratis, 227 EVs to citizens this year. Besides this, it offers 22 million won in subsidies to anyone who buys a new EV. Finally, in Gumi, there are commercial bus routes that use electric buses whose batteries are recharged while they drive. Along 15 percent of a given route’s length, there are electric lines installed under the pavement, which wirelessly recharge the bus’s electric battery as it passes over.
What is an electric car?
Okay, so let’s start with a few quick terms (there are many more besides those I’ll mention here). The car you probably call an “electric car” is actually a “pure” electric vehicle, a PEV, or just EV for short. EVs run on 100 percent electricity taken from “plug-in” sources like a wall socket in your garage or a public charging station. In contrast, a “hybrid” (technically called a “hybrid electric vehicle”) burns gasoline, but at a slower rate than a “conventional” car using its internal combustion engine. Why? Because hybrids use some self-generated electricity while being driven. Currently, the mass-production car that travels the farthest using the least amount of gasoline is the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Blue. This model will propel you and your passengers over 58 miles (93 km) of roadway while burning just one gallon of gasoline (i.e., it gets 58 mpg). Using the metric system, this is a fuel consumption of 4.9 liters/100 km. You can drive this car 700 miles (1,120 km) on one 12-gallon (45-liter) tank of gas.
What kinds of numbers are we talking?
According to Forbes, roughly 90,000 passenger pure-EVs were delivered to customers worldwide by the top-10 EV automakers in the first quarter of 2017. Korea’s own Hyundai ranks seventh on this list, having produced 2,569 EVs. The infamous Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors delivered 20,000 vehicles, coming in second place to the Renault-Nissan Alliance at 26,000 (who knew?). In 2016, 750,000 EVs were sold worldwide (40% in China), bringing the total number of EVs on global roadways to 2 million. This is a significant number; however, we must remember that, although in absolute terms 2 million vehicles on the roads sounds like a lot, in relative terms it is but a miniscule 0.2% of all vehicles being driven in the world today.
How long have EVs been around?
Amazingly, to me at least, the first EV appeared in the mid-1800s. By about 1910, however, the internal combustion engine had overtaken the auto market and accounted for virtually all passenger car sales. Recently, thanks to concerns over saving on fuel costs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, EVs and hybrids are making a comeback. This is cause for celebration for aficionados. In Korea, for example, there were just 311 EV cars on the roads in 2011, whereas today there are 11,000. Again, however, in terms of percentages this number is insignificant, as there are 22 million registered vehicles in Korea.
What are EVs and hybrids like today?
Let’s take a look at aesthetics and functionality. My recollection of electric cars in the not-so-distant past was of a mundane-looking, cookie-cutter, sub-compact car for city use only, needing a recharge daily. But things have changed. A lot. This year’s Car and Driver top-10 picks for EV/hybrids come from automakers such as BMW, Chevrolet, Kia, Hyundai, Volkswagen, and Toyota. Factories churn out compact cars, sedans, luxury sedans, minivans, sports utility vehicles, and high-performance sports cars of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Price tags are surprisingly affordable, as three of the top-10 models sell for less than US$25,000 (26 million won). For the speed freak, BMW, Porsche, Acura, Ferrari, and Aston Martin all make limited edition hybrids. How much will James Bond have to pay for his V-12, 6.5-liter-engine Aston Martin RB001? A mere pittance, at just US$2.8 million.
Won’t I have to worry about running out of electricity?
Not anymore. Let’s take one example. Chevrolet’s pure EV, called the Bolt, can drive 238 miles (381 km) on a single charge. Remember, there’s no electricity lost or wasted when you are sitting in traffic or waiting at a traffic light. The word “idling” literally does not apply to an EV. If you drive about 60 miles (96 km) per day, you’re good to go for four days on one charge. At home in your garage, this battery recharges from zero to full in nine and a half hours. The sticker price for this car is US$40,000.
According to The Atlantic magazine, 75 percent of people who would consider buying a hybrid car would do so to save on fuel costs. A typical hybrid will save a usual U.S. driver about $600 per year on gasoline at current gas prices. But to me and many others, reducing air pollution (from car exhaust fumes) that directly causes both climate change and public health injury is the real reason to switch the entire global fleet over to EVs. Savings on fuel costs is a secondary benefit.
In the near future, hybrid electric vehicles will need to be abandoned. Although improving fuel consumption, they still consume fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases from their tailpipes. Both hybrids and conventional cars spew carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into the air. EVs spew nothing; they don’t even have tailpipes. Apart from greenhouse gases, fumes from your conventional car contain hazardous substances including carbon monoxide, nitrous dioxide, and benzene. Furthermore, diesel exhaust has been directly linked to lung cancer, qualifying it as carcinogenic.
Is there a catch?
Unfortunately, yes. It is not a straightforward discussion, but when we consider the entire process involved in (1) fabricating a car of any kind and (2) extracting and processing the fuel used – whether gasoline, diesel, or electricity generated from a power plant burning coal or natural gas – pollution of multiple kinds are produced. Although debated, many scientists say that, all in all, fabricating and driving an EV produces less pollution per mile/km driven compared to a conventional car. Nevertheless, generating the electricity that recharges EV batteries, especially on a scale of hundreds of millions of cars worldwide, is definitely a problematic issue. I believe, however, that the increased use of EVs on the road will spur innovation and reform in the entire electricity-producing grid, ultimately leading to less air pollution from transportation overall.
Here is a quote from CNBC dated September 10, 2017: “China is joining France and Britain in announcing plans to end sales of gasoline and diesel cars.” It seems that gasoline-powered cars really may be on the brink of extinction. This is something I have hoped for my entire life. Combined with artificial intelligence and future abilities of cars to “communicate” with each other to avoid accidents, EVs are making a charge into the future, possibly changing the face of passenger and commercial road transportation as we have known it all of our lives.
Doug Baumwoll, a professional writer and editor for 25 years, trains in-service teachers in writing skills and methodology. His personal writing interests include visionary and speculative fiction, climate change, energy, and social justice. He is the founder of SavetheHumanz.com.