A Guide to the Half Truths Used to Attack Electric Vehicles

Prager “University”, a social media site that is not actually a university, released a video “proving” that electric vehicles are “bad for the planet”. Part of a much larger anti-electric movement, the video uses common half-truths used to attack electric vehicles. These have been thoroughly debunked in the past by multiple sources, but we need a guide to share with friends and family who have been mislead by this video, or who will be mislead by future articles, memes and videos.

Step 1: Look At The Source

Most of these videos, articles, and internet memes come from less than reputable sources, or cite bogus information. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, but knowing the source goes a long way to knowing whether something is believable.

In this particular case, the video was put out by “Prager University”. A quick Google search shows that Prager University isn’t a university at all. Their own website says that “Prager University is not an accredited academic institution and does not offer certifications or diplomas.” It was actually started in 2009 by a radio talk show host and a screenwriter, with the goal of counteracting the influence of the political left in college education.

While this would seem intellectually dishonest to many, it is actually designed to cater to the right’s mistrust of “elites”, college campuses, and science. A fake university run by a talk show host can actually be seen as more legitimate to that crowd than an actual university.

Now, let’s look at their main interviewee in the video: Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg does have a PhD, but not in any sort of engineering or hard science field. He got degrees in political science. Lomborg is clearly a very intelligent and well-articulated public speaker. His expertise on policy making, philosophy, public management, etc is nothing to sneeze at, but he’s outside of his field. While he is never explicitly presented as a scientist, the video is crafted to make him appear as if he is. Once again: intellectual dishonesty and misrepresentation.

This video is just one example. Whenever you encounter anti-EV propaganda, be sure to look at the source. Most are spread by groups with ties to oil companies, right wing political groups or others who stand to profit from fossil fuels. Or worse, some of it comes from media outlets that cater to a right-wing audience. Telling people what they want to hear is a great way to drum up page views and get more advertising revenue.

Step 2: Look for common propaganda techniques.

When most people see the term “propaganda”, they think of ideas they disagree with being floated in a deceptive way. But that’s not what propaganda really is. Propaganda isn’t good or evil as an “art”. Good groups and bad groups use it to spread their messages. But, by looking for the actual signs of propaganda, we can see what the goal of the communication really is.

Propaganda exists to change or reinforce emotional attitudes, not inform the person exposed to it and educate using facts and logic. According to Dr. Frank Thayer of New Mexico State University, this is done by taking a simple message and repeating it over and over and over. The best propaganda is connected to a society’s or subculture’s basic myths and assumptions they operate on.

The most common propaganda against electric vehicles is, “Electric cars are coal-powered cars.”  Most importantly, it’s a simple message that is easily repeatable, and we hear it a LOT. If you understand how cars, power plants and refineries really work, you know it’s a flawed argument, but the truth is complex and requires paragraphs to explain. “Coal powered cars”, on the other hand, is a much simpler idea that doesn’t take the public much mental effort to digest, so it spreads easier and sticks.

Fake Lithium MineChTG5uYUoAAv2l_

Another common propaganda is that mining lithium, an important element in battery production, is horrible for the environment. Real lithium mines look nothing like the animation image or the meme it’s based on (hint: you’re looking at a copper mine). But more importantly, it’s a simple message. A picture of a huge change to the earth’s surface labeled “lithium mine” is a simple message to share that easily sticks if repeated over and over and over. That’s what makes it good propaganda, honest or not.

 

A common (and often implied) corollary to these propagandas is that only elitist leftists would drive an electrified car, and they’re hypocrites. Once again, it’s a simple message to share, but what’s more brilliant is how well it dovetails with common conservative mythology. “Wealthy coastal elites” are always trying to keep the people in “flyover country” down.

Showing everybody what “hypocrites” they are sticks easily in the mind of the target audience, and this is what really accomplishes the goal of the propaganda. It changes the attitude of the audience (the political right, conservatives, etc) to inoculate them against exposure to the benefits of electric cars. That way, when they test drive their grandkid’s or nephew’s new EV, they will already have a negative association that the fun of driving the car (it’s called low-end torque!) can’t easily overcome. And that’s assuming you can even get them to drive it at all! (I ain’t driving that piece of crap!)

Before I move on, I want to caution the reader to not only look for propaganda you don’t agree with. Every big group or movement uses propaganda. Why? Because it works! I challenge you to look at the things you agree with on social media and see if you can see the simple messages being repeated over and over and over. It’s especially common in viral memes. What mythology and basic assumptions do you share with the meme’s creator? Are those you disagree with really the target audience, or are YOU the target audience?

Identifying the propaganda you agree with and thinking about the message will teach you far more than looking only at the stuff you hate.

Step 3: Think about what they’re NOT saying.

Propaganda’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Simple messages can’t convey much information, so they have to leave a lot out. When you come across something you can identify as propaganda, the best thing to do is just Google it. There, you’ll find more information that either backs up or refutes the simple message.

