When we talk about cars — and transportation in general — we have to recognize that the benefits they offer are real, and that the solutions proffered by some environmentalists aren’t universally applicable or practical.

For example, the admonition to “just use a bike instead” only works if you:

  • Are fit and healthy enough to use a bike
  • It’s safe and reasonable to use a bike 
  • You can afford the extra time it takes to get to destinations
  • The weather conditions are reasonable

A single mother suffering from asthma, living in a smoggy city with long winters, is probably not going to be able to cycle to work very often, if at all. (To say nothing of bicycle theft being a very real problem!)

At the other end of the spectrum, driving electric is an option open to more people than ever before. It’s still fairly expensive to buy in, though, and again, it’s not universally available. And depending on how your local power supply is generated, it might not be the greenest option available… yet. 

So, let’s go over what you can do to be greener on the transportation front.

Easy and Cheap

The first recourse is simply: do it less! You can use your existing vehicles less often by:

  • Grouping errands and trips and not giving into the temptation to just “run out for something”
  • Changing up your standard routes. Are there ways to get where you’re going that are even slightly shorter? Involve less idling? Remember the law of numbers. Even if you only cut a couple of minutes off a trip, if it’s one you’re always making, those few minutes add up to significant savings over time.
  • Skipping the drive thru. Unless your vehicle is newer and shuts off to avoid idling, you spew a lot of pollution (and waste a lot of money in gas over time) grabbing that morning coffee. Park and go in, or make something to go at home.
  • Take public transit when you can – and advocate for more public transit where you live
  • And yes, walk or bike when you can
  • Carpool when you can — including with your life partner. Two-vehicle families have become the norm, and you might not actually need two. 
  • Push back on calls for meetings and pickups. The pandemic forced us to reconsider how often we really need to get together in person. Lots of meetings work just as well on Zoom or Skype, plus you don’t have to spend the time or be stressed by travelling. Likewise, lots of things, like paperwork, can be sent by email or if signatures are required, using things like HelloSign. Whenever possible, push to do things remotely and virtually
  • Definitely cut back on the number of flights you take. A lot of business travel by plane is also unnecessary, and especially in Europe, short hops by plane are better replaced by train trips.

When it’s Time to Replace the Car

  • Buy only what you need. Take a hard look at how you actually use your existing vehicle. How many people do you have in it at any given time? How much cargo do you routinely transport? Where do you drive it? We get sold based on things like off-road capability and towing capacity, but what do we really do with our cars? Probably go back and forth — alone — to work and the grocery store. Worse, we pay through the nose for all that unused capacity: in gas bills, insurance bills, maintenance bills, and yes, the environmental cost. Remember: you can always rent a vehicle for special needs or trips!
  • Buy used. With stricter quality control processes and inspections for emissions standards, there are fewer “beaters” or “lemons” on the road these days, and you should be able to find a reliable used vehicle. There’s no need to continue to fuel the demand for “new, new, new!” while perfectly viable cars sit around in lots. You’ll save on the overall purchase price, on interest costs if you’re financing, and insurance as well.
  • Buy based on best mileage for the class. 
  • Buy hybrid. If electric is not yet an option for you, then do go hybrid, as there’s really no reason not to these days. Yes, they’ll feel a bit different to drive at first, but you’ll get used to it soon enough — especially when you can make a tank of gas last for much, much longer. Incidentally, you’ll be able to get better prices for gas because your window to refill is so much longer. 

Please Do Take a Look at Electric

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I personally drive electric, and have done so since 2017. 

If you haven’t considered electric before now, you should. And when I say consider, I mean: talk to actual electric vehicle (EV) owners (or lurk in their online forums), read about the vehicle specs, take a few different models for a test drive. 

I say this because there is a lot of old information and/or deliberate misinformation about EVs online. I get it: new technology can make you feel uncertain, we have a culture that celebrates gas-powered vehicles, and oil and gas companies aren’t going to go down without a fight. Here’s a list of common objections/myths about EVs.

We don’t have the charging infrastructure yet

Depending on where you live, you might be surprised. Take a look at the Plugshare app, and look at the Tesla supercharger network. Charging stations are popping up all over the place. Charging stations are appearing at malls, and tourist destinations.

