Are We Ready for Electric Cars? 

Students explore the accelerating move toward electric vehicles and consider how we might address some of the remaining obstacles to this transition.

To The Teacher

More and more Americans are coming to understand the severity of the climate crisis. Given the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the United States is poised to make a sharp turn away from gas-guzzling automobiles. Instead, many families may soon be driving electric cars.

This lesson considers America’s coming shift to electric vehicles. It consists of two readings. The first provides background on how electric vehicles have become an increasingly viable option for drivers, as well as how governments and corporations have begun pushing for these vehicles in an unprecedented way. The second reading examines some of the remaining obstacles to moving to electric vehicles, and how these might be overcome. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Electric car
Image by Marilyn Murphy


Ask students:

  • What do you know about electric cars?  What is a hybrid car?
  • If you were in the market for a car, would you consider buying one? Why or why not?

Share with students that today we’ll read about and discuss the growing move toward electric vehicles.



Reading One
The Rise of Electric Cars


More and more Americans are coming to understand the severity of the climate crisis. Given the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the United States is poised to make a sharp turn away from gas-guzzling automobiles. Instead, many families may soon be driving electric cars.

Personal vehicles have long been a large contributor to global warming, with cars and trucks contributing nearly one-fifth of the country’s CO2 emissions. Expanded public transit could help to significantly reduce such pollution. But since many Americans will still rely on automobiles, creating more environmentally friendly vehicles will be an important step in decarbonizing our society.

In the past decade, one public policy solution has been to raise fuel efficiency standards, mandating that automakers create vehicles that use less gas per mile to travel. Hybrid cars offer a similar solution by combining an electric battery with a typical combustion engine. According to Matthias Alleckna, an energy industry analyst, hybrids emit 46 percent less greenhouse gases on average than vehicles fueled entirely by gasoline. But Greenpeace, an environmental activist organization, argues that such lower emissions depend on how a driver operates the vehicle, and that emissions are inconsistent and unreliable.

Electric vehicles, which are fully powered by batteries, eliminate the pollution generated by combustion engines altogether. If they are charged with electricity generated through environmentally friendly means (like solar or wind power), they may create no emissions at all once on the road. In 2021, we have witnessed a large push in favor of fully electric vehicles. President Biden has promised to shift the nation toward zero-emission electric vehicles, starting with the federal government’s enormous fleet of vehicles. Rachel Frazin, a staff writer at The Hill, discussed Biden’s moves in a February 17 article. She wrote:

Biden has said he would make climate change a priority and set the country on a path toward carbon neutrality by 2050. To that end, he has rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and his administration is expected to lay out its emission reduction targets in the coming months.

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to “accelerate” electric vehicle deployment through measures like supporting the deployment of 500,000 charging outlets by 2030. He also said he’d set a goal that all buses built in the U.S. emit zero emissions by 2030, with hopes of converting school bus fleets nationwide to zero-emission vehicles.

Biden has recently pledged to replace vehicles owned by the federal government with electric ones. Meanwhile, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would raise the cap on an electric vehicle tax credit.

Major car companies have jumped at Biden’s announcement and have publicized their own plans to transition. According to ABC News, General Motors aims to achieve zero emissions by 2035, and Ford plans on doubling its investments in electric vehicles. Some 14 models of electric SUVs and trucks are set to be launched in the United States this year alone.

Less than a decade ago, it would have been hard to believe that such a sudden shift could occur, given car companies’ longtime resistance to switching from gasoline. In August 2019, CNN editor Charles Riley explained the changes that have allowed a more widespread embrace of electric vehicles by automakers. Riley writes:

While the electric car has a checkered past, there is a consensus among auto industry executives and analysts that a tipping point is approaching where mass adoption will become unavoidable because of falling battery costs, pressure from regulators and generous government subsidies. “These factors have come together to force the traditional industry to take electrification seriously — faster than we had previously expected,” said Max Warburton, an analyst at research firm Bernstein. “This is now really happening.”

According to Bernstein, dramatic declines in the price of batteries will allow leading automakers to sell fully electric vehicles for less than cars powered by gasoline and diesel as soon as 2022. Electric cars, they argue, are already gaining traction: As recently as 2010, annual sales were close to zero. “There’s just such an incredible amount of money being poured into electric cars,” said Al Bedwell, the director of global powertrain at LMC Automotive.”I’ve been looking at this industry for 20 years, and my real gut feeling is that it’s kind of unstoppable now.”

Bedwell said that traditional carmakers are being prodded to move more quickly by two additional factors: strict new EU regulations that require auto manufacturers to dramatically reduce the CO2 emissions starting next year. And, in China, already the world’s largest market for electric cars, the government has implemented a system that requires carmakers to make clean vehicles or purchase credits for the CO2 emissions their cars produce.

