For two decades now, the mainstream press has been feeding peoples’ natural skepticism about new technology, dismissing electric vehicles as a quaint fad that will never “catch on.” Now that EV sales are soaring in Europe, Volkswagen and GM are getting serious about electrification, and a new US president has put protecting the environment on the priority list, national newspapers and TV networks are finally starting to acknowledge some of the things that we EVangelists have been writing about for years.
Above: Tesla's Model 3 (Source: EVANNEX; Photo by Casey Murphy)
A feature in the New York Times, citing a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, definitively stated: “Electric vehicles are better for the climate than gas-powered cars...[and] despite the higher sticker price, electric cars may actually save drivers money in the long run.”
The MIT team calculated both the emissions and the full lifetime cost, including purchase price, maintenance and fuel, for almost every new car model on the market. The conclusions (old news to you, dear readers, but surely a revelation to many Times readers): electric cars are “easily more climate-friendly than gas-burning ones,” and over their lifetime, they often end up being cheaper.
The Times put to rest the tired Long Tailpipe argument (which has been so thoroughly debunked that we needn’t revisit it here), and also the concerns about emissions generated during battery production. Professor Jessika Trancik, who led the research, said that an EV’s production emissions are typically offset in the first 6 to 18 months of ownership, depending on the makeup of the local energy grid.
Trancik’s report also explains how the lower maintenance costs of an electric vehicle, combined with the lower cost of electricity relative to gas, offsets the EV’s higher upfront price. “Those upfront costs are spread over the lifetime of the car,” she writes.
Dr. Trancik’s team released the data in an interactive online tool that illustrates the differing carbon footprints and lifetime costs of various different models (spoiler alert: EVs are cleaner and cheaper).
Again, none of this will be news to EV drivers or fellow travelers. However, some of the comparisons of individual cars may be surprising. In many cases, buying a greener car doesn’t mean paying more, it means paying less. For example, the gas-powered Toyota RAV4 XLE starts at $27,450, whereas the LE Hybrid version, which costs only a grand more to buy ($28,500), will quickly pay back its higher purchase price in gas and maintenance savings, while saving a substantial quantity of emissions.
Another fun fact: over its lifetime, a Tesla Model 3 will end up costing around the same as a Nissan Altima, despite the former’s far higher up-front cost. We’re used to seeing Teslas compared to BMWs, Mercedes and other luxury brands, but a lot of people will be shocked to learn that they could buy a stylish, sporty and feature-packed Model 3 for the same lifetime cost as a model that’s billed as a sensible, low-priced transportation option. And the emissions savings are pure gravy.
These comparisons assume nationwide average gasoline and electricity prices. EVs’ cost advantages are greater in pricey-gas regions such as California, smaller in areas where gas is cheaper or electrons pricier. However, a 2017 analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that charging was cheaper than pumping gas in 50 major American cities. “We saw potential savings everywhere,” said UCS Senior Engineer David Reichmuth.
As the NYT reports, there’s even better news in store. Chris Gearhart of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory explained to the Times that, over the next few years, EVs will steadily become cheaper as battery prices drop. Meanwhile, new technologies to reduce exhaust emissions are making legacy vehicles more expensive. “With that trajectory, you can imagine that even immediately at the purchase price level, certain smaller sedans could reach purchase price parity in the next couple of years,” Dr. Gearhart said.