And, in case it’s not clear, most EV owners actually do the vast majority of their charging at home, overnight. Being able to charge on the road only comes into play if you’re taking a road trip or have an extra long commute (and if you do, maybe it’s time to reconsider that if you can). Obviously, this currently favours homeowners who have a garage or car port or some such, but apartment and condo buildings are increasingly offering charging spots as well. 

The range is no good

As of this writing, a Tesla Model 3 has a range of 353 miles or 560 kilometres. The American Driving Survey says that the average person drives about 29 miles a day. 

They’re no good in the cold

It’s true that battery performance is affected by the cold. You can temporarily lose a fair amount of potential range when temperatures plummet. However, given what I noted above about total available range vs average range actually driven, there’s still a lot of margin. You can also do things like warm up the car before your trip, recharge at one end, and use the seat heater to stay nice and toasty (rather than more inefficient cabin heat). I live in Canada, and have been through several winters with mine. (Side note: the weight distribution in my EV is awesome for snow driving, as it’s evenly balanced over the chassis, rather than being all under the trunk).

Consider this: Norway has the highest market penetration of electric vehicles per capita in the world, and also has the world’s largest plug-in segment market share of new car sales, 74.7% in 2020⁠1. Other top markets for EVs include Sweden and Iceland.

They take too long to charge

For the most part, you will be plugging your vehicle in overnight, or while you’re doing something else (like shopping at the mall). On longish road trips, you’re going to want to stop for coffee, bathroom breaks, meals and leg stretches anyways. A little bit of planning takes care of both things at once. 

The actual charge time will depend on the charger and the car.  Older models of both will take longer; my car takes about 45 minutes to get to near total capacity on the supercharger network. Newer generation fast chargers and batteries can get to 80% capacity in about 15 minutes.  Cooling cable technology aims to get that down to five minutes.

They’re not actually greener

This is a common myth. Although it’s true that a new electric vehicle and a new fossil fuel car both incur carbon footprints to manufacture them, a fossil fuel car will emit pollutants for it’s whole life. Where the electrical grid is “clean,” the electric vehicle doesn’t go on to emit more pollutants. And recent studies suggest that even cars plugged into ‘dirty’ grids have better carbon footprints. A battery recycling infrastructure is developing as more and more EVs are on the road too. 

Child labour and mining pollution

In social media comments, you quite often see claims about child labour with respect to EV battery components like lithium and cobalt, which come from mines. Strangely, these arguments are typically used to argue against EVs by people who are posting comments with devices that use lithium-ion batteries. Or who are unaware that cobalt is used in the desulfurization of oil. 

Child labour and pollution are things to be concerned about, however, and we should definitely push international governments to enforce existing laws on such things in every industry. EV manufacturers have also made efforts to source their elements from responsible regions, and to eliminate cobalt from their supply chains altogether.

They’re expensive

The price to performance ratio has definitely been on the high side… until recently. As more and more people have gone EV, the price has come down, while performance has gone up. Prices will continue to drop as the big car manufacturers (finally) get serious about producing EVs. 

There may also be government rebates available in your region, so check that out. When calculating cost of ownership, remember that in addition to not needing gas, you also don’t need a lot of the maintenance gas cars require – oil changes, muffler fixes, catalytic converter replacement, etc. 

The grid won’t handle it if we all switch/we need to wait for the grid to be upgraded

It’s true that we’ll eventually need to upgrade our electrical infrastructure; however, upgrades don’t happen without demand pushing them, so if everyone is ‘waiting,’ upgrades will never happen.

It’s also the case that we’re going to need to upgrade the grid one way or the other. Bitcoin mining, for example, is already using a lot of juice in places like Texas, while cryptocurrency itself currently only benefits a small number of wealthy traders.

Meanwhile, climate change is making everything hotter, and we’re going to need to keep our indoor spaces cooler as a result. Climate change fuelled natural disasters are going to disrupt a lot of infrastructure, so building a grid that is far more resilient and has a lot more redundancy is going to be critical over the next couple of decades. 

What happens when emergency X happens?

People who like to argue against EVs online have a fondness for invoking extreme situations as the reason why EVs can’t possibly work.

