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A (false) song of Ice and Fire: disinformation narratives on electric vehicles

A (false) song of Ice and Fire: disinformation narratives on electric vehicles

An analysis of the EDMO fact-checking network. Organizations that contributed to this analysis: Pagella Politica/Facta news; AFP; Correctiv; Demagog.cz; Demagog.pl; DPA; EFE Verifica; Knack; The Journal Fact-Check; TjekDet; Verificat.

Sometimes they are said to freeze, sometimes to burn or explode. Various false stories are leveraging opposite phenomena allegedly concerning electric vehicles with the same goal: spreading mistrust toward more sustainable means of transportation. In the recent past, false stories in several EU countries focused on depicting EVs as easily flammable or explosive but, with the arrival of lower temperatures, this long-running false narrative within climate-related disinformation has found new ways to portray them as unreliable, dangerous or ineffective.

False narrative #1: EVs stop working in cold weather

The photo of a highway blocked by dozens of snow-covered cars stuck on the road went viral in December, purporting to show a German road “collapsed” allegedly because of electric cars “empty-charged in the cold” and impeding traffic. In fact, the picture was old and unrelated, showing a huge storm in Chicago in 2011 with cars blocked by rapidly falling snow. Nonetheless, it was re-shared, accompanied by captions such as “This is not footage from an apocalyptic movie, it’s today’s Germany and electric cars that have run out of charge in the cold” or, ironically, “How smart to have electric vehicles”. This false story circulated in various EU countries.

Another false story suggested instead that an entire fleet of new electric buses in Oslo, Norway, were paralyzed by frost, blocking the city, but in fact only a small portion suffered reduced autonomy. The problem was solved by changing the charging shifts and also fixing the charging infrastructure.

These unfounded claims, even if they are not completely new, have emerged particularly in December 2023, leveraging cold weather conditions to misrepresent EVs as being useless at low temperatures. They questioned the battery life and reliability of electric cars, claiming for example that they would not last more than three hours if the vehicle remained stuck in traffic in low temperatures.

In fact, while it is true that very cold weather can affect the performance of electric vehicle batteries, the extent of these consequences is extremely exaggerated in these false stories. In such cases, batteries may experience lower efficiency, leading to range reduction and, as recently happened, troubles in charging. However, these effects depend on the models but are not as severe as claimed. The portrayal of EVs becoming completely inoperative or causing major disruptions in cold weather is a misrepresentation of the actual limitations of current electric vehicle technology.

False narrative #2: EVs burn or explode more easily than others

At the same time, one of the most common disinformation narratives about electric cars portrays them as explosive or more flammable – and therefore more dangerous – than those with internal combustion engines. False stories within this narrative often use old or unrelated images and videos of various accidents, falsely claiming that they show electric vehicles burning or exploding (even multiple times), to the point of defining these means of transport as deadly “driving bombs”.

In the same line, other false claims describe EV batteries as more flammable than conventional cars and impossible to extinguish if they catch fire. This circumstance would sometimes lead to heavier consequences, according to these unfounded stories. For example, a massive fire on a cargo ship off the coast of the Netherlands at the end of July and another fire at a car warehouse were falsely blamed on EV batteries.

In fact, it is a misconception that electric vehicles are more prone to catching fire or exploding than internal combustion engine vehicles. Even though a traction battery fire requires more time and water to extinguish, these events are rare and, on the contrary, the likelihood of experiencing a fire in an electric vehicle is generally lower compared to combustion cars.

For these reasons, the aforementioned unfounded claims exaggerate the risks of using electric vehicles and such stories are made up in the vast majority of the cases. The most common technique is using unrelated videos or pictures, often actually related to fossil fuel vehicles, which are spread as if they relate to EVs. As in the case of the video of the deadly explosion of a car with a gas tank in Uzbekistan, which was reshared in different languages as if it concerned an electric car.

Other false claims about electric cars

False claims that climate solutions are dangerous or do not work have become increasingly common in recent months, as also highlighted by a recent EDMO investigation into disinformation about wind turbines. They are part of the evolution of the usual climate denialism into a “New Denial”, in which false stories have shifted from denying the climate crisis overall, as well as its impact, to portraying climate countermeasures as hypocritical, harmful, or useless. Regarding EVs, for example, it has been wrongly suggested that they are basically disposable objects, because their batteries cannot be recycled or it is too expensive to do so. This narrative has been pushed with out-of-the-context images and videos of EVs “cemeteries” captioned misleadingly as evidence of their abandonment. Another similar disinformation narrative claims that major vehicle manufacturers are withdrawing them from the market or stopping their production because they are too dangerous or, more in general, because they “do not make sense”.

Moreover, while it is still falsely claimed that car emissions do not contribute to global warming, electric vehicles are accused of being more polluting than internal combustion engines, of having to travel a distance equivalent to fourteen times around the world for them to be considered less polluting than diesel cars, and finally that their batteries are being charged using fossil fuels, thus suggesting the hypocrisy behind their use and their ineffectiveness as a countermeasure to the climate crisis. In truth, although EVs have an environmental impact  – the majority of the emissions are produced in the manufacturing and charging process – current production methods and their use are overall already much less polluting than fossil fuel engines, and the situation could improve with greater use of energy from renewable sources and implementing the recycling process of their materials. In any case, to achieve more sustainable mobility, scientists recommend increasing the use of public transportation, cycling or walking, rather than a 1:1 substitution of conventional cars with electric ones.

In the end, discrediting more sustainable vehicles seems to be the hook used to portray laws and institutions aimed at combating climate change as irrational or undemocratic, imposing absurd measures. After the EU ratified an agreement to ban the sale of internal combustion engines in new cars by 2035, for example, a false story circulated with a map claiming that only the EU and California were implementing such legislation (when in fact several other countries have announced similar laws). And in July, after the EU Commission proposed to revise its text on “end-of-life vehicles” (ELVs) to better manage their collection and recycling, social media posts claimed that this “new law” would allow the EU to “seize” and “scrap” citizens’ cars if vehicles did not meet certain criteria, spreading disinformation among the public and mistrust in European institutions.

Enzo Panizio, journalist at Pagella Politica/Facta News and EDMO

Tommaso Canetta, deputy director of Pagella Politica/Facta News and coordinator of EDMO fact-checking activities