There are a lot of conceptions floating out there about the electrification of the automobile, but in short, automakers are staying in step with government policies that in turn are backed by numerous interwoven reasons.
While hydrogen fuel cell technology is also trying to get a leg up, many more hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric cars have been produced with more pending.
In common with all is these powertrains augment or replace internal-combustion powered transportation which today accounts for up to 70 percent of petroleum consumed in the U.S. – and enormous emissions and costs.
News reports may at times skim the surface by emphasizing things like greenhouse gases as a key motivation for tightening global mpg and emission regulations, but this article contemplates more.
Because of their broad scope, it’s been said regardless of political or ideological orientation, anyone stands to gain in some form or fashion from some or all of these factors.
But as is also true, there is pushback and disagreement on the issues.
Where debates can arise is how a society gets to a goal it decides is good. This article however will not get into specific policies, tax breaks, incentives and so forth that are propping up a nascent industry of plug-in hybrids, and all-electric cars.
Maybe we can save that fun for another day? Meanwhile, here are diverse reasons in no particular order that contribute to why the world is transitioning to electrified transportation.
Each of these could be its own article, more details besides these could be added, so please forbear only an outline in the interest of space.
Not immediately acknowledged as the most pivotal reason for electrification today, the concept of “peak oil” was at least a hot-button issue in the years leading through to last decade – and when policymakers were looking to production plug-in cars.
The term comes from geologist M. King Hubbert who predicted in 1956 production of U.S. oil would peak, likely in the early 1970s. Its subsequent decline he postulated would look like a bell curve, and he was right, it did peak in the 1970s, but new extraction techniques are bringing more oil back online.
Therefore, a doomsday scenario has seemingly been allayed in the mind of some, though this debate still continues among those who think horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have only bought time.
In any case, the fear of dwindling supplies and increased costs and potential geopolitical turmoil that could ensue was a motivator, and for some it still is.
The concept of “energy security” is pretty simple; a motivation anyone can understand, yet profound at the same time.
Wars are fought for oil security, and this is thus a national security issue that the Pentagon and military departments around the world recognize.
Sourcing energy within a nation’s borders means you will never see a tanker from OPEC delivering a new load of electricity.
When one factors the billions in costs, not to mention human lives that are affected, the notion of securing society’s supply of energy can be embraced.
This means not having all one’s energy eggs in one basket – and being solely reliant on petroleum is just that – and has been called a “monopoly” fuel.
Advocates speak of diversifying and allowing choice, while not stacking the deck against potential energy sources that could prove viable if given the chance.
Related to energy security is the fact that petroleum is a “global fungible commodity.”
The barrel price is set by world markets which thus keeps a nation dependent on other regions – including unstable ones where terrorists and wars threaten.
According to Brian Wynne, former economist and president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, oil being a global fungible commodity means huge unseen costs.
Wynne noted in a 2013 interview taxpayer funded military must protect the supply lines.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Not last, and definitely not least, is the reason to electrify vehicles that for many reading this will need no introduction.
Transportation emits greenhouse gases, and numerous studies have compared conventional vehicles’ “upstream” and “downstream” emissions and found plug-in cars cleaner. High mpg hybrids are also relatively better.
The ongoing debate has tried to pick on coal-fired power plants – which are an issue, but not enough to tip the scales.
Other issues like lithium in batteries, rare earth metals in motors, and other factors have kept alive both healthy discussion, as well as fear mongering, and willful obfuscation.
Policymakers driven by science – some will accuse ideology – are pushing for electrification because it is cleaner.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also noted it is easier to regulate and control power utilities – which are also being forced cleaner – than millions of tailpipes.
To be sure, it is a work in progress, but today’s plug-in “zero-emission” vehicles emit less gases deemed a threat to the climate.
If one disagrees on “global warming” and throws it away, harder is denying threats to human health by other carcinogens and particulate matter.
Modern catalytic converters and precise engine controls have brought internal combustion vehicles to much cleaner levels, but toxins remain.
The California Air Resources Board, also got its charter in 1967 for air quality reasons when Ronald Reagan was governor, and signed legislation to make it so.
At the time, California was concerned by smog formation, but numerous unhealthy outcomes result from tailpipe emissions that are non-existent with pure EVs, and lower with PHEVs and HEVs.
Better Uses For Oil Than Burning It
Aged Scotch whiskey might also run your car’s engine, but you know better than to burn that.
Petroleum also has a value, and while less costly, and more abundant, it is used in numerous items
Specifically, crude oil yields aromatic fluids which are used to make products including dyes, detergents, polyurethanes, and polyesters.
It’s also used in asphalt, in lubricants, and the plastic in your computer or smartphone is also likely derived from petroleum byproducts.
In short, petroleum and natural gas are chemicals with industrial uses.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes the primary feedstock for U.S. petrochemical crackers are hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGL), of which 82 percent were byproducts of natural gas processing in 2014.
While society may be able to go on many years burning petroleum, and with “peak oil” now a more uncertain debate, it may be less of an issue, but in question is long-term issues. This leads to the final point …
Taken in its broadest sense, sustainability is a question of what will work, and keep on working for the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on.
It is a philosophical question, and a practical one, and all the points above do touch on this notion of what can be sustained in the long run.
For example, a society wants peace – so energy security stands to improve that. Also a society would like the air to be cleaner, and the threat of climate change to be allayed.
And, even if we have enough oil to keep the tens of millions of new cars sold globally each year running on the petroleum, will that go on for 100 years? Will it last 200, 300 years?
If some people do not think in these terms, others do, and it’s been said that foreseeing issues and doing things about them before there becomes a need for crisis management is wise policy.
Electrified vehicles do meet needs now, are getting better, and however slowly the industry is dragging its feet – in the eyes of some – to bring more choices in more vehicle segments, it is happening.
This indicates drivers have tended to like quiet, peppy, even fun electrified vehicles which speaks to increased organic demand, that is hoped will lead to more competition, and more supply, and economies of scale, and … a viable self-sustaining market alternative.
Much more could be said on why automakers are electrifying their vehicles, but the justification transcends narrow views, entrenched politics, and actually promises something for all people into perpetuity – or until whatever comes next proves better.