Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were amazing thinkers. Despite being psychologists, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics, something he would have shared with Tversky had that luminary not passed too soon.
One of their precepts was: “What you see is all there is”. This is key to the availability cognitive bias, where we things that are easily and quickly available to our somewhat conscious minds are assumed to be the dominant paradigm or the answer. For example, I live in a densely populated urban area so when I think about people’s homes, I think about condos and apartments. Meanwhile, deeply thoughtful people I respect live in detached, American single-story homes in the suburbs, and so assume that a lot more people live in them than do, unless they check the numbers.
And so, to cars.
Let’s start with the easy bit. Electrifying them with batteries and electric motors is the answer, it’s the one that’s winning and it’s going to win everywhere except garages like Jay Leno’s, where antique and obsolete cars are lovingly tended to and rarely driven. It’s part of the climate solution that is electrifying everything everywhere all at once.
Why? There are a bunch of reasons. Electricity is ubiquitous in our society. Getting it into electric cars is fairly easy with minor electrical work done by skilled trades, and getting the hook up only happens once for decades of service. Light-post chargers are cheap and easy. Chargers in shopping mall, restaurant and employer parking lots are cheap and easy. Chargers in multi-unit residential building parkades are cheap per unit, although it’s admittedly a bit of a pain and a process to get them retrofitted.
Electricity is cheap as a source of energy for cars, even in places where electricity is expensive. Wind turbines and solar panels are very efficient and cheap at making electricity. Batteries are very efficient at storing and returning it. Electric motors are more efficient than motors that burn fuel and move pistons. Electric cars don’t use any energy to idle. Electric cars brake by turning the electric motors into electric generators, turning slowing into more electricity in the batteries. Over 70% of electricity from wind and sunshine put into cars turns into forward motion, while only 20% to 30% of the energy in oil pumped from wells turns into forward motion in cars.
Alternatives, like hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic gasoline or diesel made from hydrogen are much more expensive and much less efficient. Making hydrogen from electricity and water throws away 30% of the electricity in the process. Making hydrogen from natural gas with carbon capture throws away over 50% of the energy in the natural gas. Fuel cells are only 50% to 60% efficient at turning hydrogen into forward motion. Turning hydrogen into synthetic replacement fuels costs more energy and the internal combustion engines that burn them are only about half as efficient as fuel cells.
Range isn’t a problem. Tesla’s batteries aren’t all that in terms of how much electricity they hold for their weight and size, yet they provide up to 400 miles of range on a charge. Their Semi trucks travel up to 500 miles on a charge towing massive trailers. The biggest EV battery manufacturer in the world, CATL, started manufacturing and delivering batteries with twice the energy density of Tesla’s this year. Silicon chemistries which are commercializing as we speak have the potential to deliver five times what CATL’s new batteries do.
Vehicle weight and tire wear pollution aren’t problems. The average ‘light’ vehicle in the developed world is a behemoth, monstrous in size compared to the vehicles of the 1960s or 1980s. Tire wear and weight of the SUVs and massive pickups loved so much in Europe and North America are in the same range as EVs.
Fires aren’t a problem. Gasoline cars are 20 times more likely to catch fire. Range Rovers and Land Rovers have destroyed a couple of UK parking garages in the past few years, and about 120,000 of them are recalled due to the problem. Putting electric car fires out just requires some new equipment and training for emergency responders who attend a lot more gasoline car fires in any event. Electric cars don’t have crappy batteries of the type likely to catch fire either. We know how to make batteries that are safe, and we’re doing it.
But that last bit, about fires, is part of the “what you see is all there is” problem. Electric car fires are man-bites-dog stories while gas car fires are dog-bites-man stories. As a result, every electric car fire is subject to global headlines. Now every big fire caused by gas or diesel cars, like the Luton airport disaster or the car delivery ship has headlines and social media speculation about being caused by EVs. Resist that.
And leaning into this idea, we see cars constantly even in densely populated areas. Streets are full of them even when there are far more people on sidewalks, in bike lanes, in buses and in invisible subways than the people in the cars. Even with the urban densification which is aiding in electrification of everything so greatly, cars are what we see outside of our doors. What we miss because the two and three ton, rubber wheeled, steel and glass, highly designed objects usually carrying only one person are so visible is how few there are compared to how many people there are, and how little they are driven.
The average car is used about 5% of the time. The rest of the time it just sits somewhere, taking up space. Is the car taking up space with its engine turned off a climate change problem? Not particularly. Will an electric car take up less space, or be used more often? Not really. Will it be much less impactful environmentally when it’s used? Absolutely. Will it be more pleasant for more people inside and outside of the vehicle when it’s driven? For sure.
But here in the western world, we’re used to thinking of everyone having cars, when that’s not really true. The USA’s 339 million people are only 4% of the world’s population, and even there 10% of households don’t have any cars while some have a lot more cars than people. China has 1.4 billion people, four times the population and only about as many cars in total (with vastly more of them being electric). The same is true for India. Japan has a lot fewer cars per person, as does Canada. The EU has a lot fewer as well.
The average person outside of sprawling suburbs of America, Australia and some Canadian cities have a much greater ability to not bother using cars at all, and younger generations are voting with their feet. Literally, as they walk more, bike more, take transit more and don’t buy cars themselves nearly as much.
It’s important to shift private vehicles to battery electric. They remain a big climate problem. But as the rest of the world modernizes, the fetishization of the personal automobile isn’t as prevalent as it has been in the west for the past few decades. There are a lot more alternatives, including more transit access, electric bikes and car share systems that are trending electric rapidly, diminishing the percentage of cars sitting idly in parking stalls and reducing emissions.
When you look out your window or walk along a street, don’t be trapped by the availability bias into thinking that cars are the only thing and that just electrifying them will be enough. What you see is not all there is.