Jack Zhong / Sustainability / Technology

Rise of the Electric Car

Written by: Jack Zhong
Edited by: Josephine McGowan

Cars are an essential part of modern American life. Yet, unfortunately, they are also one of the primary sources of pollution that contributes to climate change. As a result, manufacturers have begun to introduce more fuel-efficient cars and electric cars. Electric cars ingeniously utilize battery power or other forms of electrical energy as fuel, rather than the quickly depleting and environmentally harmful fossil fuels. However, the adoption of the electric car as a consumer norm has not caught on as quickly as expected. Customers who consider buying electric cars are still wary of the potential limitations of electric cars. For instance, many consumers worry about the limited driving range of electric cars and the charging time. Indeed, public charging stations are not readily available in many areas across the country, and the charging jacks provided do not always match. If one were to “run out of juice” in an electric car in a remote area, it would be very difficult to resolve this situation.

Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle

As a result, customers also tend to purchase what they view as the “safer” alternatives of hybrids or diesel vehicles. For instance, the Toyota Prius (Figure 1) is one popular hybrid model, but many other models are now available. These alternatives are attractive to buyers concerned about the environment because diesel and hybrid vehicles have better gas mileage than their conventional gasoline burning cars. In addition, unlike electric cars, both diesel and hybrid vehicles can be easily refilled at the gas station. Further, consumers believe gasoline cars have better performance in handling and acceleration. However, despite these views, it is undeniable that electric cars offer many environmental and performance advantages that should far outweigh the inconveniences.

Though the evidence of the environmental advantages of electric cars is strong, many consumers believe electric cars impacts are not as innovative as they are made out to be. The argument goes: “even if the car itself does not produce emissions, the electricity to power the car comes from coal and gasoline burning plants; we are still destroying the environment with greenhouse emissions.” Yet, this argument fails to acknowledge that although the electric energy does come from a power plant, a power plant is much more efficient than a car’s engine in burning and extracting the gasoline’s energy. The gasoline car engine loses a lot of energy in the form of heat in the process of burning gas to drive the pistons. The power plants that generate electricity for electric cars also burn gas. Yet, the large turbines of the electric power plants waste less heat, and secondary heat sinks at the powerplant collect “extra” heat that is reused for power generation.

Tesla Supercharger being used in Norway

Furthermore, compared to gasoline cars, electric cars are much more efficient because the electric motors are better than gasoline engines in converting stored energy into motion. The electric motor “converts more than 90 percent of the energy in its storage cells to motive force, whereas internal-combustion drives utilize less than 25 percent of the energy in a liter of gasoline. (Source A)” Another energy saving feature of electric cars is that electric motors do not need to stay running while the car is idle. Breaking can also regenerate electric energy to power the car. Overall, the owner of an electric car will spend less money to put electricity in the car, and will use much less fossil fuel to power their vehicles.

In addition to environmental advantages, electric cars have convenience advantages. Plugging in the car at night would mean no more gas station visits. In some electric vehicles made by Tesla Motors, the owner can remotely turn on the air conditioner before the driver enters the car, which is quite a perk during the summer. This would not be possible with gasoline cars, as running the A/C will drain the battery needed to start the engine. If the driver does have to go the distance, Tesla Motors has established “supercharging stations,” where cars can be charged quickly (Figure 2). The Tesla superchargers are spread strategically to cover a large area, and they charge half the battery in about 30 minutes. A fully charged Tesla Model S P90D sedan can travel about 273 miles (Figure 3). Eventually, Tesla plans to use solar panels to power the superchargers and produce extra power to put back into the grid. Although superchargers only work with Tesla vehicles as of now, the company is open to including cars of other manufacturers in the future.

Tesla Model S driving on freeway.

 

In terms of driving performance, electric cars actually have an advantage in acceleration over gasoline cars. The force of wheel rotation that the engine generates is known as torque. Electric cars now have improved performance because electric motors have more torque than gasoline motors when the cars begin to accelerate. This means that the wheels would move faster more easily, while using less energy. In fact, the Model S P90D has a 0-60mph time of 2.8 seconds. For comparison, a Ferrari 458, an ultra-expensive gasoline-powered sports car, has a 0-60mph time of 3.0 seconds. Electric cars also handle turning and maneuvering quite well because the battery pack can be designed to be low to the ground, which reduces the center of gravity and improves the car’s weight distribution.

Despite their advantages, however, electric cars are not perfect. For one, because they utilize novel technologies, they’re quite expensive. Yet, with mass production and technology improvements, electric cars should be much cheaper within five years. As we face crises of global warming and the decreasing supply of gasoline, we must find better ways to use our resources. Given that electric cars are more environmentally friendly and offer great performance, companies should invest in ensuring that they are further improved. Consumers should support the incorporation of electric cars by spreading awareness of their benefits and purchasing electric cars. Overall, electric cars hold great promise as the transportation of tomorrow.

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