Electric Cars

Some good news! According to this article, we’re rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheaper to own an electric car than one that burns fossil fuels.

• Jack Ewing, The age of electric cars is dawning ahead of schedule, New York Times, September 20, 2020.

FRANKFURT — An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris.

As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines.

At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164.

Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2 percent of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5 percent. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9 percent in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin.

As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.

A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla’s “Battery Day” event on Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight.

The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or start-up succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what’s known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range.

“We’re seeing energy density increase faster than ever before,” said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant which recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024.

However, the article also points out that this tipping point is of the overall lifetime cost of the vehicle! The sticker price of electric cars will still be higher for a while. And there aren’t nearly enough charging stations!

My next car will be electric. But first I’m installing solar power for my house. I’m working on it now.

25 Responses to Electric Cars

  1. Phillip Helbig says:

    My next car will probably be electric. Currents subsidies will expire at the end of 2021, and Musk says it will be 2023 before an even cheaper Tesla model is available. Decisions, decisions!

    My biggest concern is actually one people don’t talk about that much: if I don’t go with Tesla, being able to charge conveniently at enough places and pay for it is a logistical nightmare.

  2. The real question is, where is the electricity coming from? Because if it’s made by burning fossil fuels, then we are no better off. Many countries still use coal in their power stations, not to mention oil. So what’s the big picture?

    • Phillip Helbig says:

      This is something of a red herring, for several reasons. First, even if the electricitiy is produced from fossil fuels, it is usually more efficient if that is done at a power plant and there are also possibilities for carbon-dioxide capture there. Second, carbon dioxide is not the only problematic exhaust from cars, but it is from fossil-fuel power plants. Third, there is a chicken-and-egg problem; if we wait until all electricity is green, then there will be no electric cars and no infrastructure for them. Many countries are making progress and already have half of their electricity from green sources, so in that case, with respect to this, electric cars are better already. It’s certainly not worse running an electric car on fossil-fuel electricity compared to running it on fossil fuels.

      As to the environmental costs other than exhaust, they exist for conventional cars as well. The big difference has been batteries, but this is a problem which can be solved.

      In some sense it is sad that the revolution is taking place through private enterprise, in essence through one man. But as long as governments don’t play that role, Musk and so on must at least break even in order to continue to invest.

      For all of his faults, at least Musk seems genuinely concerned about the environment.

      Things one could do to improve the balance, electric or not: Forbid SUVs and similar over-built vehicles. Drive vehicles longer. My current car (a diesel which uses 4 litres per 100 km (that is about 60 m.p.g.) I’ve had for more than 16 years and it has almost 400,000 km on the odometer (about 250,000 miles).

      By coincidence, just a few minutes ago I read an article on the amount of electricity consumed by computing centres (used primarily for internet traffic), In Frankfurt am Main, which is near where I live, power is more than a terawatt and they use more electricity than the airport (which is the largest on the Continent and after Heathrow the largest in Europe).

    • John Baez says:

      It’s important to shift electricity production away from fossil fuels, but we shouldn’t wait to electrify cars until that’s done, because getting old cars off the road could easily take 20 years. If electric cars become cheaper than ‘fossil cars’ in 2025, there could be plenty of fossil cars left on the road until 2045, barring laws or incentives that speed up their elimination. In the meantime we need to cut fossil fuels out of electric power generation.

  3. nad says:

    John, I don’t know whether you noticed (I had written here on your blog about that) that I am against the newly planned Tesla Gigafactory here in Berlin. I would have thus preferred to see here a bit more nuanced view on this topic.

    Incidentally the Tesla Gigafactory hearing started yesterday and I just came home pretty “charged” so maybe I should refrain from commenting here at all. After 2 days (the hearing yesterday was ten hours, today it was decided to discuss “only” 9 hours) of sitting in Corona times with over hundred people in Stadthalle Erkner and more discussions tomorrow I better say not more than that: I think the the environmental friendliness of electric cars is not only in terms of origin of fuel rather debatable.