Due to the combination of new technology and public pressure for greater government regulation of greenhouse gases, electric vehicles have become viable more quickly than many experts could ever have imagined—and it may not be long before riding in a gas-powered vehicle becomes a throwback to an older era.

For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. What are some of the benefits of electric cars? Why would switching to them be desirable?
  1. According to the reading, why have electric vehicles become more viable in recent years?
  1. Why do you think corporations are making the shift to electric vehicles, despite the fact that current sales remain limited?
  2. The article mentions several steps that the government is taking to speed the transition to electric vehicles. What are some of these steps? Can you think of other measures the government could adopt to encourage people to switch?
  1. Based on the reading, what do you think now about buying an all-electric car?


Reading Two
Challenges: Dirty Power and Toxic Batteries

While it is clear that a shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles could be an important step in addressing the climate crisis, electric vehicles are not without some problems of their own.

For one, although they are operated by an electric battery, they still need to connect to some kind of energy grid to be charged, and much of our grid is currently powered by coal-burning power plants. The production of the batteries for electric vehicles also presents some environmental difficulties, as the waste it leaves behind can weigh against some of the benefits of the cars themselves. Hans-Werner Sinn, a professor of economics at the University of Munich, expanded upon these drawbacks in a November 2019 article in The Guardian. He wrote: 

[Electric vehicles] emit substantial amounts of CO2, the only difference being that the exhaust is released at a remove—that is, at the power plant. As long as coal- or gas-fired power plants are needed to ensure energy supply during the “dark doldrums” when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, [electric vehicles], like [internal combustion engine] vehicles, run partly on hydrocarbons. And even when they are charged with solar- or wind-generated energy, enormous amounts of fossil fuels are used to produce EV batteries in China and elsewhere, offsetting the supposed emissions reduction….

Earlier this year, the physicist Christoph Buchal and I published a research paper showing that, in the context of Germany’s energy mix, an [electric vehicle] emits a bit more CO2 than a modern diesel car, even though its battery offers drivers barely more than half the range of a tank of diesel. And shortly thereafter, data published by [Volkswagen] confirmed that its e-Rabbit vehicle emits slightly more CO2 than its Rabbit Diesel within the German energy mix. (When based on the overall European energy mix, which includes a huge share of nuclear energy from France, the e-Rabbit fares slightly better than the Rabbit Diesel.)

Despite these potential pitfalls, electric vehicles may still offer the clearest route toward a zero-emissions world, and many of the problems raised by detractors can be tackled. Climate reporters Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer addressed some of the criticisms of electric vehicles in a March 2 article for the New York Times:

Broadly speaking, most electric cars sold today tend to produce significantly fewer planet-warming emissions than most cars fueled with gasoline. But a lot depends on how much coal is being burned to charge up those plug-in vehicles. And electric grids still need to get much, much cleaner before electric vehicles are truly emissions free….

The good news for electric vehicles is that most countries are now pushing to clean up their electric grids. In the United States, utilities have retired hundreds of coal plants over the last decade and shifted to a mix of lower-emissions natural gas, wind and solar power. As a result, researchers have found, electric vehicles have generally gotten cleaner, too. And they are likely to get cleaner still….

Like many other batteries, the lithium-ion cells that power most electric vehicles rely on raw materials — like cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements — that have been linked to grave environmental and human rights concerns. Cobalt has been especially problematic….

Mickaël Daudin of Pact, a nonprofit organization that works with mining communities in Africa… [argues that] manufacturers need to work with these mines to lessen their environmental footprint and make sure miners are working in safe conditions. If companies acted responsibly, the rise of electric vehicles would be a great opportunity for countries like Congo, he said. But if they don’t, “they will put the environment, and many, many miners’ lives at risk.”

By themselves, electric vehicles cannot deliver on the promise of a green future. But if concerned members of the public are pushing for a cleaner energy grid and compelling companies to adopt better labor and environmental practices with regard to how batteries are created and disposed of, electric vehicles can make a significant contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what are some of the potential environmental problems with electric vehicles?
  1. How might these problems be addressed?
  1. Overall, do you think that the shift to electric cars is worth it, despite the shortcomings of these vehicles? Why or why not?
  1. How could improving working conditions in places where raw materials for batteries are mined contribute to a better environmental footprint for products like electric cars, laptops, and cell phones? Do you think these two issues are related?


Extension Activity

Invite students to research efforts by climate activists, including youth-led groups, to push for electric vehicles. Are there any local efforts underway?       


Research assistance provided by Akin Olla.