Great article about electric vehicles in the New Yorker—just a couple of corrections needed
Those of us who write about electric vehicles professionally are accustomed to seeing the mainstream media get things wrong. Even pro-EV articles in newspapers and consumer magazines typically contain a certain amount of misinformation.
Above: Tesla's Model Y (Source: EVANNEX; Photo by Casey Murphy)
I’m a long-time fan of the New Yorker, an excellent magazine that features in-depth reporting on a wide variety of topics. I was excited to see a recent piece, America’s Favorite Pickup Truck Goes Electric, which focused on the Ford F-150 Lightning, and more broadly on the rising popularity of EVs. Alas, I was disappointed when I read the article and encountered several misleading statements.
Author John Seabrook discussed the environmental impact of producing EV batteries, and the fact that battery capacity declines over time. To be fair, these are both valid concerns, but Mr. Seabrook greatly oversimplified both issues, and made them sound much more problematic than they are—he may have been unaware that these are two common canards that are endlessly exaggerated and disingenuously distorted by the anti-EV crowd.
He also stated that “owing to the terms of Tesla’s onerous patent, [Tesla Superchargers] aren’t compatible with Ford EVs and other electric vehicles,” which isn’t strictly accurate (it’s a question of technical incompatibility, not of patents), and struck me as misleading, because he didn’t mention the fact that Tesla developed its proprietary Supercharger system at a time when no other automaker offered DC fast charging, nor the fact that the company is now beginning to open up its system to other automakers’ EVs.
As a public service (and a means of self-promotion), I wrote a letter to the New Yorker in which I addressed the issues with the article, and my letter was published in the magazine’s March 7, 2022 issue.
Now, before you attack the New Yorker with your online torches and pitchforks, let me point out two things. First, the article was in no way an anti-EV hit piece—it was a balanced overview that drew on numerous interviews, and the inaccuracies were the kind that are hard to avoid when an outsider writes about a highly technical field (yes, I have been guilty of this myself). Second, for a publication to acknowledge its errors is a sign of good journalism—lesser mags, especially in these click-driven times, seldom bother to address errors in past articles.
As a matter of necessity, the New Yorker condensed my letter, and adapted it to their house style (which includes, among other quaint idiosyncrasies, an insistence on writing out numbers). Also, as news publications do, they omitted the citations I included to back up my assertions (if it ain’t got citations, it ain’t non-fiction). So, dear readers, I thought you might like to read the original, longer version of my letter, et voila.
Letter to the New Yorker
I enjoyed reading John Seabrook’s article about the coming wave of electric pickup trucks, and I agree with much of what he has to say.
I’m longtime subscriber to the New Yorker, and I appreciate (and envy) the level of access your writers enjoy, and the amazing amounts of time they are able to devote to their research. However, even the most in-depth research is sometimes no substitute for the broad knowledge that comes from writing about a specific topic all day, every day.
I’ve been a full-time writer about EVs for the past decade. I’ve published several thousand articles about EVs, including at least a dozen about the Ford F-150 Lightning. I identified several misleading statements in Mr. Seabrook’s article (admittedly, fewer than in most EV-related articles I read in the mainstream media). Mr. Seabrook may not realize that a couple of the issues he briefly touches on have been examined in great detail in scientific publications and the EV trade press for over a decade.
(1) Seabrook cites a single scientist who said that it takes 25,000 miles of driving for an EV’s lower tailpipe emissions to cancel out the environmental footprint of battery manufacturing. Rahul Malik is a distinguished battery scientist, but he is far from the only one who has researched this highly complex issue, and others have found much shorter periods to cancel out the EV’s “climate backpack.”
A model developed by the Argonne National Laboratory (which includes thousands of parameters), indicates that a Tesla Model 3 driven in the US would reach lifetime emissions parity with a Toyota Corolla after 13,500 miles. (https://www.reuters.com/business/autos-transportation/when-do-electric-vehicles-become-cleaner-than-gasoline-cars-2021-06-29/)
Tesla’s 2020 Impact Report (https://www.tesla.com/ns_videos/2020-tesla-impact-report.pdf) claims that “a Model 3 has lower lifetime emissions than an equivalent ICE [internal combustion engine] after driving 5,340 miles.”
Mr. Seabrook’s statement is at best a vast oversimplification (as I suspect Dr. Malik or any battery researcher would agree). Obviously, he couldn’t go into any great detail in the article, but he should at least have noted that the relative emissions footprint of an EV varies widely depending on the particular model in question, the generation mix of the region where it is driven, and of course the ICE vehicle it’s being compared to.
A 2020 study from the Eindhoven University of Technology (https://www.oliver-krischer.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/English_Studie.pdf) cites several specific examples. In Europe, the lifetime carbon emissions of a Volkswagen e-Golf are 54% lower than those of a Toyota Prius; the emissions of a Tesla Model 3 are 65% lower than the emissions of a diesel Mercedes-Benz C220d.
The “long tailpipe” issue, as it is known in the industry, has been the subject of scores of scientific studies (as well as thousands of anti-EV hit pieces). I’ve been reporting on this topic for a decade or so, and the vast majority of published studies have found that the lifecycle carbon emissions of an EV (including raw materials, manufacturing, power generation and end-of-life disposal) are far lower than those of an ICE vehicle, even if the EV is charged with non-renewable power.
The latest dose of debunking comes from Yale University, where a new study (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-27247-y) found that the total indirect emissions from EVs pale in comparison to those of fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
In a 2020 article, I listed a few of the studies that have examined this topic: https://chargedevs.com/newswire/new-study-reaffirms-carbon-emissions-of-evs-lower-than-ices-lists-flaws-in-long-tailpipe-arguments/.
(2) Seabrook states that EV batteries are “rated to last no more than eight to ten years.” I’m not sure exactly what he means by “rated,” but the statement is highly misleading at best. All EV batteries are warranted against failure for 8 years by federal law (in California, it’s 10 years). Battery capacity declines gradually over time. Several studies have measured real-world battery degradation over a period of years, and concluded that a typical EV battery should retain a usable capacity for many years, after which it can be repurposed in a stationary storage application. I don’t know if Mr. Seabrook asked any battery engineers at Ford or Rivian about this issue, but I doubt that any would have agreed that their batteries would be ready for the junkyard after ten years.
The Eindhoven study says: “Empirical data shows modern batteries will most probably last for more than 500,000 km. New studies claim two million km is possible with current technology.” I can provide more detailed citations on request.
(3) The fact that Tesla Superchargers aren’t accessible to owners of other EVs is not so much a matter of patents as a simple business decision. Tesla operates the Supercharger network as a service that’s offered only to its customers. The company recently announced its intention to open up the network to other brands’ EVs, and is slowly beginning to do so on a pilot basis.
Senior Editor, Charged
Written by: Charles Morris