    Here a german news report about the hearing (you can actually see me in there very briefly):
    https://www.rbb24.de/wirtschaft/thema/tesla/av7/video-tesla-eroerterungstermin-einwaende-erkner-fabrik-gruenheide.html

  4. Perhaps, we should shift the focus from “cars” (meant for single or very few users) to other transport means, like automated trams and other public transport means. For individuals, for local transport, electric cycles and other very lightweight systems are a good alternative.
    The focus on cars is very American-centric. Cities & suburbs without cars are achievable (now: i.e. this can be done with current tech.).
    Also, we do need to dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels, thus the argument that it may be more efficient to produce electricity at coal or gas plants is not a strong one.
    FFL

    • John Baez says:

      I agree that we should move away from cars toward public transportation, bicycles, etc. But for many cities in the US this will require not only a cultural shift but also a lot of new infrastructure. And many people living in the countryside in the US routinely drive 10-50 kilometers for grocery shopping. So we also need electric cars. You can tell people to move closer to the center of town but it’s not going to happen quickly.

      It’s amazing how tough it is to build subways in the US compared to other countries. For example, a recent subway line in Los Angeles cost $930 million per mile, while in New York City one cost $3.7 billion per mile:

      Why are subways in the U.S. so expensive?

      And the city of Los Angeles is huge, because it was built in the era of automobiles: it’s about 1250 square kilometers in area, not even counting the nearby suburbs! It’s hard to correct this quickly. Buses are more practical than subways for this sort of situation.

      • Phillip Helbig says:

        Note that there used to be a subway in Los Angeles, which was bought by two auto-related companies and shut down.

      • Philip Gibbs says:

        I agree but it is worth noting that Elon Musk’s boring company aims to bring the cost of tunneling down to $10 million per mile which is cheaper than roads in many places

      • John Baez says:

        If you read this article

        Why are subways in the U.S. so expensive?

        you’ll discover the final answer is that nobody knows why U.S. subways are so much more expensive than subways in other countries—at least, nobody involved in writing the article. A number of theories are proposed and argued about. I don’t think cutting through rock is harder in the U.S. than other countries. It’s possible better rock-cutting technology wouldn’t significantly lower subway prices in the U.S.

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          Many things are more expensive in the USA, such as medical care.

        • I suggested tramways: they are much cheaper to set-up than subways. Electric trams used to be found in many (hundreds of) North American cities (Canada included). The infrastructure was mostly dismantled post WWII (you can look into how and why.. not pretty in many cases). It could be revived. Another advantage: it helps push cars and trucks out of the way (a bit) and regulate traffic.
          About hydrogen: there is a significant (often hidden, not mentioned) cost: its production. It requires a lot of energy, usually provided by fossil fuel burning to provide the required heat. The snake bites its tail.
          The other elephant in the room is: the most needed reduction of energy consumption. So, how to go about that? should that not guide our long term decisions? Again, in cities (including getting in and out from suburbia): what are the most efficient and clean means of transport? (the car is not the answer I suggest).

    • Phillip Helbig says:

      “Also, we do need to dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels, thus the argument that it may be more efficient to produce electricity at coal or gas plants is not a strong one.”

      That’s not the point. The point is to rebut the common argument that electric cars are just as bad as fossil-fuel cars because the electricity comes from fossil fuels. This is simply not true, and becomes even less true the larger the fraction of electricity comes from renewable sources.

      • By renewable, you mean hydro-electric or nuclear? both solar and wind-power in most cases require to be backed up by reliable energy production (e.g., in Germany, they mostly went with coal in recent years). Solar and wind are dependent on the weather, the seasons (e.g. longer nights in the winter when you need more electricity usually).

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          I mean solar, wind, tidal, etc., but not nuclear here.

          As to the backing up (i.e. having enough reserves for times when the wind is not blowing), that is less and less of an issue the more renewable energy there is. Also, even if there is backup, that doesn’t mean that the backup is running (literally) at full steam all the time.

  5. Philip Gibbs says:

    I bought a Tesla Model 3 this month and have no doubt that it was the right thing to do both in terms of home economics and environmental issues. The common objections are easily dismissed with a little research. I kept my last car for 20 years so ongoing savings on fuel, tax and maintenance are a big plus.

    I am looking at solar panels but they are not as effective in the North of England as they are in more sunny climates. It may be more useful to buy a battery powerwall so that I can store energy when renewables are at peek output.

