|Fig. 1: Tesla's Model X, capable of driving up to 295 miles on one charge (Source: Wikimedia Commons).|
Today, many consumers, government officials and manufacturers view electric vehicles as the solution to the detrimental effects of traditional models of transportation on the environment. Although electric vehicles have yet to be commonplace, Morgan Stanleys research group predicts that around one billion electric vehicles will be on the roads by 2050. This major disruption of the automobile industry is due to emission regulations being pushed, in addition to saving money - long-term - low maintenance and popularity. Despite electric vehicles making large strides towards a cleaner environment and technology-driven world, there are various implications that must be considered for the future.
In 2009, the United States federal government emphasized electricity as an alternative to petroleum within the transportation sector, and established a national goal of putting one million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015.  Since this goal, companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Tesla continue to make drastic changes towards creating the next generation electric vehicle.  Three common advantages noted from the public of plug-in vehicles are: high fuel economy and lower energy costs; a positive environmental image; and the ability to be at the cutting edge of new vehicle technology.  According to a survey of early impressions in large U.S. cities, respondents consider fuel economy as a main benefit and 36% believe it is somewhat advantageous.  The energy cost savings associated with owning an electric vehicle rather than gasoline are prominent. Each mile traveled with electricity will cost 60 to 80% less than a mile with gasoline, given current power and fuel prices, and gasoline prices are expected to rise faster than electricity in the U.S.  Aside from energy cost savings, it is projected that by 2050, the reduction in carbon pollution could be as much as 59 to 71% in comparison to gasoline-powered vehicles. Moreover, respondents are less likely to consider technological innovation and environmental imaging as primary advantages of electric vehicles. Above all, electric vehicles continue to grow in popularity, as more companies showcase the most unique and technology-driven cars in the industry, where there is no comprise between design and environmental sustainability.
Although there is clear evidence regarding the benefits of owning an electric vehicle, we must also take into account the implications that it presents to society, at large. According to the same survey mentioned previously, the three most common disadvantages to potential consumers are high purchase price, long recharging times and limited driving range.  Such disadvantages are all associated with a decreased intent to purchase the vehicle. Most importantly, there are still environmental consequences of producing large quantities of batteries to power electric vehicles.  Lead-acid batteries, which are likely to be used in production, have resulted in substantial releases of lead to the environment in the past.  According Lave, Hendrickson and McMichael, "over a 49-year period, 6.5% of the primary lead production, 3.4% of the secondary lead production, and 1.1% of the lead processed in the manufacturing sector were released to the environment."  Lead is highly detrimental to the health of humans, causing a reduction in cognitive function and behavioral problems. However, it is significant to consider that these figures pertaining to lead-acid batteries are derived from 1995. Today, there are alternative battery technologies that are available, including nickel metal hydride, nickel-cadmium batteries, and lithium-ion batteries (which are widely associated with Tesla). Although such alternatives prove to be better for the environment, they remain expensive and detrimental. Furthermore, lithium mining, their battery lifecycles and recycling of the lithium-ion battery are factors to consider for the future, and an issue Tesla and other contemporary companies remain to grapple with. Fig. 1 shows Teslas Model X, which contains a 90 kWh battery that sustains longer driving distances of up to 295 miles. Above all, recharging stations, short driving range and battery replacement are amongst the most common disadvantages of electric vehicles at large.
Much of the discussion regarding electric vehicles centers around the use of highly innovative technologies and a promise for a cleaner environment. However, the manufacturing process of such vehicles produces significant emissions into the atmosphere as well as gas-powered vehicles. Another key question to pose is: how do we dispose of the battery of the electric vehicle when its life cycle has come to and end? Moreover, how can we improve both the manufacturing process and recycling of materials for the future production of the electric vehicle?
© Emily Koufakis. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
 S. Carley et al., "Intent to Purchase a Plug-In Electric Vehicle: A Survey of Early Impressions in Large US Cites." Trans. Res. D 18, 39 (2013).
 T. Fawcett, "Electric Cars," Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2015.
 L. B. Lave, C. T. Hendrickson, and F. C, McMichael, "Environmental Implications of Electric Cars," Science 268, 993 (1995).