What are the pros and cons of electric motors, compared to internal combustion engines, from a sustainability perspective?

Are electric motors better for the economy, more efficient, or more versatile/powerful than internal combustion engines?

  • 1
    This would be easier to answer if a particular application was specified (e.g. cars, trucks, trains, etc.).
    – Nate
    Jun 25, 2013 at 5:09
  • Where/how is the electricity being produced? What fuel for the combustion engine (gasoline/petrol, diesel, hydrogen, bio-diesel, ethanol, etc.)? As Nate asked, what is the engine being used for? What is your definition of versatile? Jun 25, 2013 at 15:53
  • 1
    Note that better for the economy is often directly the opposite of the other factors - an engine that uses more inputs, takes more labour to operate and needs to be replaced more often benefits the economy much more immediately than the converse. This is a common efficiency trap (especially if pollution costs can be externalised)
    – Móż
    Jul 11, 2013 at 0:12
  • I don't think this question makes sense. Engines and Motors are different things. Motors convert electricity (a pre-prepared, highly processed form of energy) into motion, while Engines extract energy from raw materials and convert that into motion. An electric motor is most likely getting its electricity from some form of engine (either locally, or from a power plant).
    – pperrin
    Jan 18, 2021 at 22:07
  • the electric car is not an electric car it is a car with a replaced engine, an electric motor in place of an internal com. engine a real electric car would have 5 small motors, one on each wheel and one for the computers, no need for brakes, driveshaft etc. Anyone out there who is an engineer and understands how electric power works and reverse polarity will get what I am talking about.
    – fred paul
    Apr 14, 2022 at 19:29

12 Answers 12


Electric motors generally:

  1. are easier to maintain
  2. are very efficient (80-90% compared to 20-30% for ICEs)
  3. have a very wide range of operating speed, so need no gears, or fewer gears, to move through their full speed range
  4. make it easy to incorporate regenerative braking.
  5. can provide full torque from stationary

Consequently, heavy-duty applications such as trains and ships, if diesel powered, typically have hybrid diesel-electric drivetrains, with the diesel engine generating electricity that powers the electric motor.

Furthermore, a pure electric system has the advantage that there is no local pollution: one of many problems with combustion engines is the amount and range of pollutants generated: particulates (PM10, PM2.5), NOx, SOx, CO, CO2.

Electricity can be generated from a wide range of sources, so using an all-electric transmission makes it much easier to switch to a cleaner supply.

And as a large demand from electric engines improves the economics of electric storage, by providing income for electric-storage providers, economies of scale, and demand-pull for innovation, that makes it even easier to incorporate into the electricity grid exogenously-variable renewables such as run-of-river hydro, PV, CSP, and wind.

  • 2
    As far as efficiency it's worth noting that energy production from power plants (coal may be only 33%), and energy transfer and/or storage is not 100% efficiency, so the total efficiency of fuel to power is lower than that of just electricity > motor > work. But you're right- electric generation has potential to improve that much more than combustion.
    – Meep
    Dec 4, 2013 at 10:20
  • ICEs have no more than 22% efficiency. Read more about the Otto Cycle (bear in mind they discuss the Ideal cycle)
    – BryanH
    Jan 30, 2015 at 1:40

I agree with everything in EnergyNumbers' answer, but would like to add some more:

(Other) Advantages of Electric Motors

Along the lines of "easier to maintain", an electric motor is likely to last much longer, for example, in an automotive application, than an internal combustion engine (ICE). An EV traction motor may very well last 1,000,000 miles, versus perhaps one quarter of that for most ICEs. While it's true that current EVs tend to use batteries to power the motors, and batteries may need to be replaced at a comparable interval to an ICE timing belt, an EV with a new battery is going to run much more like a new vehicle than an ICE with a new timing belt. The regenerative braking associated with the electric motor will also prolong brake life.

Electric motors are more quiet than ICEs. This is a controversial topic. I believe noise pollution to be a problem, and thus, a quieter car to be better (especially with respect to sustainability). Some are concerned about pedestrian safety with quieter electric motors. While this can be, and is being, addressed by adding noise makers to electric cars, I believe this solution is actually misguided. The basis for this aversion to quiet cars partly draws from a multi-year study in the US concerning pedestrian accidents with hybrid vehicles. The hybrid vehicles had a 40% higher rate of pedestrian accidents than non-hybrids. However, the study did not correct for the fact that in the US, hybrids tend to be owned by city-dwellers, and the rate of pedestrian accidents is twice as high in cities vs. rural areas, for all cars. I believe this factor alone can explain the 40% result. Also, during this study, which involved thousands of hybrid cars, not a single blind person was killed by a quiet hybrid.

Size matters. In an application-agnostic answer, it's important to note that for some applications, electric motors are more versatile because of the variety of sizes they come in. Hopefully, it's obvious that an ICE to make your phone vibrate is not an option, but a motor works quite well.

