Electric Blues

The bad news about zero-emission cars


As government deadlines for zero-emission vehicles draw closer, the scientific research community is telling politicians to pull the plug on the only vaguely plausible form of such a contraption: the electric car. Recent studies from the General Accounting Office, Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Reason Foundation all conclude that given the state of battery technology, the limitations and expected costs of the vehicles, and the anticipated environmental benefits, electric cars have a long way to go before they're up to speed.

California law mandates that by 1998 automobile manufacturers must sell zero-emission vehicles equal to 2 percent of all new automobiles. The proportion rises to 5 percent in 2001 and to 10 percent in 2003. Eleven eastern states, including New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, have adopted or are considering similar legislation.

The three new studies, however, suggest that such legislation is more wish fulfillment than sound public policy. The GAO report, which makes no specific policy recommendations, notes, "The ultimate viability of electric vehicles for widespread transportation cannot now be predicted or ensured." The report, which also comments on electric-car programs in foreign countries, details five major barriers to the vehicles–battery problems, gaps in infrastructure, uncertain safety, unproven markets, and high purchase/maintenance costs–and characterizes the "extensive efforts" necessary to eradicate the problems as "inherently risky."

The Carnegie-Mellon research, conducted by economist Lester B. Lave and engineering professors Chris T. Hendrickson and Francis Clay McMichael, "focus[es] on the environmental consequences of producing and reprocessing large quantities of batteries to power electric cars." Writing in Science, the authors conclude that since electric cars would have to rely on lead batteries, they will actually release 60 times more lead per kilometer of use relative to a comparable car burning leaded gasoline. The authors also note that nickel-cadmium and nickel metal hydride batteries–the two best alternatives currently available–are both incredibly expensive and highly toxic to humans and the environment.

The Reason Foundation study, by Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson, both professors of economics and urban planning at the University of Southern California, stresses the relative inefficiency of electric-car mandates at achieving their primary goal of reducing motor vehicle emissions. For instance, where emissions-based vehicle registration fees cut pollution at a cost of $1,650 per ton, it costs between $29,000 and $108,000 to get the same benefit with an electric car.

"Even when nonmarket benefits such as environmental effects are factored in, there is no evidence that [electric vehicle] mandates make economic sense," write Gordon and Richardson. "There are many more productive means of reducing…emissions, including efforts to accelerate the scrapping of older, polluting vehicles, mobile emissions testing, improvement in emissions technology…, cleaner fuels…, and [alternative fuel vehicles] other than electric-powered."