Study: Cars can’t yet match electric vehicles on efficiency

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DETROIT — If you prefer gasoline-power over a fully electric vehicle, you’ll have to buy a car that’s a lot more fuel miserly than the one you’re probably driving now if you want to try to match efficiency.

A new study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute finds that gas-powered vehicles need to average 55.4 miles per gallon in the U.S. in order to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a battery-electric vehicle.

That’s because even most electric cars aren’t oil or coal free. Their batteries are charged by electricity generated at power plants, which often are fired by oil or coal.  

The disparity between electric vehicles and conventional gas-powered cars depends on what is used to make the electricity that charges a battery. In countries where coal or oil is king, generating electricity for a full charge creates more carbon dioxide emissions than in places where hydroelectric power, for example, is the main source.

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Gas-powered cars sold in the U.S. have a long way to go to match electrics. The mileage leaders among subcompact cars in the U.S. are the Ford Fiesta SFE and Toyota Yaris iA at 35 mpg in combined city and highway driving, the U.S. Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency say. Hybrids, those vehicles with gas and electric power plants that work together, do better.

In weighing the impact, the Michigan researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle also considered the impact of extracting and transporting the raw materials for either electricity or gasoline production. The study looked at only fully electric vehicles, which are known as battery electric vehicles, — not plug-in electric hybrids — vs. gas-powered cars.

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Sivak and Schoettle reviewed data for 143 countries, finding wide disparities in those values. Albania, which produces all of its electricity from hydroelectric power, was at the high end of what a gas vehicle’s mpg would need to be to beat a fully electric vehicle. At the other extreme were Gibraltar and Botswana, where electricity is produced from either coal or oil. The study relied on data from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the International Energy Agency.

The study did not consider the impact of manufacturing the vehicles, but did note that the Union of Concerned Scientists has found that building a mid-size fully electric vehicle results in 15% higher emissions than building a mid-size gasoline-powered vehicle. Larger battery packs push that gap to 68% higher for full-size vehicles.

The data comes during a time of uncertainty for fuel economy standards and electric vehicle incentives. During a visit to Ypsilanti, Mich., in March, President Trump opened the door to loosening current fuel economy standards that require automakers to achieve have their vehicles collectively achieve 54.5 mpg by 2025.

In addition, the latest tax proposal from House Republicans would end the $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles, which could put a damper on their sales.
 

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