Disadvantages of Electric Motors

Without specifying your application, I'll try to discuss multiple transportation applications. For cars or trains, the excess weight of a battery pack that drives an electric motor is not a huge penalty. The road provides extra normal force to balance the vehicle weight. However, in aerospace applications, power-to-weight ratio is more critical. So, for airplanes, using electric motors for propulsion is still not practical. Liquid fuels have a higher energy density compared to batteries, which makes petro-fuels or biofuels more attractive for airborne propulsion.

This is less of a problem for cars, which do not yet have to levitate. Also, it should be noted that comparisons of energy density for liquid fuels vs. batteries distort the true picture, because total weight is what's important, and an ICE system requires a heavy ICE, and a heavy transmission. When the whole system is considered, battery EVs suffer a noticeable, but acceptable, weight penalty for their lower energy-density fuel.

Battery range (capacity) is also a problem for EVs. However, I believe this issue to be exaggerated, as the average US driver (who drives a lot!) still only drives 40 miles on an average day. In the future, more charging stations will also minimize the range problem for electric cars. However, for now, range versatility has to be considered an advantage of ICE vehicles. An interesting compromise is made by Chevy's Volt EV, which is fundamentally an electric car, but which carries an on-board generator for recharging the battery by burning liquid petro-fuel.

Temperature constraints can be a disadvantage for electric motors, due to the batteries themselves. High temperatures can shorten battery life, and very low temperatures can (temporarily) reduce the useful capacity of the battery. Note that normal temperatures here on earth are well-suited to battery EVs, so this issue is more a problem if your area has temperature extremes.


This is difficult to answer without a more specific question. Electric motors will draw their fuel from different sources than internal combustion engines. Each country will have different economics regarding their electric grid, and oil consumption. If your country has more abundant resources to produce electricity (coal, natural gas, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear), you may consider electric motors an economic benefit. If you're in an oil country, maybe not.

When you add biofuels to the mix, you add agriculture as a factor. Most internal combustion engines can use varying levels of biofuels. An Otto cycle engine needs modest engine modifications to run rich ethanol blends. Many modern diesel engines need no modifications to run biodiesel (although winter cold can limit the blend).

So, ICEs can provide a domestic economic boost if your country can grow its own biofuel feedstock.


I believe that pollution (which includes greenhouse gas) and energy efficiency are the most important factors here, and those favor electric motors for many applications. EnergyNumbers' answer covers those well. I simply wanted to add a few more pros and cons to round out the topic.


Disclaimer: biased owner of an electric vehicle, but I've certainly owned ICEs, too :)

A related question about Electric Cars on Sustainable Living

Note: more sources coming later ...

  • I have a Nissan Leaf because it is the most cost effective option for me. EVs have an economic advantage no matter the country. If Saudi Arabia started using EVs and burned oil at the power plant, it would allow them to sell more oil on the global market, meaning they still make more economic sense. Only the Leaf has had battery degredation due to tempature extremes, that is due to the lack of a thermal management system. It is also worth noting that most noise above 15-20MPH is from the tires (in new cars, anyway). In the parking lot, an EV might be quite, but people are always walking there.
    – user2433
    Nov 16, 2015 at 2:42

What are the pros and cons of electric motors, compared to internal combustion engines, from a sustainability perspective?

The main comparison is between fuel energy density and energy efficiency, although in very small scales such as in lawnmowers or passenger cars, the low maintenance costs of small electric motors compared with the high maintenance costs of small internal combustion engines helps too. Anything equal to or smaller than passenger car in power output will be electrified.

Electric motor has nearly 100% efficiency, when compared to 25% of small high-speed engines or 50% of large low-speed marine or power generation engines. Maybe some percent or two is lost in practical applications but in theory you could make 99.9% efficient electric motor. Also it helps that electricity can be easily created using sustainable methods with very high limits (electrify the entire world with solar panels, onshore wind power and offshore wind power, and you will have thousand times more power than you need), whereas fuels for internal combustion engines are much harder to make sustainably, maybe hydrogen can be produced sustainably with practically no limit but any carbon-containing sustainable fuel is limited by the available of sustainable CO2 sources, and above-ground storage of hydrogen requires very heavy pressure vessels.

The main advantage of internal combustion engines is the massive energy density of their fuels. Gasoline has 34 megajoules (9.4 kWh) per liter and it's at atmospheric pressure, no need to store it in pressure vessels. No battery can match that. Also internal combustion engines are very good in powering ships that cruise at low power levels but need high power bursts for maneuverability, plus enough energy for month-long journeys, whereas aeroplanes use gas turbines that are a form of internal combustion engine that really likes working at nearly full load constantly. Furthermore, because there are not enough hydropower resources on this planet for balancing the power grid, we probably need to store massive amounts of hydrogen in compressed underground storage areas and subsequently burn them in one of two kinds of internal combustion engines: either a gas turbine (good for full-load efficiency) or a reciprocating engine (good for part-load efficiency), to create electricity at times when sun doesn't shine and it's calm.

