Unintended Consequences of the EV Transition
Transition to EVs is important to reduce GHG emissions, but is the U.S. prepared for the externalities?
The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, accounting for 27% of all GHG emissions in 2020. Within the sector, light-duty vehicles were responsible for 57% and medium- and heavy-duty trucks were responsible for 26%.
In recent years states have adopted goals to eliminate most combustion engine automotive sales over the next two decades and federal funding is now available to build out the country’s EV charging network. However, the push for more EVs, as opposed to more fuel-efficient vehicles, carries unintended consequences:
EVs can be heavier, making them more dangerous to pedestrians and increase wear on roadways
Batteries in EVs require rare earth minerals for battery production that carry environmental risks
Increased EV usage will depend on a robust charging network requiring the power grid, municipalities, and private industry to be well prepared
Electrical fires involving EVs require more water and manpower to subdue
These issues are discussed below, but for more information check out the post from April, “States, Semiconductors, and the EV Transition”
Heavier EVs Make them Dangerous and Pressure Roadways
Electric vehicles are generally heavier than cars with internal combustion engines, which affects things like maintenance and safety due to the added weight of batteries.
Some safety studies show that while severity of crashes between automobiles does not change, EVs are more likely to impact pedestrians and cyclists – potentially due to their low-noise levels:
In 2011, a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed hybrid and EVs were 37% more likely to cause accidents involving pedestrians and 57% more likely when a cyclist is involved.
A look at the accident statistics of AXA Switzerland shows that drivers of electric cars cause 50% more collisions attributed to “the overtapping effect” that causes EVs to accelerate faster than combustion engines.
One study of Norway crash data from 2011 to 2018 showed the proportion of EV crashes in total traffic crashes had risen from zero to 3.11% in Norway, but did not vary in terms of severity from combustion engine automobiles. However, “EVs are confirmed to be much more likely to collide with cyclists and pedestrians”
Even before EVs, cars were getting heavier. According to the Environmental Protection Agency cars and trucks climbed from an average of 3,200 pounds to 4,200 pounds over the last four decades. In a widely viewed CNN article last year, the author noted EVs will weigh more than their similar combustion engine models. The Ford F-150 Lightning will weigh about 1,600 pounds more than the F-150 truck and the electric Volvo XC40 Recharge weighs about 1,000 pounds more than Volvo XC40.
The car hauling industry is already asking various government departments to increase weight limits on U.S. highways so that more EVs can be transported. If truck weight limits remain unchanged, transport firms will have to distribute EV deliveries across more trucks, increasing costs – safety advocates are concerned what impact weight changes would have on motorists. Beyond transporting EVs general EV use has been found to wear out the top layer of the asphalt more quickly because electric cars have a higher acceleration capacity.
Research has shown that electric vehicles do indeed cause extra wear due to their weight.
This means that state and municipalities will need to improve their roadways more frequently overtime.
Negative Environmental Effects: Sourcing Rare Earth Minerals and Battery Disposal
The electric motor and battery pack in EVs require rare earth minerals. The U.S. Geological Survey defines rare earths as “a relatively abundant group of 17 elements composed of scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides.” These minerals are not found in abundance in the U.S. and much of the world’s supply comes from countries with lax environmental regulations, including China, Russia, and South Africa.
China is currently the world’s largest producer and supplier of these minerals, providing more than 80% of global production in 2019. The mining process for these minerals can have a significant impact on air and water quality as well as disrupting local communities where mines are located. This month the administration announced $2.8 billion in grants to build and expand domestic manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles in 12 states.
Furthermore, disposing of these batteries poses its own set of challenges. Putting a dead battery in a landfill can cause it to release harmful toxins. If a battery cell is cut too deeply, or in the wrong place, it can cause a short-circuit that could lead to combustion and release toxic fumes. One New Jersey legislature sees disposal as a problem and introduced a bill to “to study and make recommendations on ways to safely store, reuse and properly dispose of these batteries.” The National Conference of State Legislatures noted in 2020 that at least three states—California, Massachusetts, and New York—have set up study groups to explore safe handling and recycling of lithium-ion batteries.
Building Out the EV Charging Infrastructure
The electric grid will need to support increased EV usage, particularly if more charging stations are added in residential areas. According to a McKinsey & Company Report, up to 1.2 million public chargers -- about 20-times more than what's available -- will be needed. Municipalities and private companies will also need to work together to build out a comprehensive and accessible network of charging stations. Without a robust charging system, this could create a bottleneck for EV purchase growth or increase range anxiety.
A New York Times article noted when electric car owners go on longer trips, they have trouble finding working public chargers to refuel their cars. And a survey by J.D. Power 2022 U.S. Electric Vehicle Experience found a decline in satisfaction with publicly available Level 2 charging stations compared to last year. While most owners were relatively satisfied with the charging process, public charger operability and maintenance are an issue. One in five respondents did not charge their vehicle during a visit, with 72% of those not charging due to a station malfunction.
The federal government is providing nearly $5 billion over five years to help states create a network of EV charging stations along the Interstate Highway System. The Department of Transportation estimates that states deploying chargers with the $1.5 billion in funding currently available will be able to cover some 75,000 miles of highway.
Electrical Fires Need More Water to Subdue
EVs do not rely on flammable fuel, but they do contain high voltage electric components that can spark fires. Additionally, EV fires may require more water and longer response times compared with traditional vehicle fires, putting additional strain on limited firefighting resources.
In Stamford, CT, firefighters noted in took 42 minutes and a total of 600 gallons of water per minute was needed to douse the flames. Route Fifty spoke with an expert on how firefighters can prepare for an influx if EVs in their communities:
It’s now multiple rigs. We go from 500 gallons to extinguish a vehicle fire to in excess of 5,000 – anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 gallons.
After Hurricane Ian, there is concern that EVs flooded and damaged by the storm have been catching fire without warning. “In some cases, the EVs would burst into flames, stay on fire, then reignite hours later.” But while electric vehicle fires are uncommon, as more EVs are on the road and cars get older, there could be more in the future.
Any opinions expressed herein are those of the author and the author alone.