Open Letter Response to "Think Electric Vehicles Are Great Now? Just Wait…"

The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to publish my letter of response to Dan Neil's article. Understandably, my original letter needed to be edited due to space constraints. For those interested, here is the full text of my original letter.

Dear Mr. Neil,

Going into this holiday season, I was starting to feel optimistic about educating the public on what's really happening in the transportation industry. While there is still much more to be done, I believe the needle is moving in the right direction on topics such as "electric vs electrified," "where does electricity come from," and "total lifecycle analysis." Electric vehicles have their own set of challenges, and are far from being clean when you consider battery production and the fact that fossil fuels are used to power nearly 70% of the worldwide electrical grid. Two years ago, when I gave my TEDx talk "In defense of internal combustion," these were foreign concepts to most of the people I spoke to. They were convinced their plug-in vehicle was zero emissions (ZEV) because that's what they were told when they purchased it. They now know that ZEV is much more of a political designation than reality.

Then about a week ago I saw your article published in the Wall Street Journal. I know that you are a well-respected automotive columnist and a Pulitzer Prize winner. When you write something, people take notice. This is why I feel the need to address your article directly.

Your article paints a very grim picture for the internal combustion engine -- a picture that perpetuates the "us vs them" attitude that honestly isn't very helpful. Sure, countries are discussing the idea of banning internal combustion engine vehicles, but is this really the right way forward? I don't believe it is, and I also don't believe it will happen in my lifetime.

I believe in setting targets and letting the best technology get us there. Mandating winners and losers turns this into a political battle, when clearly it should be an engineering crusade. You mention that IEA estimates that between 125-220 million EVs will be on the road by 2030. But digging into their estimates reveals that a large percentage (~40% or more) of those EVs are actually plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). PHEVs are not fully electric vehicles -- they include internal combustion engines. But there will be a lot more IC engines around than that. It's estimated the world's roads will have 1.75 billion cars in 2030. So even if IEA is right, what will power the remaining 1.5 billion vehicles? That's right, internal combustion engines.

In your article you say "the twilight of the IC engine is pretty awful" and claim "internal combustion isn't going to get any better." I know first-hand that large auto companies, small start-ups, universities, and national laboratories all have their best and brightest working to make engines cleaner and more efficient and will continue to do so, just as they have been doing for decades. A great example of this is Mazda's Skyactiv-X engine, which combines the best of both gasoline and diesel engines. And as for the end of German IC development by 2023, VW's development chief recently said, "It is not correct to say we will stop developing internal combustion engines from 2026.” He went on to say, “…I can see us developing more and more efficient ICE cars long beyond the quoted 2026 date.”

Finally, you compare IC-powered vehicles to flip phones, say "gasoline could be free and you would still hate it," and describe the Model 3 as "amaze-balls." This reminds me of a conversation I had with an Uber driver a couple of months ago. He was absolutely in love with his Tesla. But when I asked him specific questions about charging, range, etc., he seemed mostly annoyed with his car. So, are EVs really better or are they just the latest trend?

Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike electrification the way you seem to dislike internal combustion. I agree that electrification is improving and should be part of the future transportation solution. But so should combustion. So, what do you say we all work together instead of bringing each other down? The environment will thank us for it.


Kelly Senecal, Ph.D.

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