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The electric car is a car propelled by electric motors. Though technically this could also include vehicles in which the electricity to power said motors comes from hydrogen fuel cells or ultra-capacitors, in general usage the term refers solely to battery electric cars, as well as allowing for the engine to run at peak thermal efficiency, thus wasting less fuel.
The hybrid electric car refers to a car powered by both electricity and another power source, typically an internal combustion engine (ICE). There are two different types of hybrid electric car; the parallel hybrid (such as the Toyota Prius) and the series hybrid (such as the Chevrolet Volt). The difference between the two is that in a parallel hybrid, both the ICE and the electric motor(s) are connected to the wheel and deliver propulsion directly, whereas in a series hybrid the ICE is used to generate electricity to power an electric generator, which sends electricity to the motors to turn the wheels. This saves weight as there is no need for a gearbox.
The electric car is technology dating back to at least 1835, and was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however with the invention of the electric starter, petrol powered cars became more common as they were cheaper to produce and their fuel was cheap and abundant at the time.
The hybrid electric car goes back to 1900 when Ferdinand Porsche used a petrol engine to generate electricity for what was initially meant to be a full electric car. Powering the car from lead acid batteries alone would cause it to weigh too much; it would still have been subject to the range issues which electric cars still suffer.
Advantages of electric cars
- Often cheaper to run.
- Far more energy efficient.
- Less pollution.
- Doesn't waste energy or pollute through idling (e.g. while in a traffic jam or waiting for the light to change), though this benefit is reduced when compared with traditional cars fitted with a start-stop system.
- Reduced traffic noise (at mid-low speeds).
- Balance-of-trade benefits for most countries through the use of domestically produced electricity and less reliance on liquid fuel imports.
- Less vibrations and noise when driving.
- Exemptions from car stamp-duty, as well as reductions in registration fees (in certain countries).
Pure electric cars are often promoted as causing no air pollution. However while they have zero tailpipe emissions (and zero tailpipes), they still produce particulate air pollution from wear on tires and brakes and from kicking up dust from the road. It has been estimated in the UK that particulate pollution kills more people than NO2, which is largely from ICE exhausts; the likes of Frank Kelly (chief advisor to the UK government on pollutants) have emphasised that electric cars alone won't cure air pollution. However, while electric cars will be a real source of roadside pollution, it is sometimes exaggerated by anti-electric car campaigners. If electric cars are significantly heavier, they will produce more tire wear (some estimates say that because electric cars have larger batteries, they'll be heavier, but in view of the importance of increasing range they may be less heavy than currently popular SUVs). Regenerative brakes as used in electric cars do not produce the same brake wear and dust. There also seems to have been little pressure on tire or car companies to reduce pollution from these sources, or consideration of pollutants when it comes to design of tires and brakes, so it is likely improvements are possible. Despite warnings, it's still not clear exactly what the effect of a transition to all-electric vehicles would be. But cycling, walking, and the wind all stir up dust, so we can never be pollution-free.
A separate factor is emissions from power generation: this depends very much on the method of power generation used.
Electric cars were invented in the late 19th century around the same time as internal combustion engined (ICE) vehicles, and initially it wasn't clear which technology would prove more viable. Since then there have been many false dawns in the electric car, such as the launch and then recall of the General Motors EV1 in the 1990s. There are various theories that the big car companies and/or oil companies conspired to promote internal combustion engines (fuelled by gas or diesel) over other better technologies, including electricity.
Some claims go back to the start of the 20th century, including around the origins of a mysterious fire which wiped out most of New York's electric cabs in 1907. However by the 1920s, ICE vehicles had improved greatly, and were easy to maintain and refuel. Pacific Electric System's electric street cars were popular in California in the early 20th century, but bought up and eventually dismantled by oil and ICE car companies, another popular conspiracy that's even referenced in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. The 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? focused on failed attempts to launch an electric car in the 1990s, with some explanations for the failure being mundane (poor battery technology, people didn't want to buy them) and others more conspiratorial (oil companies funded an astroturfing campaign to prevent the building of charging stations, FUD spread about hydrogen cars.)
In a nutshell, the argument for an EV suppression conspiracy as described here goes:
- EVs are potentially better and will wipe out revenue for ICE cars and oil if they get mass-market adoption (this is the shakiest/most debatable core point).
- Oil revenue from transport is ~2.5 billion USD a day, practically anything that delays EV adoption by any period of time is profitable for the oil industry as a whole.
- The oil industry is fairly trivially linked to climate denying BS, they already spend money to delay reduction of oil usage.
- The car industry will also be hurt by EV sales (huge parts of their supply chain would have to be turfed and they're rather inflexible. So the car industry also has motive to suppress EVs. This point is unnecessary and weaker than the above points, but it comes up regardless.
- Why wouldn't there be a conspiracy? It's more consistent with past motives and behaviour for the oil industry than to not pursue unscrupulous activities in the name of profit.
- History Of Electric Vehicles, About.com.
- Pollution warning over car tyre and brake dust, BBC, 11 July 2019
- Electric cars are not the answer to air pollution, says top UK adviser, The Guardian, 4 Aug 2017
- Are Electric Cars Being Suppressed?, All Time Conspiracies
- See the Wikipedia article on General Motors streetcar conspiracy.
- See the Wikipedia article on Who Killed the Electric Car?.