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A reader asked us to fact-check an image widely shared on Facebook that takes a shot at electric cars.
The image shows some type of unit connected to the charging portal of a Tesla that’s parked on a roadside.
The text above the image states: "Well, there it is. A gas generator being used to charge the dead battery in an electric car. My day is complete." Then there’s a thumb-up emoji.
A TinEye reverse-image search indicates the image first surfaced on Oct. 27, 2020, on Reddit, but with the rear license plate on the car, an all-electric Tesla, obscured.
Virginia Tech computer science professor Kurt Luther said he could not determine where the photo was taken, but that it appears to have a license plate from Dubai, and that based on the plate’s design, the photo likely was taken between January 2019 and October 2020. He said the unit attached to the Tesla appears to be a gas-powered generator.
Luther directs a program at the university that uses technology to identify people in old photographs.
There wasn’t a clear claim to fact-check in the post, or enough information to determine whether the text is an accurate description of what’s going on. But the image does raise questions about whether electric vehicles really represent freedom from fossil fuels.
It’s no secret that electric vehicle batteries can run out of juice, just as a conventional car can run out of gasoline if you don’t refuel in time. But the implication of the post is that the use of the gasoline generator in the scene illustrates that the electric vehicle is an inferior technology, or that it ultimately depends on fossil fuels.
The reality is more complicated than that.
The Biden administration has made support for electric vehicles one of the pillars of its plan to combat climate change. Skeptics of the vehicles point to their limited range, the inconvenience of recharging (it can take hours, and charging stations are not as common as gas stations) and the fact that the electricity they use may come from power plants that burn fossil fuels, such as coal, oil or natural gas.
When battery technology was in its infancy, automakers addressed some of the limitations with hybrids. Gas-electric hybrid cars, including plug-in hybrids, use an on-board gasoline-powered motor to recharge the battery or even propel the car when the battery runs low. Their gas tanks need to be refilled from time to time.
Since then, the industry has made progress in extending the capacity of batteries, so that electric vehicles go farther and require less recharging.
Today’s pure electric cars, such as the Tesla in the photo, can travel hundreds of miles on a single charge, and can recapture energy from braking to add power to the battery. Some coming EVs can even supply emergency backup power to a home.
But when their batteries run out, they need an outside source of energy to recharge.
For that, EV drivers typically use public charging stations or charging equipment at their homes or workplaces. (Tesla operates its own global network of more than 25,000 charging stations for its customers, and the U.S. has several other networks.)
In an emergency like the one depicted in the image, connecting to a portable gasoline-powered generator may work, although Tesla warns against it.
In a situation where a car has run out of fuel or battery power, owning an EV would be less convenient than a gasoline car. It would probably be easier to fetch gasoline to refuel a conventional car or hybrid than to find a way to generate electricity on site for an EV.
The environmental profile of an EV, compared with an internal-combustion engine car, depends on many factors, including the energy source for the electricity and the mining of minerals used to make batteries. Both have their drawbacks. The biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions are fuel burned for transportation, and fuel burned for electricity generation.
As far as energy efficiency, though, the electric vehicle has the advantage, especially in terms of how it converts stored energy into motion. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, EVs convert over 77% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Gasoline vehicles, by comparison, deliver about 12% to 30% of the fuel’s stored energy to the wheels.
The greater efficiency of battery power translates to lower energy costs, though hybrid and EV prices tend to be higher. The Energy Department says hybrid electric vehicles typically have lower fuel costs than similar conventional vehicles; that energy costs for hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles are generally lower than for similar conventional vehicles; and that hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles "can reduce fuel costs dramatically because of the high efficiency of electric-drive components."
Other EV advantages: Peppier acceleration and zero tailpipe emissions.
The viral image mocking electric vehicles could very well depict an electric car that has run out of juice and needs a charge from a fuel-powered generator. But advancements in technology have made EVs a viable alternative to fuel-powered vehicles.
Facebook, post, Nov. 8, 2021
Snopes, "Pic of Gas Generator Charging Tesla Wasn’t Shot in U.S.," Nov. 8, 2021
Reddit, post, Oct. 27, 2020
Reuters, "Factbox: Five facts on the state of the U.S. electric vehicle charging network," Sept. 1, 2021
U.S. Energy Department, "Electric Vehicle Benefits and Considerations," accessed Nov. 11, 2021
U.S. Energy Department, "All-Electric Vehicles," accessed Nov. 11, 2021
Email, Kurt Luther, associate professor of computer science and College of Engineering faculty fellow, Virginia Tech University, Nov. 11, 2021
Email, Denis Teyssou, editorial manager, Medialab, Agence France-Presse, Nov. 11, 2021
Tesla, "Mobile Connector Owners Manual," accessed Nov. 11, 2021
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions," accessed Nov. 11, 2021
Tesla, "Supercharger," accessed Nov. 11, 2021
J.D. Power, "What is Regenerative Braking?", Jan. 25, 2021