Electric cars: Is it worth switching over?

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Electric cars: Is it worth switching over?

Electric engines are regarded as the propulsion system of the future – but have so far not been widely adopted. Is the tide now turning? The most important arguments for and against.
In 2018, only 2 percent of all passenger cars on Swiss roads were electric or hybrid vehicles. Only 0.4 percent had a purely electric propulsion system. It seems the tables have turned since 2019. Over the past year, more than 5,000 electric vehicles have been sold in Switzerland, accounting for around four percent of all new registrations. What's more, 2019 saw an electric car as the highest-selling vehicle for the first time ever, namely the new Tesla Model 3. In September 2020 the "plug-in vehicles", i.e. electric and hybrid cars, even exceeded the ten-percent mark in figures for new vehicles according to Autoswiss.

Which car has the advantage?

Is this the turning point that experts have long been expecting? Is switching over now worthwhile for broader sections of the population? What are the arguments in favor of electric cars? In which situations do gas or diesel cars have the advantage? Here you will find the most important answers regarding the competition between conventional cars and electric vehicles.

1. Keyword: environmental balance

In Switzerland, transport accounts for one third of annual energy consumption. According to the Federal Roads Office FEDRO, 96 percent of CO₂ emissions in transport are caused by fossil fuels consumed by commercial vehicles and passenger cars. Electric cars, on the other hand, do not emit CO₂. So are they on the whole more environmentally friendly?

Advantages during the operating phase
When it comes to this question, opinions tend to differ sharply: It is undisputed that electric cars are less harmful to the climate during the operating phase. This is especially true if they are operated using green electricity. In any case, the electricity mix in Switzerland is relatively environmentally friendly. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, 62 percent of electricity currently comes from renewable sources, the largest of which being hydropower. In addition, the efficiency of electric vehicles is massively higher than that of cars running on petrol or diesel.

Disadvantages regarding production and disposal
However, the production of car batteries is energy-intensive and often also pollutes the environment. For skeptics, this is a weighty counterargument. The comparisons of the Auto-Umweltliste (environmental automobile listing) therefore not only take account of the operating phase but also the environmental damage caused by the production of the electric batteries (www.autoumweltliste.ch). The portal operated by the Swiss Association for Transport and Environment (VCS) concludes that the energy balance between the models can vary significantly. Nevertheless, electric cars usually occupy the top spots in their respective vehicle class. It is still unclear how environmentally damaging the disposal of car batteries will be. However, a fully functional battery can be given a second lease of life in many cases, for example as an aggregator for illuminating football pitches. It is therefore not yet possible to conclusively assess the environmental balance.

Conclusion: Since not enough information is available yet, it's still 0-0 for now. For manufacturers and customers, the environmental balance is the dominant topic. Great efforts are expected in this regard to reduce the environmental impact of battery production and disposal.

2. Keyword: noise

Everybody knows that electric cars don't produce any exhaust fumes. It is also widely acknowledged that electric cars are quieter in urban traffic than conventional vehicles. They are even partly equipped with artificial sounds to warn other road users. In a world of electric mobility, people living on busy streets could sleep better, which would improve the quality of life in cities. However: Quiet vehicles also have a risk potential because many people rely on their ears in road traffic.

Conclusion: One point for electric cars: 0-1.

3. Keyword: flexibility

There are already more than 3,500 electric filling stations in Switzerland. However, only a few of them are "fast charging stations" that charge the vehicles in 30 to 60 minutes. For the others, the charging time usually lasts several hours. That's why conventional cars are clearly ahead in terms of flexibility. But electric vehicles are catching up: At the end of January 2019 there were already 24 fast charging stations at expressway service stations, many more are in the planning stage. It is also planned to set up a fast-charging station at some of the 100 Swiss resting stations. Various apps provide an overview and make it easier to find the nearest charging station.

Conclusion: When it comes to flexibility, conventional vehicles are still clearly ahead. The score is 1-1.

4. Keyword: range

Getting from Zurich to Cologne, from Geneva to Paris, from Lugano to Florence with a full tank is normally not a problem with petrol or diesel-powered cars; they usually have ranges of 500 kilometers or more on long-distance routes. For electric cars, on the other hand, the term "range anxiety" was coined. How far you can get with an electric vehicle depends, among other things, on your driving style, the load in the car and the outside temperature. The ranges achieved in vehicle tests are often significantly lower than the values specified by the manufacturer under ideal conditions. These issues can have relatively little importance for those who mainly travel in city traffic. But even today, city drivers using electric cars still have to plan their driving behavior more in advance than the drivers of cars with a conventional propulsion system. In the near future, things will probably get easier in this regard, with a denser network of fast charging stations and more advanced batteries with a much longer range.

Conclusion: 2-1 – this point still clearly goes to gas and diesel vehicles.

5. Keyword: state support

Since 2019, the canton of Thurgau has been subsidizing the purchase of electric cars to the tune of CHF 4,000, provided they run on green electricity. In St. Gallen there are CHF 5,000 francs on offer and in Basel taxi drivers can even collect a subsidy of CHF 10,000. In addition, there are advantages for electric cars in 15 Swiss cantons when it comes to traffic taxes; the canton of Zurich, for example, has even eliminated them. By the way: As an insurer, Zurich is also promoting electric mobility with significantly lower premiums than comparable vehicles with conventional propulsion systems.

Conclusion: Electric cars are catching up, tied at 2-2.

6. Keyword: costs

The purchase price for electric vehicles is currently noticeably higher than that of classic gas or diesel vehicles. On the other hand, fuel costs are lower, which should pay off over the vehicle's lifespan, especially for frequent drivers. There is not yet sufficient data available to determine how durable electric cars are and what repair costs one can expect over their life cycle. It should be assumed that, over the coming years at least, the niche product will incur higher costs when it comes to repairs, towing or fires. 

Conclusion: Again, the point goes conventional cars: Score 3-2.

7. Keywords: innovation and coolness

Which car is cooler? Everybody needs to answer this question for himself: However, the Tesla success story proves that electric cars are regarded as innovative, trendy and environmentally aware – and these qualities are also extended to their drivers. The best Tesla Model 3 has an impressive 490 hp, state-of-the-art driver assistance systems and is preconfigured for future autonomous driving. Those who want to make their neighbors jealous are more likely to do so with an electric car. So here the points clearly go to electric vehicles. 

End result: The competition ends in a draw at 3-3. But electric cars will likely come out as winner in as soon as two to three years. Finally, all major manufacturers are launching new electric models, with plenty more in planning.

Prediction: The tide is near – or already here

Small-scale Switzerland is predestined for electromobility. As purchase prices begin to fall and range stops triggering "anxiety", electric cars will also become a good alternative for the average driver. Nevertheless, it will be some time before electric cars make up a noticeable share of road traffic – on average it takes 20 years for the entire population to renew its cars.

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