Having to write a story debunking a Guardian opinion piece full of inaccurate tropes on electric vehicles written by the creator of the TV character Mr Bean was not on my 2023 bingo card.
In his recent op-ed, comedian Rowan Atkinson says he feels “duped” by electric vehicles and claims there are environmental reasons to hang on to your old polluting petrol car rather than upgrade to an electric vehicle. He also makes wildly inaccurate claims about the future of hydrogen and synthetic fuels.
Atkinson portrays himself as an “early adopter” of EVs. But he is not your typical car owner. According to The Richest, he owns a $15 million ICE car collection including a $670,000 1986 Aston Martin V8 Zagato and a 1997 Mclaren F1 valued at $12 million.
Why the Guardian is publishing the thought bubbles about EVs by a former comedian known as a “petrol head” is difficult to understand, apart from its desire to generate clicks. The media outlet still takes advertising money from petrol and diesel car makers.
“Electric vehicles may be a bit soulless, but they’re wonderful mechanisms: fast, quiet and, until recently, very cheap to run. But increasingly, I feel a little duped. When you start to drill into the facts, electric motoring doesn’t seem to be quite the environmental panacea it is claimed to be,” writes Atkinson.
Atkinson’s piece generated a huge response from Guardian readers, many of them favourable, but it has been widely criticised by actual electric vehicle experts, including Auke Hoekstra from Eindhoven University of Technology and energy expert and BNEF founder Micheal Liebreich.
In a tweet thread debunking Atkinson’s claims, Hoekstra was clearly frustrated with still having to correct EV misinformation from media outlets like The Guardian.
“And debunking nonsense like this from people like Atkinson who think or pretend to know better sometimes feels like a full time job,” said Hoekstra in a Twitter thread.
I didn't do something similar in school once. I actually study this specific topic at the @TUeindhoven. So I do actually dive into the facts.
And debunking nonsense like this from people like Atkinson who think or pretend to know better sometimes feels like a full time job.
— AukeHoekstra (@AukeHoekstra) June 4, 2023
“I’m not entirely convinced Atkinson is being honest here, because he is very precise in cherry picking all the anti-EV tropes, including citing an extremely conservative outlier study that @MLiebreich and I picked apart when we did #Astongate,” said Hoekstra.
“Maybe it’s just that he wants to defend his love of combustion cars. Because although he has an electric one, he has boatloads of really expensive combustion cars too, and it seems that is where his heart lies.”
In the article Atkinson claims that holding onto a petrol powered car rather than upgrading to electric is better for the planet because of the embodied emissions involved in the manufacture of EVs.
“As you may know, the government has proposed a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. The problem with the initiative is that it seems to be based on conclusions drawn from only one part of a car’s operating life: what comes out of the exhaust pipe.” says Atkinson.
“But if you zoom out a bit and look at a bigger picture that includes the car’s manufacture, the situation is very different.”
“The problem lies with the lithium-ion batteries fitted currently to nearly all electric vehicles: they’re absurdly heavy, many rare earth metals and huge amounts of energy are required to make them, and they only last about 10 years. It seems a perverse choice of hardware with which to lead the automobile’s fight against the climate crisis.” says Atkinson.
Hoekstra says Atkinson doesn’t understand current battery technology.
“He’s complaining about current batteries and implying we have to wait for better ones. But the current ones will already last the lifetime of the car and the car will emit 3x less CO2 over its lifetime. (Yes, I’m sure about this, because that is my actual field of study.)” said Hoekstra in on twitter.
“It is true that next gen batteries combined with the lighter drivetrain will actually make EVs lighter than combustion cars long before 2030 but Atkinson conveniently doesn’t know or mention that factoid.
“Instead he fantasizes about hydrogen and efuels that are the future. Well he might *want* that to be the future (for reasons he doesn’t want to share with us) but the problem is that you need 2x more energy for hydrogen and 5x more energy for efuels.”
Atkinson also fails to mention that batteries are now being recycled with extraction rates recovering over 95% of the metals from used battery packs which included lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. A process termed “non-extractive mining” that’s helping create a closed loop system for EV manufacturing.
