Jul 27 2023

More On Electric Vehicles

I recently wrote about electric vehicles, which sparked a lively discussion in the comments. There was enough discussion that I wanted to pull my responses together into a new post. Before I get to the details, some general observations. The conversation, in my opinion, nicely demonstrates a couple of general critical thinking principles. The first is that basically well-meaning people (meaning they are not a paid shill) can look at essentially the same collection of facts and come to a different opinion. This relates partly to another post I wrote recently, about how we can subjectively define “true” in order to support pre-existing narratives.

The other principle on clear display in the comments is our old friend confirmation bias (this cuts in all directions, although not necessarily symmetrically). We tend to seek out, accept, and remember bits of information that seem to support what we already believe or want to believe, while finding reasons to dismiss or ignore information that contradicts our narrative. The result is a powerful illusion of knowledge, that what we feel in our guts (or aligns with our ideology) is objectively and obviously true. Therefore, those who disagree with us must be suffering some catastrophic personal failing.

There are also external factors at play, because we are not living in a neutral or disinterested information ecosystem. Not only are we biased in how we gather facts, information is being curated for us with the specific purpose of influencing what we believe to be true. This is also a self-reinforcing phenomenon, because acceptance of curated information leads us to increasingly curated and extreme sources of information, sometimes leading to the infamous “information bubble”.

Compensating for this situation is complicated, but there are some easy steps you can take. Many commenters either asked a question or stated as fact something that could easily be checked with basic Google skills. In some cases they appeared to change their mind in light of new information with proper citations. But why didn’t they find that information for themselves, before providing a contradictory opinion in a public forum? We all should learn how to leverage the same technology which now floods us with misinformation. In many cases, just a few minutes of thoughtful searching led to authoritative sources of factual information. Also, when trying to put all this information together, you can seek out a range of opinions. I especially value seemingly thoughtful opinions that disagree with my current position. Why do they disagree? Do they know something I don’t, or are we proceeding from different value judgements, etc.?

Here are some of the questions that were raised in the comments. One was about the lifespan of EV batteries. The impression (a common one and often raised as a reason not to buy EV) is that owning an EV means replacing the very expensive battery on a regular basis. This is a scientific factual question – what is the lifespan of typical EV batteries? But like all scientific questions, there are layers of complexity and levels of uncertainty. A typical ICE vehicle (internal combustion engine) has a lifespan of 200,000 miles. It is projected that, due to lower maintenance (no moving parts) EVs should last on average about 300,000 miles. Extrapolating from current data, it seems that EV batteries should last 300,000-500,000 miles. Very few older EVs have had to replace batteries, and the longevity curves seem to flatten out, so they are lasting longer than even thought.

But it’s a good example of how selective use of information can be used to present the same situation in either a positive or negative light. One commenter concerned about battery life brought up the fact that they are only insured for 150,000 miles, and only guarantee retaining 70% of their initial range. Even if we all agree that this is a true fact, how do we interpret it? I think the actual longevity data is more important, and insurance companies typically give themselves a healthy buffer. Also, they are including some of the current uncertainty in their calculations. But you see how the same information can be interpreted through different lenses.

Car fires are another example – how worried should we be about EV car fires? Here are some facts:

The site found that hybrid vehicles had the most fires per 100,000 sales at 3474.5. There were 1529.9 fires per 100k for gas vehicles and just 25.1 fires per 100k sales for electric vehicles.

EVs have the least percentage risk of catching fire, but when they do catch fire they are much harder to put out. Which of those facts is more important? And do we really nee to make purchasing decisions based on a 0.025% risk?

EV’s are more expensive to insure. OK, a little bit, but they are still less expensive to own and operate overall. The increased insurance rate is based on uncertainty, and as we build larger databases of information about EVs the prices are coming into parity.

There is also a lot of relative privation going one when discussing EVs. Many people argue that EV’s are not “the” solution, or bring up limits to current ownership. There are other things we can do to mitigate climate change, like reducing car ownership. (Here is a TikTok video making this point – one I made a specific response to that should go up within a week.) First, this is a bit of a strawman. No one is saying that everyone should buy an EV right now, and this will solve global warming. All other proposed solutions, like increasing public transport, making more walkable communities, making it easier for bikes and scooters, are all good. But car ownership isn’t going away anytime soon. The real question is – if you are going to buy a car, how should you think about the costs and benefits of an EV vs an ICE vehicle?

EVs are not convenient or the best option for everyone right now. Sure. So what? It will take, optimistically, 30 years to transform our car fleet to mostly EV. About 48% of Americans own their own private off-street parking space with access to an electrical outlet. That is, therefore, the low-hanging fruit for early adopters. While people for whom EVs make sense can be buying them now, we can also be building out the infrastructure necessary to increase the number of people for whom EVs make sense. Because it is not the absolutely best option right now for everyone, is not an argument against EVs.

Finally, getting back to the point of my initial post, a lot of the issues with EVs can be improved by educating people about range anxiety. We do not have to, and should not, be catering to range anxiety by making EVs with ridiculously high ranges. For most people, a 250 mile range is all they need. Hitting the sweetspot of battery range will avoid unnecessary costs, reduce the weight of vehicles, lower insurance, and allow the production and sale of more EVs.

There is, admittedly, a lot of moving parts to the question of the advantages and disadvantages of EVs over other options. There is also a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of biased opinions. It is a good topic on which to practice good skeptical Google-fu. Try to distance yourself from your pre-existing biases, and see what objective information is out there, and how best to put it into perspective.

No responses yet