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Green Cars Are Not That Green

Green Cars Are Not That Green

I was asked by one of my daughters “How much better is an electric vehicle over a gas engine? Dad what is your favorite green car?” A good question for a young lady leaning to drive.

My favorite ‘green car’ was my 1985 Oldsmobile Tornado, sable green with a white landau top. A comfortable car and a great ride. I would still have that car today if it had not been stolen. The third time stolen was a charm – it never came back. I guess I was not the only one who liked the car.

“Dad! That’s not what I meant!”

I know, but it was an honest answer. My daughter had just seen an advert for an EV (electric vehicle) with it many touted claims of multiple virtuous savings. It seemed like many of the green cars that are on the market; the energy efficient car, the low emissions car, they are good for the environment, and cost much less to maintain. It seems to make sense – low or no emissions and fewer engine parts to maintain.   I get it.

Well, I am no car expert. Though I am serious aficionado of Toyota Land Cruisers from the 1970’s – I am still not an expert. So when the question was asked I knew I had to answer the question fully and honestly for her and for me, and I might can an article out of the process. After all, research is at the heart of due diligence.

Cost Savings

The initial cost of the electric vehicles EV cars is about 160% of comparable internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.

Fuel Savings

Electric cars are as green as the source of their electricity. If the electricity is coming from coal plants – well, it’s a dirty green car. If the electricity is coming from wind and solar – it is a screaming green car. The greenness of the cars is dependent upon the fuel sources for the electricity. Also the comparison of generation of power versus fuel consumption is not a straight trade. It is not as easy as a joule generated to a joule of power moving the car. There are power losses in electrical transmission, in charging the battery and in discharging the battery. Calculations must factors in the loss of power from the point of electricity generation, through wheeling the power to the point of consumption, losses upon conversion in charging the battery and then discharging the battery for propulsion. Also we must look at the general decline in the EV battery efficiency. It is good at the beginning, but it may just not work so well by 50,000 miles. If we assume a mpg of about 35 – it’s a push in US if an EV or a combustion engine is a better choice for fuel savings. So if your current combustion car gets less than 35 mpg – switching to an EV might improve your carbon footprint. Conversely if your combustion engine gets more than 35 mpg – and now many cars especially in diesel engines – get dramatically more than 35 mpg, such as the Chevrolet Cruze at 46 mpg – EV is a step backwards. (Sources motortrend.com and sierraclub.org)

Maintenance Savings

According to a piece in torquenews.com, electric cars cost more to maintain than gas cars. The costs are not so evenly distributed as in a combustion car. A combustion car has many parts that wear out at intermittent points such as alternators, air pumps, sensors etc… so the cost of maintenance is more or less spread out over time getting a bit more expensive as the years and miles of usage continue. With the EV cars, maintenance issues are very small for a good period of time, but when something fails, the expense of repair and replacement are significant. If you measure maintenance cost over the first 100,000 miles EV might win, over 200,000 miles they loose, it does matter how you set up the comparison between EV and ICE cars. It is interesting to note that many Prius owners complain of tires lasting only 18K to 20K miles before needing replacement and the low rolling resistance tires are not cheap tires.

Carbon Footprint Pollution Savings

I like it when the Hollywood types brag about how their car does not contribute to global warming. That their EV car has a zero or negligible carbon foot print. The best definition I found for a “carbon foot print”, is the amount CO2 emitted over the various cycles of sourcing, mining and refinement of raw materials to a finished product on the dealer’s showroom floor plus the emissions from vehicle use over its estimated life. EV cars produce significantly more emissions during sourcing of the exotic raw materials, in the refining of those materials, and in the manufacturing of the vehicles. The manufacture of an EV car is responsible for 30,000 lbs of CO2 and an ICE vehicle only 14,000 lbs. The difference is the equivalent of 80,000 miles of driving in an ICE powered vehicle. Yet the typical EV is only driven 50,000 miles before battery replacement. So at the dealership, the ICE engine already has a lower carbon footprint. If you are replacing an ICE engine that gets 35 mpg or less and keep the EV for 165,000 miles, it’s a push so long as you do not have to replace the battery. If you have to replace the battery every 50,000 miles the EV never catches up with the ICE engine. So again the studies that favor EV over ICE set up the studies to insure that the EV cars come out on top for carbon foot print measurements. (uscusa.org and wsj.com)

Over all Economic Savings

Cost of an EV, for most will be higher and the life span is shorter. EVs have life span of 165,000 miles. AN ICE engine with proper maintenance can operate 200,000 miles for gas and 300,000 miles for diesel.

Fuel costs vary considerably, most large cities the cost of power is over .15 kwh and while many calculations that one can save $1,000 per month in fuel costs use an price per kwh of .11 – the savings evaporate rapidly, especially in places like CA, NY, TX, the eastern seaboard and especially HI. With gas dropping now the supposed savings are gone. (optimumenergy.com)

The cost of maintenance of an EV car assuming you keep the car for its expected life, is greater than an ICE engine.

The outcome of the carbon foot print question is similar to the issue of maintenance the longer you keep and use the vehicle the less of the total carbon impact you will make.

Virtuous Claims

Costs Less To Operate – busted

Zero emissions – busted

Lower Carbon Footprint – busted

Tackles Global Warming – ah no!


The point is, I did not care about the outcome. I was and am very interested to see what the studies had to say. What was found, yet again, is that if you manipulate the data including ignoring a host of inconvenient facts, you can engineer the answer you want. If you like electric, go for it. But do not make the EV v. ICE choice based upon a series of marketing myths. Due diligence is about studying, albeit with a gimlet eye, all of the claims, research behind those claims, and presenting the results in as balanced a fashion as possible so as to allow a fully informed choice to be made.


As for my next vehicle, I am looking for early 80’s Land Rover Defender 110 to restore and paint with zebra stripes – no EV need apply.


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