We should all be driving electric vehicles. But we have to wait for renewable electric grid capacity to support them all, charging points everywhere, and enough new batteries to be manufactured and put in all the new, affordable BEVs. And we’re running out of time. An interim solution has come from a study by MIT and Ford. David Chandler, writing for MIT, explains the study, which says that an interim solution – for certain regions – is lightweight gasoline (petrol) cars. Their modelling shows that in regions where the local grid is still carbon-heavy, temperatures are low, and long-distance rural driving is common, their lifetime emissions beat BEVs. They won’t by 2050, when green electricity and infrastructure is widespread. That’s why full carbon-free transport must remain the goal, says the study. But right now it will reduce emissions faster than just waiting.
What’s the best way to cut vehicle greenhouse-gas emissions? Study finds that in some locations, lightweight gas-powered cars could have a bigger emissions-reducing impact than electric ones. By David L. Chandler, MIT News
Policies to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions tend to stress the need to switch as many vehicles as possible to electric power. But a new study by MIT and the Ford Motor Company finds that depending on the location, in some cases an equivalent or even bigger reduction in emissions could be achieved by switching to lightweight conventional (gas-powered) vehicles instead — at least in the near term.
The study looked at a variety of factors that can affect the relative performance of these vehicles, including the role of low temperatures in reducing battery performance, regional differences in average number of miles driven annually, and the different mix of generating sources in different parts of the U.S. The results have been published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, in a paper by MIT Principal Research Scientist Randolph Kirchain, recent graduate Di Wu PhD ’18, graduate student Fengdi Guo, and three researchers from Ford.
The rural Midwest: low temperatures, miles driven, carbon-heavy grids
The study combined a variety of datasets to examine the relative impact of different vehicle choices down to a county-by-county level across the nation. It showed that while electric vehicles provide the greatest impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions for most of the country, especially on both coasts and in the south, significant parts of the Midwest had the opposite result, with lightweight gasoline-powered vehicles achieving a greater reduction.
The biggest factor leading to that conclusion was the mix of generating sources going into the grid in different regions, Kirchain says. That mix is “cleaner” on both the East and West coasts, with higher usage of renewable energy sources and relatively low-emissions natural gas, while in the upper Midwest there is still a much higher proportion of coal-burning power plants. That means that even though electric vehicles produce no greenhouse emissions while they are being driven, the process of recharging the car’s batteries results in significant emissions.
Lightweight gasoline cars
In those locations, buying a lightweight car, defined as one whose structure is built largely from aluminium or specialised lightweight steel, would actually result in fewer emissions than buying a comparable electric car, the study found.
The research was made possible by Ford’s collection of vehicle-performance data from about 30,000 cars, over a total of about 300 million miles of driving. They come from conventional midsize conventional gasoline cars, and the researchers used standard modelling techniques to calculate the performance of equivalent vehicles that were either hybrid-electric, battery-electric, or lightweight versions of conventional cars.
“We tried to add as much spatial resolution as possible, compared to other studies in the literature, to try to get a sense of the combined effects” of the various factors of temperature, the grid, and driving conditions, Kirchain explains. That combination of data showed, among other things, that “some of the areas with more carbon-heavy grids also happen to be colder, and somewhat more rural,” he says. “All three of those things can tilt emissions in a negative way for electric vehicles” in terms of their impact on reducing emissions. The combined effects are strongest in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, where lightweight cars would have a significant advantage over EVs in reducing emissions, the study showed.
The impact of cold weather on battery performance, he says, “is something that is discussed in the EV literature, but not as much in the popular discussions of the topic.” Conversely, gasoline-powered vehicles suffer an efficiency penalty in urban driving, but they have lower emissions in regions that are more rural and spread out.
