The debate about the environmental friendliness of electric vs. internal combustion engines (“Combustion engines are still the future,” Feb. 21) ignores the real issue — the automobile itself.

The 1,200 pound battery powering the Tesla Model-S is being asked to move a car and driver that together weigh 5,000 pounds. The driver, with a couple of bags of groceries, weighs about 200 pounds, so 96% of the energy from the battery is used to move the Tesla and 4% is used to carry the driver and groceries. The ratio is the same for a large SUV or truck with an internal combustion engine.

Compare that with the same 200-pound combination of driver and groceries traveling on a 50-pound electric scooter or electric bike. In these cases, 20% of the battery power goes toward moving the vehicle and 80% moves the passenger. The entire combination of vehicle, battery, passenger and groceries weighs about 20% of the weight of a Tesla battery alone.

Consider also that six or eight scooters or e-bikes will fit into the parking space of a single Tesla or its equivalent internal combustion SUV — and that a Tesla takes up the same amount of road space, and creates the same amount of congestion, as an internal combustion vehicle.

When the lithium ion battery of an e-bike dies, it is difficult to recycle, but it weighs between seven and eight pounds, as opposed to the 1,200-pound behemoth powering a Tesla. One dead Tesla battery creates as much trash as 150 dead e-bike batteries.

E-bike sales are small in the United States compared with automobile sales, but they are projected to boom in the next five years, not because of government subsidies but because they are fun to ride and affordable. In the EV world you get fun or affordable, but not both.

But there are limits. Scooters and e-bikes require a certain amount of balance and athleticism, so adoption will not be equal across all age groups and body types, and neither vehicle is well-suited for winter use.

A solution is already available for the issue of balance and athleticism, but it gets little attention because it lacks the coolness factor. The golf cart and its sportier cousin the Utility Terrain Vehicle, or UTV, weigh in at 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. They’re heavy by e-bike standards, but still at 20% of the weight of a Tesla or standard SUV, and they are stable. Minnesota law allows local government to permit or not permit golf carts on public roadways. Currently they are primarily accepted in rural communities, especially those with older demographics, but should be considered in the metro area as well.

Winter is a bigger issue, but if a good winter solution isn’t found we don’t have to abandon either form of transportation. A partial solution is better than no solution.

I would even argue that a partial solution is the best solution. Transportation is the largest source of climate warming emissions in the United States because we put so much effort into making the automobile the sole solution for our transportation needs. We ask it to crawl along narrow city streets, race across the country on highways, carry a single passenger with a laptop and lunch, haul a soccer team, pull a boat to the cabin, advertise our social status and take us to the gym because we’ve been sitting in traffic too many hours per day. As a result, cars are overbuilt, overhyped and inefficient.

They have also wreaked havoc on the infrastructure of our communities. Our roads are too wide. Our houses, with prominent two-car garages, are more inviting to automobiles than people and our casual interactions are limited to the half a dozen families in our cul-de-sacs. None of these problems will be solved by electric cars or more efficient internal combustion engines. Changing the engine isn’t the solution.

We have to change the way we get around.


Doug Shidell, of Minneapolis is publisher of Bikeverywhere.