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5 Myths about Green Cars and Gas Mileage Debunked

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

With gas prices back on the rise and automotive technology advancing at a breakneck pace, it is no wonder green cars are a major part of the national conversation. A green car is any vehicle using alternative fuels to achieve better efficiency and lower environmental impact than a standard gasoline burning engine.

The primary types of green cars on the market are gasoline-electric hybrids, pure electric vehicles, and a small but growing contingent of Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be concentrating mostly on myths surrounding pure electric vehicles, though some of these myths apply to hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as well.

Myth #1: More Miles per Gallon is Always Better

This is a tricky one. Say you owned two vehicles; one has a rating of 10 MPG and the other gets 34 MPG. You’re given a choice: you can either upgrade the 10 MPG vehicle to a 20 MPG vehicle, or you can upgrade the 34 MPG vehicle to a 50 MPG vehicle. Which one would you choose?

Most folks would pick the latter option here. Jumping from 34 to 50 is a gain of 16 MPG, where 10 to 20 is only a gain of 10 MPG. More is better, right? Well, let’s do the math first.

Lower efficiency vehicles use exponentially more fuel than higher ones. After driving 100 miles, a 10 MPG vehicle would have used 10 gallons of fuel. A 20 MPG vehicle uses 5 gallons on the same distance. That saves the driver 5 gallons of fuel, and all the associated emissions, for every 100 miles driven.

The savings from 34 to 50 MPG? The 34 MPG vehicle would have used approximately 3 gallons after driving 100 miles. If you have a 50 MPG vehicle, it would have used 2 gallons after the same distance. In the end, you save just a single gallon.

The lesson here is that you’ll save the most money by ditching the 10 MPG vehicle for a new model with better mileage, rather than trading your already efficient car for a model with a higher rating.

Myth #2: MPGe shows how far the electric vehicle can travel

The rating for all-electric mode (left) is expressed in miles per gallon gasoline equivalent. The all electric range and MPGe have different numbers. The actual all electric range is lower. Photo by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0
The rating for all-electric mode (left) is expressed in miles per gallon gasoline equivalent. The all electric range and MPGe have different numbers. The actual all electric range is lower. Photo by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Not true. The MPGe system, standing for Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, shows the electric vehicle’s efficiency. MPGe is calculated by working backwards from the number of kilowatt-hours used per 100 miles traveled. This is a statistic for which lower numbers are better and many folks are confused by this rating. If the car uses fewer kWh to travel 100 miles, it means that it’s more efficient because it requires less energy to travel 100 miles.

Because the average consumer is used to higher numbers meaning better efficiency, kWh/100m is converted into MPGe using an energy standard.

This standard is the amount of energy released by burning a single gallon of gasoline. This means that when the kWh number goes down, the MPGe number goes up.

Say a car’s electric powertrain was rated at 33.7 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles. That is the same amount of energy released when burning 1 gallon of gasoline, and that car would receive a rating of 99 MPGe, which is, according to EPA, the highest rating a vehicle can get.

These ratings are not related to the electric vehicle’s range, and that disconnect creates much of the confusion surrounding the new rating system and the actual travel range.

Myth #3: Electric Cars Aren’t Really Green, Because They Use Electricity from Coal-Fired Power Plants

This myth has been propagated around the internet a great deal, even appearing on major news outlets. These articles state that due to increased load on coal-burning power plants, electric vehicles actually cause more damage to the environment than gasoline powered cars.

In reality, this is only true when the electric vehicles take their charge from a grid powered purely by coal. However, only 40% of electrical power in the United States is generated in coal-fired power plants. Additionally, the areas adopting electric vehicles at the fastest rates, such as California, have the lowest rates of coal consumption in the country. As coal power plants are increasingly phased out, electric vehicles will beat the emissions numbers of the best gasoline powered cars by leaps and bounds.

Myth #4: More Electric Cars Will Mean More Power Plants Because The Current Grid Isn’t Designed To Handle The Demand

Photo by Eneas de Troya / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Eneas de Troya / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This myth seems to make logical sense. Electric cars need a lot of power, and increasing the number of electric vehicles in active use will increase the strain on power grids. The reality of the matter is that most EV users charge their vehicles at night.

Even if the majority of car owners suddenly decided to buy EVs, studies have shown that the existing grid has a sufficient off-peak/nighttime capacity to power all of those vehicles without building a single new plant.

Myth #5: Electric Cars Suffer From Poor Range and Not Enough Charging Stations

Charging stations often have higher output and can charge the battery very quickly. Image courtesy of Richard Unten on Flickr.
Charging stations often have higher output and can charge the battery very quickly. Photo by Richard Unten on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

There is a fairly widespread belief that electric vehicles cannot be relied upon to make long trips without a recharge, that they take too long to charge back up, and that there aren’t enough charging stations to support longer journeys. This can be true in some cases, but is missing a few salient points.

First off, there are a number of electric vehicles currently available with long ranges of 100-200 miles, which will be more than enough to get you to the next charging station. Ranges of over 80 miles are commonplace, with some vehicles achieving 100, 200, and even 400 mile ranges.

Another fact that is important to note is that the vast majority of commuters travel no more than 40 miles in their daily driving.

There are plenty of cars on the market with 80+ mile ranges, and the majority of car buyers need not worry about making it to their next charging opportunity. When it is time to charge their vehicle, consumers can use any wall socket to top up overnight, or superchargers and charging stations that can add 60-80 miles of range in just 20 minutes.

While charging may pose a problem for those who live in apartments, the increasing network of charging stations means that anyone in major metropolitan areas should have ample opportunity to power up their vehicle.

A Final Word

Many of the myths that are circulating around the web are the result of flashy news stories without much substance or research behind them, or just a general lack of information. Greenhouse gas restrictions are getting ever stricter and oil supplies ever harder to find or access. Cars running on alternative fuels are an increasingly popular choice from environmental and practical standpoints, but there is still much confusion about their impact.

What’s your opinion on green cars? Are you thinking about investing into one?

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