The data on car performance the team had to work with thanks to their collaboration with Ford researchers “was unique,” Kirchain says. “In the past, a ‘large’ study of this type would be a few dozen vehicles,” and those would mainly come from people who volunteered to share their data and therefore were more likely to be concerned about environmental impact. The extensive Ford data, by contrast, provide “a broader cross-section of drivers and driving conditions.”
Gasoline cars: a 30-year stop gap, not a solution
Kirchain stresses that the intent of this study is not in any way to minimise the importance of switching over ground transportation to electric power in order to curb greenhouse emissions. “We’re not trying to undermine the fact that electrification is the long-term solution — and the short-term solution for most of the country,” he says. But over the next few decades, which is considered a critical period in determining the planet’s climate outcomes, it’s important to know what measures will actually be most effective in reducing carbon emissions in order to set policies and incentives that will produce the best outcomes, he says.
The relative advantage of lightweight vehicles compared to electric ones, according to their modelling, “goes down over time, as the grid improves,” he says. “But it doesn’t go away completely until you get to close to 2050 or so.”
Incentives needed, just like for BEVs
Lightweight aluminium is now used in the Ford F-150 pickup truck, and in the all-electric Tesla sedans. Currently, there are no high-volume lightweight gasoline-powered midsize cars on the market in the U.S., but they could be built if incentives similar to those used to encourage the production of electric cars were in place, Kirchain suggests.
Right now, he says, the U.S. has “a patchwork of regulations and incentives that are providing extra incentives for electrification.” But there are certain parts of the country, he says, where it would make more sense to provide incentives “for any option that provides sufficient fuel savings, not just for electrification,” he says.
“At least for the north central part of the country, policymakers should consider a more nuanced approach,” he adds.
Regional solutions can beat global ones
“This is a significant advance,” says Heather MacLean, professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, who was not associated with this work. This study, she says, “illustrates the importance of the regional disaggregation in the analysis, and that if it were absent results would be incorrect. This is an unequivocal call for regional policies that use the latest research to build rational agendas, rather than prescribing overarching global solutions.”
This study “demonstrates the complexity in elucidating the electrification benefits for lightweighted vehicles,” says Gregory Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, who was not connected to this study. He adds that “The contributions of regional effects such as climate, grid carbon intensities and driving characteristics were carefully mapped to inform carbon reduction strategy for the auto sector.”
#The research team included Robert De Kleine, Hyung Chul Kim, and Timothy Wallington of the Research and Innovation Center of Ford Motor Company, in Dearborn, Michigan.
David Chandler is an Institute Writer at MIT
This article is republished with the permission of MIT News
Considering the sparse population in these areas, it is likely that the number of vehicles in operation in these counties is quite small as a proportion of the American fleet. It likely wouldn’t make much sense for a company to produce special models with such a small target market.
Add to that, the fact that coal plants in this region are going out of business rapidly and being replaced by wind generation, and the conclusions of this study seem pretty tenuous.
S. Herb says
I see two mildly contradictory aspects to this: 1. It is counting pennies while neglecting the bigger picture. Disassembling the oil industry is an immense undertaking and we should not be looking for marginal gains which would however help to keep in it longer in place. Also, this midwest region includes many large and middle-sized cities which will before long want to start restricting ICEs for air quality reasons. Experience has been that pushing down emissions becomes more and more complicated as standards improve, and BEVs will have a clear advantage. But the biggest gains for cities will come from reducing the number of autos, period, and this is a worthier cause to pursue.
2. The conversion to a mostly BEV fleet will take a long time, and adoption will be slower in really rural areas (and not just in the midwest) than in cities. To the extent that the gas and diesel consumption of the remaining ICEs can be reduced, it is a plus. So far the regulatory efforts to improve mileage have hit up against the SUV/pickup effect and we must wonder whether the new vehicles would be light versions of the current over-sized vehicles, or whether there can somehow be a turn to smaller ones.
Nigel West says
SUV/pickups should be taxed progressively and annually on emissions to lower US sales, and fuel taxed at levels required to hurt the pockets of US owners running oversized vehicles.