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COSM A Technology Summit

Are Electric Cars Really the Future?

Published at mindmatters

On November 10th, the COSM conference hosted a special panel on electric vehicles (EVs for short). Brian Mistele, founder and CEO of Inrix, a leading provider of traffic information, car services, and transportation analytics, moderated the discussion. Aside from Mistele, the panel included Howard Hayden, professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and editor of The Energy Advocate, Walter Myers, Principal Manager on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-based platform, and Tony Posawatz, an automotive industry pioneer and chief executive of Fisker Automotive. They brought a range of perspectives on the pros and cons of EVs and where the auto industry is heading.

Electric cars panel at COSM 2022 with Bryan Mistele
Bryan Mistele moderates a panel at COSM 2022

Posawatz kicked off the panel by giving a brief overview of automobile history. He said,

There was electric and folks like Edison were trying to make batteries. Along with Henry Ford there was steam and ultimately there was the internal combustion engine and gasoline, the petroleum industry, which we relied on for the last 120 years.”

As a leader in the EV industry, Posawatz noted the challenge of competing with a petroleum-dominated market.

Following Posawatz, Hayden and Myers talked about the challenge posed by lithium, the main chemical used for electrical batteries. Hayden noted the scarcity of lithium will keep the EV market expensive, although he did mention sodium as a potential alternative. Sodium is heavier than lithium but shares much of its chemical makeup and there’s more of it. 

Myers expounded on the lithium problem in more specific detail, noting,

Speaking specifically of lithium, it takes 500,000 pounds of earth to be dug up just to get a kilogram of lithium. To get a thousand pounds of a kilogram of lithium, it takes 500,000 pounds of water to get that, to process that lithium.”

Myers admitted that electric cars produce fewer emissions, but there’s a tradeoff. Mining for lithium, he said, can create a host of environmental problems. Lithium can infect water sources and impact animals and ecosystems. “You are shifting the environmental problem from one place to another,” he said. “The dirty work is going to be shifted to places that aren’t even going to do the mining, extraction, and production.”

Walter Myers at COSM 2022 on the tradeoffs of electric cars

Posawatz challenged Myers on this point, claiming that we ought to let the market decide what’s profitable and pay attention to the numbers. Tesla’s Model S is currently the number one bestselling luxury vehicle right now, indicating people’s interest in the EV market. The question for Myers, however, is whether EVs can scale upward from the current numbers. Myers doesn’t think EVs can sustain radical growth. Hybrid vehicles, he says, are the believable alternative. “For every battery electric vehicle, you can build five or six plugin hybrids or straight hybrid vehicles.”

Posawatz doesn’t think the lithium issue is so drastic, however, and believes that despite supply chain issues, these batteries will be increasingly available for consumer use. Posawatz also wanted the audience to know that these batteries can potentially store solar and wind energy. Overall, Posawatz sounded much more optimistic about electric cars and wants to see how customers will choose vehicles in the future.

Mistele later asked, since 60% of the electrical “grid” is powered by fossil fuels, how EV proponents presume to move forward if reducing fossil fuel emissions is the goal.

Posawatz noted that the grid can handle more than we think, and with additional solar and wind energy sources, can adapt to higher demand. But, there’s still lots of work to be done. Myers chimed in and said that during the blackouts in California this past year, people were told to hold off on charging their EVs. So, if California mandates electric cars in the future, and a blackout of that magnitude happens, what do you do? Posawatz joked that he’s glad he doesn’t live in California and repeated his point that progress still needs to be made.

Tony Posawatz at COSM 2022

Toward the end of the session, the panelists talked about China. Most lithium is refined in China, according to Myers. What does that mean for the market? Does China control the supply chain? Posawatz said Myers was a bit dated on his information but agreed that China is an economic giant; the nation now leads the automotive industry.

They also touched on government policy and agreed that federal intervention in the use of electric vehicles should be minimal at best. Hayden said,

I’m in favor of innovation. Let people come up with their bright ideas, and inhibit people to the extent that they are not ruining the environment or being cruel to people and all that kind of stuff. That’s a good role for government, but I don’t think it’s the government’s job to pick the winners and losers.”

Despite their disagreements, the panelists shared various insights on the development of electric vehicles. As their conversation indicates, global economic issues are in the mix when we talk about electric cars.