Is a Tesla car (or other EV) “Green”?

The short answer is NO.

The longer answer would be “Compared to What” and also involve “At what Cost?”.

The issues here are complex. If you have a 4,000 square foot poorly insulated house and downsize to a 3,200 sq. ft. of same insulation – it is “greener” of course, but it is not green!
This is the type of problem we run into when trying to calculate advantages or disadvantages of Electric Vehicles (EV). We could point out some instances or anecdote where an EV “helps a little”, however – as Yales study concludes, EV’s as current made and sold are not compatible with Climate Goals. We can’t “get there” with “it’s a little better” or, “it’s about the same” or even “it’s 30% better”. Note that Hybrids are at least 100% better than many non-hybrids…that’s revolutionary, although not as sexy.

Let’s start at the top and work down through the issues. Some of them may be of more importance to prospective buyers – others less so.

  1. The Big Problem is the combination of “Car Culture” and the amount of resources and infrastructure needed for it.

This should be obvious – but many don’t even think this far. An EV will weigh 500-1500+ lbs more than many ICE or Hybrid vehicles. This means it takes more energy and “stuff”  to manufacture. It also means that the wear and tear on roads, bridges and tires is greater. Gasoline infrastructure is mostly built – while we need to spend trillions on improving the electric grid and millions of charging stations.

Read this article – just on tires! A 4400 Lb Tesla will vastly “out pollute” 3400 lb Hybrid in this way.

Buying a EV does nothing to avoid the building of those additional lanes on the interstate. It does nothing to help with the waste of time in traffic – and it currently  does nothing to avoid the death and destruction on the highways.

In short, many would say it’s the wrong direction in the first place – to continue the full-on car culture instead of building Bullet Trains and other forms of transport which are 100% proven to be vastly greener. We are not going to get “there” by having vehicles that are 5% or 10% “better and greener” than the last generation. Consider a good modern Hybrid car – they are 200% to 300% better than the gas cars from 15 or 20 years ago.

By pointing to Car Culture as the Main Problem, this writer is not saying “we must get rid of all cars” – rather, the point is that investment should geared toward solving the real problems – at a cost we can afford.

The greenest car you can have is an ancient used model that sits in the garage most of the time.   Remote Working, uBer, eBikes, etc. allow many modern families to get by with one (or fewer) cars. If the USA were to truly plan a greener future, we’d be building Bullet Trains as quickly as we could. A cynic might note that there is not nearly as much profit in Bullet Trains as there is in selling every household an EV or two! Imagine – 100K+ in revenue per household…a dream for capitalism, but not for the Planet.

2. Initial Cost of Vehicle and ongoing Costs.

Short Version – the 5 year cost of ownership or a Tesla Model Y is $52,000
The same for (larger) Avalon Hybrid is $30,000
The same for  Honda Hybrid is $24,000 to $27,000
A Tesla Y buyer is spending $25,000 extra over 5 years…

Do your own research at this Link – Tesla is not even in the top 100 vehicles for low cost of ownership.

At present, the cost of a mid-level EV from Tesla is 50 to 100% more than a hybrid. “Green” applies to many things, including money (value for the dollar). Even if EV’s were greener then they are (they might be someday), they have to be affordable. The consumer could spend that extra 20 or 30K on many things which might provide better results (PV on their house, insulation, new furnace, carbon offsets, eBikes, etc.). None of these are as sexy “look at me” as a Tesla, but likely will provide MUCH more help for Mother Nature per dollar spent.

Some parts of an EV may outlast those on regular cars – but others, such as tires, roads and bridges, are going to cost more due to the excess weight.

Fuel costs can differ – in general an EV costs as much or more than a good hybrid in per mile driven (fuel). Gasoline can spike – some lucky few live near Hydro plants or have large Solar PV arrays on their own roof…in these cases, the EV gets both greener and cheaper.

Right now – the Energy Mix in most of the USA is such that approx. 60% of the Electricity is generated by Fossil Fuels (Nat Gas and Coal). Therefore, in most cases, the critics who say “Your Tesla is powered by Fossil Fuels” have a point. On the other hand, in a country like Norway where almost 100% of the electric is renewable Hydro, an EV is much cleaner when it comes to the actual emissions generated. In these types of use cases, an EV may only take a year or two to “pay for” the increased use of manufacturing materials.

Yale and others have done extensive studies on comparing EV’s – studying to see if they could be part of the solution to Global Warming (CO2 reduction), etc. – their summary? Exactly what I am saying in this article. The existing EV’s are not compatible with “Green”.
“the current demand level of personal motorized transport is compatible with ambitious climate targets only under two major conditions: (1) consumers must switch to more energy-and material-efficient vehicles, for example, smaller or shared electrified vehicles, and (2) the energy used to charge these vehicles must be highly decarbonized.” 

Current EV’s are not “smaller and shared” – and surely not more material efficient! In fact, some of the popular and newer models weigh as much as 6,000 lbs – DOUBLE the weight of many Hybrids and ICE cars. Double the weight, in general, means double the resources from the Planet.

