Tesla Motors Inc may be euphoric this week after one of the world’s largest carmakers, Volkswagen AG , said it cheated on emissions tests in the United States.
Studies into the full extent of the firm’s cheating are still ongoing, but it seems that Tesla Motors may benefit as more people become interested in the carbon put out by their cars. Before that flock begins to move, taking a look at the real toll that Tesla Motors takes on the environment is important.
The firm may be better than most, but it has its own problems, and it, like Volkswagen, uses flaws in the numbers the EPA collect in order to make its cars appear more environmentally perfect than they really are.
Tesla Motors is a big polluter
In a March 2013 Wall Street Journal piece on the emissions of EVs, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center said that because of the energy intensive mining of lithium and the production electricity to drive EVs from coal plants, the emissions from an EV like the Tesla Motors Model S are much larger than zero.
According to his calculations “unless the electric car is driven a lot, it will never get ahead environmentally.” He estimates that for an EV driven for 50,000 miles in its life time “the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles.”
He reckons that a car driven for 90,000 miles will output 24 percent less carbon than an ordinary ICE car.
Another, less formal carbon output number came from Reddit earlier this year. A user, who did his math in the open, said that the Tesla Motors Model S has the same output as a 29 mile per gallon car. That’s better than a lot of ICE vehicles out there, but selling a Ram 1500 as a zero emissions vehicle isn’t likely to fly with the EPA.
What’s important here is not the exact numbers that the Tesla Motors Model S produces. There’s a lot of work to be done in order to make a tight conclusion, and there’s a lot of holes that could be poked in Mr. Lomborg’s summation.
The point is the wider conclusion that Tesla Motors produces carbon emissions, and those emissions are significant even in contrast to those making ICE vehicles.
Tesla Motors tight-lipped on emissions
Tesla Motors pumps carbon dioxide into the air like everyone else. It’s better than most car-makers, but it’s still a polluter. The firm keeps that info in the background, but it doesn’t maliciously hide it like Volkswagen did.
Tesla Motors has a lot of pretensions to openness. The firm opened up some of the least important parts of its intellectual property in June 2014 in order to appear like a bastion of free and open discourse and technology. This is good marketing, but it’s not the honest truth. The same thing is going on with emissions numbers.
Tesla Motors doesn’t cheat on any tests. It’s nowhere near as bad as Volkswagen AG .
When the Model S goes to the EPA it produces zero to negligible emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s not the car that causes the emissions, as we’ve seen above. Making and charging the Model S both cause pollution.
Tesla Motors isn’t going to put that on the front page of the Model S Design Studio any time soon. Instead, when you search “Tesla emissions” on Google, the top link is Customer Story from Tesla Motors itself. The story, which is titled “Zero Emissions, Zero Cost” doesn’t say anything about the carbon output of the Model S. Instead it focuses on the costs of owning the car.
Tesla Motors isn’t going to hide the real emissions from the Model S on purpose. The firm’s not going to lie about them either. Instead Elon Musk will do what he’s good at, projecting a version of the truth that makes the Model S attractive and keeps Tesla Motors floating despite its massive cash burn and lack of foreseeable profit.
Tesla Motors emissions don’t matter
Tesla Motors isn’t cutting the emissions of its cars to zero, but that doesn’t matter right now. Elon Musk’s plan is to lower the carbon emissions of the entire fleet of the world’s cars. That’s going to be easier to do at the power plant, and the lithium mine, than at the exhaust pipe.
The Tesla Motors Model S, and every other EV, produces carbon, and they hurt the environment. There’s no doubt about that. They do, however, keep pollution out of cities and towns and away from people for the most part. They may cause damage to the world at large, but they’re likely much better for human health.
The goal for Tesla Motors is long term. The Model S will never have an effect on real carbon output because the firm can never sell that many of them. It’s simply too expensive.
The car may, however, have a knock on effect that makes more firms, like Volkswagen AG , bet on EVs. That, and the launch of the Model 3 in 2017, could have a real effect on emissions as more and more drivers switch to power cells.
What would be nice is for Tesla Motors to do an audit of its own carbon footprint and settle the debate once and for all. Being open and honest about each aspect of the firm’s strategy isn’t the best way to sell cars, however, so it’s not likely that Tesla Motors will come forward with that data.
Elon Musk is always ready to surprise, however, and in the wake of the Volkswagen diesel drama, the firm may decide to boost the public’s awareness using less than conventional tactics.
Over the long term Tesla Motors, working with Musk-lead SolarCity, is trying to change the way people in the US get their power. The Powerwall, a home power storage device, will soon be shipped for the first time by the firm in order to make solar pay.
The EPA measures emissions at the tailpipe. Volkswagen found a way to artificially lower carbon output there in order to get cars onto the road. Tesla Motors shifts the carbon output away from the car altogether. Both found ways to get around the system, but only one is using the loophole to make a better world.
The Tesla Motors Model S produces significant emissions that negatively effect the environment. The firm’s goal was never to take emissions away right away. Elon Musk wants to change the entire way we think about transport and energy. For the time being, keeping those emissions away from the car, and away from the public eye, may be the best way to do that.