Atkinson poorly informed on vehicle lifetime emissions and hydrogen
In the article Atkinson suggests that continuing to run a petrol burning car is somehow better for emissions than upgrading to electric, a trope that’s been pushed by fossil fuel industry interests for over a decade.
“Currently, on average we keep our new cars for only three years before selling them on, driven mainly by the ubiquitous three-year leasing model. This seems an outrageously profligate use of the world’s natural resources when you consider what great condition a three-year-old car is in.” says Atkinson.
As he pointed out in his recent interview with The Driven, Tony Seba says EVs are already doing five times more kilometres over their lifetime than ICE vehicles and with 2 million km batteries going into mass production next year, a single EV will soon replace 10 ICE vehicles over its lifetime. That’s 10 times fewer vehicles that need to be manufactured.
If you’re going to compare embodied emissions, compare them on a “per km” basis rather than one is to one. One EV for every 5-10 ICE vehicles.
Even on a one-to-one basis, energy and transport analyst Michael Liebreich says EVs come out on top.
“Rowan Atkinson should stick to comedy, which he’s very good at,” said Liebreich on LinkedIn.
“This is an embarrassingly bad article on EVs, 2013 should call and ask for it back,”
“One example (no I’m not gong to debunk the whole thing): from an environmental perspective it doesn’t matter a flying F whether the first owner of a car keeps it for three years, ten years, or ten minutes, because there’s this thing called the second-hand market.
“Here’s how it works: EVs have 1/3 the LIFETIME emissions of ICE cars, including all the things Atkinson worries about, like mining and processing minerals,” said Liebreich.
“If you own an ICE car, selling it and buying an EV will deliver a net reduction in global emissions as long as the global fleet of vehicles does not as a result increase by more than 2/3 of a car – which it clearly won’t.
“Selling your car enables someone, somewhere downstream, to scrap their even older car, or just stop using it – and so emissions are reduced.
“As for hydrogen and e-fuels, sigh. Hydrogen has failed as a solution, for good reasons you can read about anywhere. E-fuels sound great until you realise they currently cost literally 100x as much as petrol or diesel and cannot cost less than 5x because of thermodynamics.
“And by the way, it matters not a F if you use hydrogen in a fuel cell or an internal combustion engine. They have similar (ghastly) round-trip efficiencies, and of course the hydrogen is just as painful to distribute for either. It takes 16 hydrogen tubes trailers to carry the same energy as one diesel or petrol tanker,” said Liebreich.
Tesla’s Impact Report published in April confirms Liebreich’s point. It shows Model 3/Y charged on solar has lifetime CO2 emissions of just 68 g/mile (42 g/km) compared to an equivalent ICE vehicle of 467 g/mile (290 g/km).
These numbers will get even better as EV manufacturing becomes further decarbonised.
Atkinson’s claims around hydrogen are also embarrassingly misinformed.
“Hydrogen is emerging as an interesting alternative fuel, even though we are slow in developing a truly “green” way of manufacturing it. It can be used in one of two ways'” say Atkinson.
“It can power a hydrogen fuel cell (essentially, a kind of battery); the car manufacturer Toyota has poured a lot of money into the development of these. Such a system weighs half of an equivalent lithium-ion battery and a car can be refuelled with hydrogen at a filling station as fast as with petrol.”
The battle between hydrogen and electric vehicles has been more about preserving entrenched energy monopolies and less about science.
Energy expert Saul Griffith says hydrogen-powered cars are the “Rube Goldberg machine” of transport. On top of woeful thermodynamic efficiency limits, the supply chain for hydrogen transport is even more complex than our current insane fossil fuel supply chain.
Earlier this year I contributed to the mountains of information written by others outlining why hydrogen powered vehicles are completely absurd and have no future.
Perhaps Mr Bean should read The Driven before he writes his next opinion piece.
Daniel Bleakley is a clean technology researcher and advocate with a background in engineering and business. He has a strong interest in electric vehicles, renewable energy, manufacturing and public policy.