Q and A – anticipating what many folks might ask

Q: If this is the case, why are so many people – including Elon Musk – promoting these machines?
A: Two Teslas in your garage = $100,000+ in revenue to Tesla. The cost of Bullet Trains, Trams, Light Rail and other upgrades to transportation and efficiency don’t “make money” in that fashion. “Capitalism” and “The Economy” left unchecked attempt to sell (and often create debt) the largest dollar outlay for “solutions”.

Q: What qualifications do you have? What do the real Experts say?
A: I have been in alt energy since the 1970’s – installed Solar Panels commercially starting in 1979. Imported, distributed, installed tens of millions of dollars worth of renewables. Studied energy of all types extensively.
Yale did a study in 2021 – quite detailed asking these same questions. The only way an EV works out, according to their research, is as I myself promote (small, shareable, public transit – and, more renewables. Here is their summary (read carefully).
“the current demand level of personal motorized transport is compatible with ambitious climate targets only under two major conditions: (1) consumers must switch to more energy-and material-efficient vehicles, for example, smaller or shared electrified vehicles, and (2) the energy used to charge these vehicles must be highly decarbonized.” 

Q: Would Full Self Driving Change the “Green Calculation:?
A: YES! In fact, the entire idea of Tesla being green is dependent on full self-driving – something called Level 4 or Level 5 automation. Tesla is currently at Level 2. WayMo (google) appears to be the current leader in this technology with Level 4 cars on the road.
However, we would need a large percentage of cars to have these features to move the needle.
In reality, this is unlikely for decades! Meanwhile, the folks buying these (and the resources used, etc.) are simply fooling themselves (but driving cool wheels in come cases)/

Q: When will Tesla have Full Self Driving?
A: The question should be modified to ask “Will Tesla EVER have Full Self Driving, and – if so, when is it likely?”.
There is no good answer to this so I will bring forward the current situation, delays and opinions of other experts. Tesla claimed, in 2019, that they might have this “Robo-Taxi” functioning by 2020. It didn’t occur. Now, Tesla is predicting 2024/2025, which is 10X as long as the original claims (made on AI Day in 2019). Some experts in AI (Artificial Intelligence) say it may never happen to the extent claimed – “never” meaning 20+ years, IMHO.
The writer, if he had to guess, would say it will be 20 years before self-driving makes an “energy dent” in the big picture of car culture.

Q: How many Companies are Actively working on Self-Driving cars or software?
A: Quite a few! It’s safe to guess about a dozen which have a very serious commitment to the project and many more working on smaller parts of the problem. This includes ALL the big car makers worldwide in addition to the newer EV-only companies, as well as various IC (chip) and computing companies.

Q: If I buy an EV now, will be be able to be upgraded to Full Self Driving with software?
A: Maybe…but probably not-don’t count on it in terms of making an expensive purchase decision. The Self-Driving hardware of Tesla was upgraded in 2019 and odds are it will be upgraded every few years. Newer hardware is vastly superior – and since the self-driving problem has not been fully solved, no one can say exactly what hardware is needed to get to Level 5. These problems have always been underestimated and there is no reason to think this will change.
Companies like WayMo (google) are likely to license out their software and hardware package to existing manufacturers…when and if that happens, you would know that you have a vehicle that passes the regulatory burden. Same with Tesla – if and when they have full approval from all the regulatory bodies and have their cars running in public at level 4 and 5 you will then know that the hardware/software is ready for the job.

Q: Can you detail some of the big problems of so-called “Car Culture”?
A: Sure, first – look around you! Highways are adding more and more lanes – and yet traffic persists. 40,000 dead each year just in the USA – many more terribly injured. Blacktop and roads and parking lots all create excess runoff and pollution – use large amount of energy to produce (blacktop made from coal, oil, etc.). Landscape is often ruined – take notes for just one day and see what your car does and what is needed to support it! Like this:
1. Parked in my garage (cost for garage, insurance, runoff, etc.).
2. Drove down my driveway (blacktop, runoff, heat sink).
3. Drove to Store (roads, lights, danger to pedestrians, large parking lots needed)
You get the idea. Your car is MUCH more than just “a car” – it requires vast amounts of support which costs money – and create many problems.
High Speed Rail, for example, would take up much less space and be many times as efficient per seat-mile. It doesn’t require rest stops, gas stations, hotels along the way, eateries, etc. – you get from here to there without the entire landscape in-between being highly disturbed.
The same is true, to some degree, with newer airliners. You need an airport at each end, but no ribbons of hotels and roads in-between.
Newer airlines get approx. 80 MPG for a single seat, making them more efficient than most cars for longer trips…even when two people are traveling (40 MPG equiv).

Summary – an EV may be a nice car. But, please, do not fool yourself that this is the path to a sustainable situation for wasteful countries and cultures like the USA. We need a real plan – which includes 10’s of thousands of miles of Bullet Trains, properly planned communities and much more.

It’s actually pretty simple. Look at your total lifestyle….if you are living in the typical “upper middle class or above” Western Fashion (flying here and there, have a nice house or two, two or more nice cars, TV’s, computers, etc.) you (and I) are the problem – not the solution.

Buying a Car or two…and then believing we are “Saving the World” due to slick marketing or talking points, is silly. We need real change…which isn’t going to happen by switching car brands.

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