What the Electric Vehicle Revolution Is Really About

Model 3 rear
Model 3 | Source: Tesla

As HBO’s Bill Maher often says, the media loves the horse race above all, and the electric vehicle movement is no different. Every rumor of a new “Tesla killer” on the horizon provides enough fodder to last writers for weeks. Following the debut of the Model 3, which may be the most important EV to date, we thought it was a good time to remember what this revolution is really about: protecting the air we breathe, and therefore the lives we lead.

Stories gushing over the Model 3 naturally focus on the product, but Tesla CEO Elon Musk started his presentation with a few sobering facts: Carbon dioxide emissions have never been higher; the temperature has never been warmer; and upwards of 53,000 deaths in the U.S. are attributable to transportation emissions (per MIT). Musk began with the reason Tesla exists: “to accelerate the transition to sustainable transport” and put a dent in the deadly progression.

People can argue greenhouse gas emissions don’t contribute to the gradual warming of temperatures on earth; we’ll leave that alone here. What an Exxon-funded scientist can’t argue is the fact that gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles pollute the air infinitely more than electric cars. Just watch a car charged up on solar energy running down the street, then compare it to a 2003 Lincoln Town Car. One spews black smoke while the other rolls quietly, cleanly along. Sunlight + no tailpipe = case closed.

If we continued down the internal combustion engine road there would be millions of lives claimed early by toxic air. The worst effects are already on display around the world. In Mexico City, where heavy-duty vehicle pollution displaces the oxygen in the air, the government is having trouble passing clean air legislation that could prevent 55,000 early deaths within the next 20 years, the International Council on Clean Transportation reports.

The Mexican capital’s four-day emergency for air pollution alert highlighted the need for swift action. (These changes only involve slight changes to heavy truck economy standards.) When government and business leaders fail to act on such measures, they are sacrificing citizens’ lives for the sake of monetary or political gain. That’s the bottom line.

Air Pollution Hits Parts Of China
Smog blankets Zhengzhou, December 2015 | ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

The situation in China last December, where a red alert for poor air quality shut down Beijing and other major cities, was a reminder that power plants are part of the solution as well. Coal-heavy grids are not ideal for electric vehicles, which do not provide a drastic improvement when compared to gasoline cars in such conditions.

In America, we conquered this part of the equation years ago. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ most recent study had electric cars running at 68 miles per gallon on average in the U.S., while gasoline cars emitted twice the amount of pollutants in a full life-cycle analysis. We have the grid; it’s time to grow the national fleet of cars and charging infrastructure appropriately. Tesla’s Model 3 is the first product that seems capable of accelerating the process.

This shift will not come easy. We’ll hear the Koch Brothers’ version of this story loud and clear in the coming months until the din becomes deafening ahead of the presidential election. Fossil fuel magnates will fight to hold onto what is dear to them: Money and power. Environmental advocates will wage an largely less-funded campaign to counteract the misinformation and hope the truth sticks.

Then there is Elon Musk, who is quick to mention the larger goals while speaking about the exceptional products his company makes. Musk is taking the entrepreneur’s path; even those who refuse to acknowledge science are often swept up in his charisma. If Tesla wins, we get cleaner air and a healthier population. Reports about Tesla may focus most on the extraordinary cars and fluctuating stock price, but this revolution is about far bigger things. Those who fight it wage a dirty war indeed.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY