Arguing from edge cases and other varieties of anti-electric car misinformation

Every new technology has its detractors, and some of these people are willing to indulge in fantastic flights of fancy to support their arguments that the new tech won’t work, or will never catch on. A recent exchange of ideas on Quora highlighted some of the most common forms of denial, specious logic and misinformation that the enemies of electric vehicles use to seed the public discourse with fear, uncertainty and doubt. (Strange as it may seem today, those of us of a certain age remember when many strikingly similar arguments were used against the internet, mobile computing and other advances.) 

Above: Tesla Model S charges alongside other electric cars (Flickr: Jakob Härter)

The question posed on Quora was “Are electric vehicles overrated?” The majority of respondents said that, on the contrary, EVs are, if anything, underrated, as their benefits are considerable and their rate of adoption is, so far, very low. James Burkill, who holds an MS degree in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science from University College Dublin, delivered an eloquent overview of the various logical fallacies that members of the press and the general public employ to denigrate, dismiss or diss the accelerating trend of electrification.

Burkill begins with the evergreen “long tailpipe” myth. Study after study has found that EVs are cleaner than ICE vehicles on a full-lifecycle basis, even when their electricity is generated from dirty fossil fuels. Despite the mountain of evidence, stories about EVs’ “dirty little secret” are still published on a regular basis (it’s funny how something that’s received so much press coverage for so many years can still be presented as a “secret”).

To cite just one of the more comprehensive studies, the Union of Concerned Scientists found in 2018 that, on average in the US market, in order to match the emission levels of an EV, an ICE vehicle would need to get around 80 mpg, a figure which not even a hypermiling hybrid can reach. And unlike ICEs, EVs get cleaner every year - the UCS’s equivalency figure in 2017 was 73 mpg. If you need more convincing, read my recent coverage of the spurious German study that appeared in May, and the Volkswagen study that debunked it. Still doubtful? Read about more studies here, here, here, here, here and here, or read David Herron’s digestible summary of the issue.

Above: Tesla's Model 3 (Flickr: Jakob Härter)

Burkill also points out that many skeptics make inaccurate assumptions because they have no experience of electric driving. One bugaboo that we often hear is that you have to “wait around” while an EV is charged. As every EV driver (or anyone who takes the trouble to ask) knows, one doesn’t wait to charge an EV, any more than one waits to charge a cell phone. “Almost all EV charging occurs when you’re not using the vehicle, almost always at home while the owner is sleeping and enjoying the off-peak electricity rate,” writes Burkill. “Less time is spent waiting for an EV to charge than [is spent] fueling a petrol car, which you can’t even do at a convenient location (home, work, shopping center, etc).”

Those with a little knowledge (always a dangerous thing) sometimes speculate that EVs emit more particulate matter than do ICE vehicles - because they’re heavier vehicles, they should cause more wear on the brake pads. Of course, any EV driver can see the hole in this argument - most braking action happens via regeneration. Many EVers enjoy “one-pedal driving,” and take pride in almost never using the friction brakes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the brakes on EVs should last much longer than those on legacy vehicles.

Another logical fallacy is what I call “static thinking,” and what Burkill calls “the strange assumption that technology cannot improve.” Skeptics base many of their arguments on the drawbacks of EV technology as it exists today (or often, as it existed a few years ago, as these folks don’t tend to stay informed about the latest models). The long tailpipe claptrap is partially based on this kind of thinking - it ignores the fact that electrical grids around the world are becoming cleaner every year (but gasoline and diesel fuel are not, and never will). Fans of hydrogen fuel cells also tend to be static thinkers - the main argument for fuel cell vehicles is that refueling with hydrogen is faster than charging an EV (as if charging times can never be reduced). There was a lot of this kind of intellectual laziness (or willful ignorance) going around during the early days of the internet, too - many argued that online audio and video would never work because of limited bandwidth, even as telecom companies were working day and night to increase bandwidth.

Above: BMW i3 is joined by other electric cars (Flickr: Jakob Härter)

Burkill’s favorite brand of spurious argument is what he calls “arguing from edge cases.” This is the practice of arguing that EVs will never make the mainstream because they can’t handle some extremely demanding use case, such as passing a truck while towing a horse trailer up a steep grade (granted, the most powerful of diesel pickup trucks can do this, as seen on TV). While I’ve never heard someone claim that “their daily commute is a 200 km round trip towing a ton of bricks up a mountain in the snow,” (Burkill’s example of an edge case), I have in fact had one EV skeptic tell me that he needed to be able to drive from Tampa to Atlanta (about 450 miles each way) and back in the same day. This fellow was so smugly satisfied with his EV-killing edge case that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this would be entirely possible (if exhausting) in a Long Range Model S, with two or three Supercharger stops.


Written by: Charles Morris