One popular scenario is a natural disaster that results in power loss. These are a cause for concern … for every motorist. Gas pumps run on electricity, so if there’s no juice, gas car drivers looking to fill up are out of luck too. And someone who has charging capability at home is actually far more likely to “have a full tank” in a sudden emergency because plugging in overnight is a habit EV drivers get into. Meanwhile, Ford has been marketing it’s electric truck as capable of powering a house for several days in the event of a large grid failure, so it effectively becomes backup power. 

Another popular concern is being stranded in a snowstorm. In a big enough snow storm, all drivers are equally pooched, and everyone will need digging out and towing. Ironically, because EV drivers don’t need to run their engines to run their heaters, they’re likely to stay warm for longer, because they’re using less energy overall.

A more common scenario of concern is being stranded by the side of the road. Again, this is also a concern for fossil car drivers. Millions of people run out of gas on the road every year, and also suffer breakdowns if their car is older or not well maintained. 

As an EV has fewer points of failure, you’re less likely to be stranded due to a breakdown, and you avoid running out of juice by planning ahead, just like you try to avoid the same situation in a fossil car by checking the gauge periodically. In the short term, EVs will need towing if they do run out of juice, but in the medium term, we’ll build out mobile charging infrastructure in the same way as we have emergency fuel services through towing companies. 

The batteries die fast and are super expensive to replace

This is another common claim, and sometimes the contention is that the batteries cost more than the car to replace. 

It’s simply not true of current EVs. EV batteries are now warrantied for 8-10 years, and most owners who were early adopters are finding that even previous generations of batteries are lasting much longer than that. 

Once your battery does need replacing (and these typically head for recycling plants), your cost to replace will be equivalent or less than the cost of a small used car. And that’s at battery prices at time of writing. Again, costs will go down as big manufacturers get into the game.

The government wants us all in EVs so they can control where we go!

This is a weird one, but surprisingly common (thanks, Internet). The thinking here seems to be either that you can only go on certain routes in EVs (not true), or that EVs are somehow able to be taken over by mysterious government force because… electricity? I don’t know, it’s never made clear. But given that fossil cars are also loaded with onboard computers and GPS tracking systems, if the government truly wanted to stop you from driving via hacking, they could do that now. Or, you know, just make it illegal to drive.

A corollary to this one is that an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack would prevent you from driving. Again, in this situation, fossil cars would also be disabled by an EMP attack, as would every other computerized system in the vicinity. 

But hydrogen!

Hydrogen powered vehicles will probably be part of our future too. As I write this, it looks like hydrogen will be more practical for bigger vehicles and transportation systems, and right now, there isn’t enough infrastructure for the average driver to consider switching. That may change rapidly or it may take years. 

However, given the very, very short runway we have to decarbonize our economy, I would suggest you switch to EV now, and if hydrogen becomes viable at some point and it works for you, consider it then. The goal here is to stop dumping CO2 into the atmosphere as quickly as possible. We don’t have time to wait.

You can’t build EVs without gas and oil, therefore it’s a sham!

Oy. This one is just annoying. 

In a transition period, like the one we’re in, you still have to use the old system to produce the components of the new system. Much like the first car factories and rail lines were built with the help of horses. Enough said.

One other thing to consider

As of 2020, it was possible to do a cannonball run across the entire span of Canada (the world’s second largest country), in the winter, in a Tesla Model 3. In less than 78 hours. There have been similar runs in the US.

The takeaway here is that in 2020 the technology and infrastructure already existed for that to happen. 

The second takeaway here is that, on the EV front at least, things have only gotten better since then, and will continue to get better in the years to come.

People tend to think that the way things are now are the way they always will be, even when history has shown us, time and time again, that is simply not true. As I mentioned above, there’s already research being done to reduce charge time. There’s now a lot of money being thrown into research and development to make batteries lighter and more energy dense, and also to make use of elements like sodium and sulphur to mitigate extraction issues. This is good news for EVs, but also for energy production, where storage solutions will be needed for renewable electricity systems.  

It also pays to look at history. The first gas cars were extremely expensive toys for the very rich. They had tiny gas tanks, terrible range and we certainly didn’t have gas stations on every corner. Indeed, even now, there are parts of North America where there isn’t a gas station for hundreds of miles. 

People in the horse industry – which had powered our economies for centuries – confidently predicted that cars would not last. They happily pointed out all the problems gas cars had. 

Yet we pivoted from horses to cars in a span of less than 40 years. Change happens slowly and then it happens all at once.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_car_use_by_country

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