The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday March 26th

Column: An open letter to Elon Musk

Tesla Model S Electric Car pictured on Stadium Dr. on Thursday, September 29, 2022.
Buy Photos Tesla Model S Electric Car pictured on Stadium Dr. on Thursday, September 29, 2022.

Hey Elon, your cars suck. 

Electrification isn't an environmental silver bullet, and self-driving tech is a scam that can’t solve traffic. Also, stop turning off the self-driving feature right before crashes so you can game safety statistics, you weird little man. 

Sorry, that was a little mean, but so is exposing hundreds of your workers to COVID-19 and working them 70 hours weekly. Seriously, what's wrong with you? Anyway, back to the cars. 

Ok, let me get the obvious caveats out of the way first. Are electric cars better than gas-powered ones? Yes, obviously. To borrow a quote from my last column, “I don’t want to die in a climate change-induced disaster before I'm 30”. Hot take: climate change is bad. You may clap now.

And that is the last nice thing I will say about them. So electric cars, why are they bad? Well, they are cars, that's the main issue. Individualized transportation necessitates higher resource usage. 

Let's break down transportation carbon emissions. Globally, transportation makes up 30 percent of emissions. 72 percent of that is road transit — cars, vans, trucks, etc. This means that planes, which produce 53.3 pounds of carbon for every mile or flight, make up a much smaller portion of global emissions than cars, which produce roughly a quarter of a pound of emissions per mile. 

There are more cars than planes, whereas a plane can carry hundreds of people. 

That's the point. Most cars carry just one or two. Atomizing transit the way cars do is intensely harmful. Economies of scales work here. A train car may need more resources to build than a car, but being able to carry 30 times the number of people offsets that increased upfront cost. This is the standard argument for public transit and increased usage of things like high-speed rail, or even dumb knockoffs like Hyperloop.

Electric cars don’t produce carbon emissions while driving, but that doesn’t make them carbon neutral. To produce an electric car requires massive amounts of rare earth minerals such as lithium and cobalt which, putting aside the child slavery involved in the mining, produces quite a bit of environmental damage. 

Then there's the reality that electrification is only as environmentally friendly as the electrical grid. If your power grid relies on hydrocarbons, so will your electric cars. 

But maybe I’m being uncharitable. Let's assume the ideal situation: the electric grid is carbon-free due to a combination of renewable and nuclear power, lithium-ion battery tech has improved significantly, and we’ve minimized the damage mining does and squashed the silly little human rights violations in the supply chain. Electric cars are still cars. Which means they need paved roads. Putting down 20km (give or take 12 miles) of asphalt produces 52,264,916.06 kg (a lot of pounds) of CO2. 

There are over 4 million miles of road in the US. 

And then there's parking. Parking is both a major contributor to the heat island effect and an ugly eyesore that takes up around 5.5 percent of all developed land area in the US. Once again, electric cars' main issue is simply that they are cars. 

Another part of that — using roads breaks them down. In, fact the hardest cars to electrify, shipping trucks, damage roads the most. Some analyses post that freight trucks cause nearly 99 percent of highway damage. There are a few reasons why they are hard to electrify, but it comes down to battery efficiency and weight trade-offs. 

Compare this to rail, which can be electrified easily via continuous power delivery either through power rails or overhead wiring. This is old tech we’ve used for ages, simple and effective, no need for batteries or anything of the sort. The environmental costs are still variable based on the power grid, but that's a separate issue with a separate solution (hint: it's nuclear power).

Ok, I said I wouldn’t be nice to electric cars anymore, but I lied. Sorry. In the world we live in, electric cars are a net positive. If you are going to buy a car, get an electric one if you can afford it. But that doesn’t mean we can rely on them as an environmental silver bullet. 

Ultimately, car-centric urban development is massively unsustainable. Build more trains, please and thank you. 

Much love, 



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