    For cars that cost more than average, electric is certainly already the better option. The tipping point for cheaper models will follow soon given the coming improvements in battery technology that Tesla outlined this week. Hopefully we are also seeing a tipping point for renewable power vs fossil fuels. I think that grid-scale batteries along with other forms of grid-storage and long distance power transmission will make the move to 100% renewables very possible and rapid. The timescale for change that our governments are legislating for looks embarrassingly slow compared to what the technology and economics now suggest could happen.

    To those who say there should be more of a focus on public transport and less on making more cars, please have a look at the longer term plans of Tesla and Elon Musk which include loop, hyperloop, boring, robotaxis and the larger energy markets.

    To the Germans who are objecting to the Tesla factory, go and object instead to your country’s continued dependence on coal power while the rest of Western Europe is in the final stages of phasing it out, please.

    • Phillip Helbig says:

      “To the Germans who are objecting to the Tesla factory, go and object instead to your country’s continued dependence on coal power while the rest of Western Europe is in the final stages of phasing it out, please.”

      How about a list of European countries and how much power comes from renewable sources?

      Most of the objections against the Tesla factory aren’t against it per se but against the fact that it is in or near an environmentally protected region where water is scarce while the plant uses a lot of water.

    • nad says:

      Mr. Gibbs- Mr. Helbig lives apparently in Frankfurt at the river Main (there is also a Frankfurt at the river Oder, so you usually say Frankfurt/Main). I don’t know Mr. Helbig. The Gigafactory is thought to be built in the greater outskirts of Berlin.

      Mr. Helbig – the “environmental protection” area is actually right at river Spree (Berlin gets 70% of its water from rivers, since due to the wars the groundwater is polluted), it is not just some protection area but a Wasserschutzzone IIIA and by the chemicals that are handled there (over 244 tons of Wassergefährdungsklasse 2 and over 20 tons of Wassergefährdungsklasse 3) by AwSV §49 http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/awsv/AwSV.pdf the total “Anlage” is simply not allowed to be built there as these amounts of chemicals are twice Gefährdungsstufe D. So yesterday -after they were confronted with this fact- the Tesla guys tried to argue (seriously!) that this is not one “Anlage” but that there are many unique “Anlagen” in the factory, which are in particular not “Teilanlagen” of a big “Anlage”. Like one tank should already be seen as a separate “Anlage” according to Tesla. So they argue that there are many unique little Anlagen in the factory- each with tiny amounts of chemicals and so there is no problem. And this was seen as such also by the representative of “Untere Wasserschutzbehörde”. I am at a loss for words and outraged.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      Philip Helbig, you can find a sortable table of all countries by renewable power on Wikipedia. Germany is roughly a quarter of the way down in percentage terms. Of course it is also important how the remaining proportion of energy is generated. For carbon footprint, nuclear is better than gas is is better than coal, so Germany’s decision to move to coal while phasing out viable nuclear plants was frustrating. I appreciate that there are counter arguments and perhaps this is a little off-topic.

  6. John Baez says:

    By coincidence, today Governor Gavin Newsom pledged to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles in California by 2035. Of course he won’t be governor then, so someone could change their mind.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      We have the same 2035 target in the UK and there is now talk of moving that forward to 2030. Hopefully market forces will make it happen sooner.

  7. Todd Trimble says:

    The current sociopolitical climate in the US makes a wide cultural acceptance of electric vehicles difficult. A guy who buys an electric vehicle is made to seem like less than a robust red-blooded male, to the point of real hostility; e.g., you’ve got the yahoos exercising their American freedom by “rolling coal” in the faces of Prius drivers (potentially causing an accident).

    It may be a while before the economics of buying electric overrides such widespread idiocy.

    • Philip Gibbs says:

      Hybrids like the Prius give you the worst of all worlds, but sports cars are being replaced by electrics now because the torque you can get from an electric motor is insane. Electric cybertrucks will replace your pickup trucks next. If speed and power is what makes male blood red, then that sector of the car market will be electrified very fast. It is the ordinary family cars that are harder to replace.

  8. westy31 says:

    There is also the hydrogen car. Nissan and Toyota sell commercial models. They are probably less efficient, but for long distances, they are faster to refuel.

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