In the case of the Prager “University” video, they’re leaving out some very important things. The target audience lives inside the paradigm of the internal combustion engine. By thinking outside that box just a little, you can see the flaws.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the electricity for EVs comes from coal fired plants. This isn’t true in most cases (see below). Those spreading this propaganda make it sound like it’s equivalent to a gas car stuffing powdered coal inside the gas tank and belching it out the tail pipe for all to breathe. But, in reality, there are big differences between gas vehicles and electric vehicles that they’re conveniently not mentioning.

The concept you need to understand is thermal efficiency. When a gasoline-powered car burns its fuel, about 75% of the energy turns to heat and only around 25% of it becomes rotational energy that propels the car. This means that 3/4 of the actual energy goes out through the exhaust and radiator. The most efficient new cars achieve as high as 40% thermal efficiency.

The absolute most efficient engines can achieve around 50%, but they’re found in F1 race vehicles. Costs for the engine alone are $8-14 million, and the engine cannot be started without a complex procedure. They also cannot use any kind of fuel available at your gas station. You’re not going to see this level of gasoline engine technology on showroom cars any time soon, so let’s assume an average efficiency in the mid 30’s for gasoline engines 🙂

On top of that, there’s the issue of refining. Refineries produce quite a bit of their own waste heat and use quite a bit of electricity. Estimates vary widely, but it’s another factor that must be considered when comparing gasoline vehicles to electric vehicles, both in terms of emissions and in terms of efficiency. Electric vehicles are not the only vehicles with a “long tailpipe”.

Now, let’s compare this to a coal-fired power plant. While thermal efficiency of the oldest and least advanced coal plants in developing countries can be as low as 25%, the global average is around 33%. In developed countries, coal plants are much more efficient. The best plant in the United States gets better than 40%, and in other countries, coal plants get as high as 91% thermal efficiency.

Now, let’s compare the gas car to the electric vehicle. Because there isn’t combustion occurring, the EV produces far less waste heat. With regenerative braking in city driving, electrical efficiency exceeds 90%, even with charging and transmission losses factored in.

A quick, back of the napkin, rough calculation shows us that even on 100% coal power, electric vehicles aren’t worse for the environment. New coal plants and those being repaired are under immense pressure to achieve the 40% efficiency. If we take the 40% efficiency and multiply it by the 90% efficiency of the electric vehicle, we are still at around 36%, and that is competitive with the most advanced gasoline vehicles.

The other, more important thing to know is that most power is not 100% coal, and the portion of power coming from coal is shrinking. Gasoline cars are stuck with one fuel: gasoline. That doesn’t change. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, change source fuels as the electrical grid changes fuels. With the pressure to make “clean coal” plants, it’s now often cheaper to just convert the plant to burn natural gas, which can get efficiencies of 60% for far cheaper. The spread of solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and other renewables is also a factor that will grow with time.

Step 4: Look for information from more reputable sources.

I’m just a journalist with a bachelor’s degree and an auto enthusiast, who knows how to use Google and Wikipedia. Don’t count on me to be sure about anything related to science or engineering. Also, don’t count on talk show hosts or internet memes. Look for the best sources of information you can find.

I’d recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists. They’re actual scientists, and they share, in detail, how they arrived at their conclusions so you can see if they’re playing straight with you. They’ve studied the environmental impact of electric vehicles in depth.

UCS Map 2016

When you compare the cleanliness of electric vehicles to that of gas cars, the comparison isn’t going to be the same from region to region. Some places burn more coal than others. Some are, in reality, quite clean.

Even on the dirtiest power, an EV’s emissions from power generation are about the same as a car that gets 38 MPG. That’s what a new VW Jetta powered by a 1.4L gasoline 4-cylinder gets, but only on the highway (not in stop-and-go city traffic). This confirms my simple calculation in the last section.

The average emissions for an EV, based on where they were actually sold, is equivalent to a gas vehicle that gets 73 MPG, a figure matched mostly by motorcycles. In the cleanest areas, even the motorcycle can’t compete for emissions cleanliness. If you live anywhere that is dark blue or medium blue, you might be slightly better off to drive a Prius, at least in terms of emissions (EVs are still cheaper to operate). If you live in the light blue areas, the EV is the more environmentally friendly choice, hands down.

Also, keep in mind that these figures are changing. As more coal plants shut down and are replaced by natural gas, the figures will mostly go light blue. As more renewable energy spreads, it will get even better.

Don’t assume the truth alone will win hearts and minds.

By following the four steps, you can get to the meat of the argument. When somebody trots out anti-EV propaganda, you now know how to refute it, and thoroughly.  But, don’t be surprised if sharing the truth doesn’t change minds. The truth is complex, hard to explain, and doesn’t play to the prejudices and mythos of the audience the propaganda initially targeted. You’re fighting an uphill battle.

The EV community needs to engage in its own honest propaganda if any minds are going to be changed. Keep messages simple. Talk to the audience based on the reality they live in, not the reality you live in. Connect with them on the things they care about, like national security and free markets, where the truth will have the greatest impact. Cast the oil companies as the elitists.

If we can be good communicators and be smart about what audience we are talking to, we could turn the tide against anti-EV propaganda. If we don’t do this, nothing will change.

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