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Useful Notes / Electric Vehicles

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Imagine a world in which the automobile revolution of the early 20th century is quiet and clean. Cars don't rattle and belch smoke but hum along softly. As electricity reaches most of the world, these automobiles bring with them a massive demand for power and power infrastructure.

The entire pattern of fossil fuel consumption changes. We don't stand at pumps dispensing smelly fuel into our cars, but rather plug them in: at our homes, at work, at shopping malls, and at dedicated stations set up on highways. Because tailpipe pollution is gone, city air is cleaner, saving thousands of lives each year. Vehicle fires are substantially reduced, saving hundreds of lives each year.

Auto culture is very different. Rather than the roar of internal combustion engines at a racetrack, we hear the high-pitched whine of electric motors. There are no oil changes, no carburetors, no turbochargers, no transmissions. Auto service looks dramatically different than it does today.

It's not all smiles, though. Demand for battery materials leads to massive mining operations that bring their own environmental destruction. Many of these mines operate in countries with lax human rights standards. It takes longer to recharge your car than to refill it, and repairing your own battery is impossible.

While the 2020s seem poised to deliver on this reality, an Alternate History in which it happened twenty or even one hundred years earlier was closer than you might think. In this article, we'll talk a little about the history of electric vehicles (EVs), how they work, and dispel some myths that are frequently encountered in the media.


The invention of the electric motor in 1827 led to the first electric cars not long thereafter. The first mass-produced electric vehicle appeared in 1902 when the Studebaker Automobile Company entered the automotive business. Well into the 1920s, electric cars competed with gasoline cars and enjoyed significant popularity, even being driven by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Many factors led to the decline of electric vehicles, including the crudeness of battery technology at the time, the lack of charging infrastructure, the invention of the electric starter and muffler for internal combustion cars, the cheapness of oil, the superior range of gasoline cars, and mass production by Henry Ford substantially reducing the cost of gasoline cars. Electric public transportation, especially trams, enjoyed popularity into the 1930s until a partnership between General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil bought them up and dismantled them.

Outside of a few small applications, like milk floats and the Lunar Rover, electric vehicles remained on the fringes of the automotive industry until the 1990s. In 1987, after a successful solar race in Australia, General Motors developed a renewed interest in electric cars and in 1990 released the Impact Concept car at the LA Auto Show, which General Motors claimed it intended to mass produce within a few years. As a result, the state of California issued a mandate for major automakers to adopt them in a bid to improve air quality. General Motors produced the EV1 in response, leasing 800 of them to customers. Other automakers also had a handful of EVs, but the era was short-lived when a combination of court challenges and media campaigns from oil companies caused California to pull back its regulations to allow hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles, like hydrogen. Most of the EVs built at the time were subsequently recalled and scrapped.note 

Throughout the early 2000s, various hybrid-electric and alternative-fuel vehicles were introduced into the market to some success, although many of these seemed intended more to satisfy regulations than to make a strong effort at convincing consumers to adopt the technology.

The reintroduction of electric vehicles began in earnest in 2008 when Tesla Motors introduced the Roadster, a compact EV based on the Lotus Elise chassis. Only a few thousand were sold but their popularity allowed Tesla to build the Model S and Model X as luxury vehicles, which led in turn to the mass-market Model 3 and Model Y. In response, major automakers began announcing EV plans and a rush of startups began following in Tesla's footsteps. The Nissan Leaf was introduced in 2010, the Chevrolet Bolt EV in 2016, the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Porsche Taycan in 2020, and the GMC Hummer EV, Lucid Air, and Rivian R1T in 2021.

In the early 2020s, many nations and regions within nations announced that sales of new internal combustion engine vehicles would eventually be prohibited, with target dates ranging from 2030 to 2050. It is likely that children born in the mid-21st century will never see or drive a gasoline-powered car.


An electric vehicle operates on two major components: a battery and a motor, although many vehicles employed in public transportation connect directly to a power grid rather than store energy on board. The battery is analogous to the fuel tank in an internal combustion vehicle, and the motor is analogous to the engine.

There are several categories of electric vehicle as seen in general media. This is a very broad list; for more technical details, see Wikipedia.

  • Hybrid: A hybrid electric vehicle uses a gasoline engine in combination with a battery-electric motor.
    • Conventional hybrid (HEV): This system uses the gasoline engine as a generator to charge the battery while the battery powers the motor.
    • Plug-in hybrid (PHEV): This system uses a rechargeable battery for short-range driving and a gasoline engine for long-range driving or when the battery is depleted.
  • Fuel cell (FCEV): A fuel-cell electric vehicle uses a fuel (typically hydrogen or natural gas) to create electrical power by catalyzing its reaction with oxygen. This electricity charges a battery, which in turn powers the motor.
  • Battery-electric (BEV): A battery-electric vehicle depends entirely on rechargeable batteries and has no additional power source, although there have been experiments with mounting solar panels to a BEV to extend its range.


All batteries work by storing chemical potential energy in a cathode, which is separated from an anode by an electrolyte. When a circuit is made, electrons flow from the cathode to the anode, and when the battery is recharged they flow back to the cathode. There are many possible ways to achieve this, and so there are many different combinations of chemistries that may be employed.

While lead-acid batteries can work in an electric vehicle, their toxicity and tendency to wear out rapidly limit their use. The first battery technology that was widely deployed in the 1900s used nickel-iron chemistry. It was rechargeable and durable. Modern EVs use lithium-ion batteries in a variety of chemistries and form-factors due to their high storage capacity.

The most popular lithium-ion battery chemistries today are nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM) and lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP). NCM batteries have higher energy density and can deliver more power, making them suitable for high-performance applications. However, they are more expensive and degrade faster. LFP batteries use cheaper materials and have greater stability, but are less energy-dense.

Regardless of chemistry, lithium-ion batteries are prone to degradation and fire, since their electrolytes are flammable and a short-circuit can lead to a rapid and uncontrollable thermal runaway. Proposed solutions to this problem include "solid-state" batteries, which do not use liquid electrolytes and can achieve, in principle, much higher energy density. However, as of 2022, no solid-state battery has come to market.


Electric motors have been in existence for a long time and work along a very simple principle. There is a rotating component (the rotor) and a stationary component (the stator). Electromagnets are activated and deactivated in sequence to cause the rotor to spin. Depending on the design, the fixed and variable magnets may be on either the rotor or the stator.

Unlike a gasoline engine, an electric motor can operate at peak efficiency at a wide range of speeds. This allows most electric vehicles to dispense with a transmission, reducing weight and complexity. Also, an electric motor can be connected directly to a wheel or an axle, further reducing the weight and complexity of the drivetrain.

Since electric motors are factory-sealed, they cannot be repaired outside of specialized facilities, but they rarely break down. Reduced engine maintenance alone can allow an electric vehicle to pay for itself rapidly, especially in commercial use.


While some electric vehicles place their batteries in the trunk or in the front compartment (where the engine would go on an internal combustion vehicle), most assemble the cells into flat battery packs that are built into the vehicle's floor. The motors are attached to the axles and connected to the battery pack with an inverter that transforms DC current into AC current.

The weight of the battery pack and its placement give an electric vehicle an extremely low center of gravity, which contributes to handling and greatly improves resistance to rolling over. Because there is no engine, the entire front of the vehicle is a crumple zone and thus a serious frontal crash is much less likely to result in injury to occupants. The rigidity of the battery pack further resists intrusion into the cabin in side collisions.

As long as the pack itself is not breached, there is very little risk of fire in an EV collision. Battery packs tend to be armored against damage from below, such as rocks or road debris, but a sufficiently sharp or massive object could compromise the battery. If this happens, the management software will immediately isolate damaged cells and shut down the entire vehicle if necessary.

An EV battery explosion is very rare, but battery fires can grow quickly and are very difficult to control (see below). If your story has an electric vehicle in it, it's not going to blow up in the same way as an internal combustion car, and shooting the "fuel tank" isn't going to work because the tank isn't in the same location.

Electric aircraft

It is much harder to power aircraft with battery-electric motors than it is to power ground vehicles because energy density (and therefore weight) is much more important. Aviation fuel has such a huge weight advantage that electric-powered aircraft have to use ultralight construction, with advanced materials technology, to meaningfully compete.

However, electric aircraft have substantial promise in addressing short-haul commuter transportation, especially when roadways are inadequate or congested. In the 2020s, many companies are developing electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, and there are even efforts, spurred by increasing energy density and reduced cost, to build large-scale commercial electric aircraft.

In any such aircraft, the portion of the structure that contains fuel tanks would be replaced with batteries. This could also include portions of the cargo section. Recharging such a vehicle would take a substantial amount of time, so battery hot-swapping might be needed. Conventional aircraft depend on burning off fuel over time for their performance — they get lighter over the course of a trip. Battery-electric aircraft would not be able to do this, meaning their landing weight would be essentially the same as their takeoff weight. This could have consequences for the design of airports as well as planes.

Fire aboard an airplane is a terrifying problem, so aviation batteries would have to take extraordinary precautions against degradation, thermal runaway, and physical damage.

There are also efforts to replace petroleum with hydrogen as an aviation fuel. Hydrogen's energy density is a benefit here as well as the ability to adapt existing airframes and engines to work with it. Fueling stations would be large, commercial enterprises and able to take advantage of scale.

Electric Vehicle Myths and Concerns

  • EVs have short range compared to gasoline cars.
This is less true today than it used to be, with most EVs sold in the market achieving at least 250 miles (400 kilometers) on a single charge. Public charging infrastructure is expanding rapidly around the world, and EVs enjoy one advantage that gasoline cars will never have — you can charge them at home, starting each day with a full "tank". While ICVs tend to get superior efficiency on highways than in cities, EVs are more efficient in cities because they can use "regenerative braking" to recharge their batteries.
  • EVs are more expensive than gasoline cars.
While EVs are, overall, simpler than gasoline cars, with fewer moving parts, the battery is the most expensive part, and this does cause them to have a higher sticker price than an equivalent ICE car. However, the sticker price is paid back over time by lower maintenance and "fuel" costs.
  • EVs are slow.
In fact, electric motors can provide more power than gasoline engines and don't need complicated drive trains to deliver that power to the wheels. While there are trade-offs between power and efficiency, as with any vehicle, the quickest production cars in the world are the Tesla Model S Plaid, the Porsche Taycan, and the Lucid Air, which are up to ten times cheaper than ICE cars with equivalent performance.
  • Batteries wear out and need replacement.
All EV makers warrant their batteries for a substantial amount of time, but modern EV batteries are much longer-lived than many people expect, degrading only a few percent for every 100,000 miles (160,000 km) driven. As with any device, how you use it influences how well it performs, and proper care can extend the life of a battery for a long time. At worst, a battery replacement is roughly equivalent to an engine replacement, which most ICE vehicles require eventually.
  • Batteries catch fire!
So does gasoline. Statistics show that the rate of fires among battery-electric vehicles is around ten times lower than among internal combustion vehicles. However, it is true that a battery fire is hotter and can be more difficult to extinguish. One major difference is that batteries do not need external oxygen to burn, so traditional smothering techniques do not work. Firefighters battle EV fires with large amounts of water and by allowing the battery to cool down over a period of several hours.
  • Electric vehicles pollute as much as gas cars when you take battery manufacturing and electricity supply into account.
Multiple studies have shown that a battery-electric vehicle is less polluting than an ICE vehicle even with battery manufacturing taken into consideration. Claims of higher EV pollution are backed by the legacy auto industry and have blatant conflicts of interest. Even in the worst case when the electric grid is supplied by coal power plants, an EV has fewer emissions over its lifetime. Further, EVs get cleaner as the grid gets cleaner.
  • Batteries are made from conflict minerals.
There are global efforts to ensure that the cobalt used in batteries is not produced by unethical labor, and the adoption of alternative chemistries (such as LFP) largely eliminates this concern. Also, cobalt is used to refine gasoline. You're not escaping responsibility by driving a gas car.

Electric Vehicles in Media


  • The 2022 Super Bowl featured, for the first time in its history, more advertisements for electric vehicles than for internal combustion vehicles. Standouts include:



  • Hot Wheels features multiple EVs in its collectibles and video games.

Video Games

  • Hill Climb Racing features an electric car as one of the available vehicles. It needs batteries to regain energy unlike the majority of vehicles which run on fuel, and if you hold the gas pedal for too long, it overvolts and shuts the engine down for a few seconds.
  • Watch_Dogs 2 allows the player to drive in off-brand electric vehicles.


  • xkcd has made numerous references to electric skateboards and hybrid cars: [1] [2] [3] [4].

Western Animation

  • The Simpsons has a bit about an electric car that makes fun of corporate-sponsored Walt Disney World rides (in the form of a ride sponsored by the gasoline industry portraying an electric car as undesirable).