Both are needed. Passenger cars will surely use electric motors. Light commercial vehicles too. Heavy long-haul trucks may use either internal combustion engines (burning biofuels) or hydrogen fuel cells and electric motors. Ships will use internal combustion engines, burning either biofuels, ammonia or hydrogen. Aeroplanes for very short trips could use electric motors, but long-distance aeroplanes will use gas turbines (a form of internal combustion engine), burning either biofuels or hydrogen. Hydrogen electric power plants will use gas turbines or reciprocating engines, plus a steam turbine running on the hot exhaust to bump up the efficiency. Batteries will see some use in balancing the power grid too, but the main long-term energy storage methods will be hydropower reservoirs and underground compressed hydrogen storage areas.


Specific to electric vehicles in the USA, the Union of Concerned Scientists created a good comparison in 2009. Here's the latest update, from 2018-03-08:


Based on data on power plant emissions released in February 2018, driving on electricity is cleaner than gasoline for most drivers in the US. Seventy-five percent of people now live in places where driving on electricity is cleaner than a 50 MPG gasoline car. And based on where people have already bought EVs, electric vehicles now have greenhouse gas emissions equal to an 80 MPG car, much lower than any gasoline-only car available.

The comparisons are comprehensive:

For a gasoline car, that means looking at emissions from extracting crude oil from the ground, getting the oil to a refinery and making gasoline, and transporting gasoline to filling stations, in addition to combustion emissions from the tailpipe.

For electric vehicles, the calculation includes both power plant emissions and emissions from the production of coal, natural gas and other fuels power plants use.

There's also an calculator to estimate emissions for a specific vehicle and location:



I think you had pretty much of advice pro electrical. I do not preach combustion is better than electrical, but would like to make some side notes in favor of combustion.

Energy efficiency: The energy for your electrical engine must come from somewhere. These sources are probably combustion engines, so basically you are adding an extra conversion which will lose energy.

Batteries: Your batteries will be heavy. Assuming that you use the engine for locomotion, you will lose more energy because you accelerate more mass. Batteries will also be environmentally unfriendly and produced under bad condition labour. These batteries will also need transportation and replacement and old batteries might become a source of heavy metal waste. An empty battery is as heavy as a full one. Your fuel tank on the other hand will become lighter as you go. Technology however promises better batteries and you might also google 'fuel cell'.

Pollution: Combustion engine pollution depends on what you are burning and how. If you would use hydrogen your pollution might be zero.

Engine complexity and durability: Your electrical engine will likely last longer than your internal combustion engine. It will also be easier to use, maintain, design, build etc. From durability perspective you might want to have a look at external combustion engines (for example steam engines). This guy claims they have some of them running for over a hundred years: http://www.mikebrownsolutions.com/steamart.html

From engine simplicity perspective it might be possible to use a more simple engine like a rocket engine. Of course they are not energy efficient but the bottom line I try to make is that the force you need for your vehicle is directional and not rotary. Combustion (and also electrical) engines complicate the issue by first converting to a rotating force and than to a directional one. One might simply propel a rocket engine against a rail to create a directional force at once. This would of course apply more to trains and not so much to cars.

Don't get too much into the electrical car hype yet. I believe they are still more expensive even though heavily sponsored by governments. That latter being a good indication for how environmentally friendly they are.

But don't understand this wrong: Electrical cars will become more advanced if batteries and/or fuel cells improve.

  • 1
    You assume that batteries will result in poor labor conditions. You assume that batteries are bad, yet oil is FAR worse. Yes, producing an electric car takes SLIGHTLY more energy, but that is QUICKLY offset by use. Batteries are non-toxic, fully recyclable, and last hundreds of thousands of miles. Oil is burned up as, is toxic, and puts out a LOT of pollution. Battery technology is already here, the only issue is marketing. Look through this and watch the video: ucsusa.org/clean-vehicles/electric-vehicles#.VklBK8r67MU
    – user2433
    Nov 16, 2015 at 2:36
  • 1
    Electric vehicles are by FAR the cleanest and most cost effective vehicles. I am only able to own a Nissan Leaf only because it is the most cost effective option for me. They are NOT highly subsidized, as the myth goes, but oil IS. Military action, pollution, and economic damages add trillions to the cost of oil. Currently in the United States, electric cars can be leased for under 100 dollars a month in CARB areas. EVs are very competitive in costs. A new Leaf is comparable in price with an Accord, maybe 2k more, but after tax credits it is 5k LESS, and then you save thousands on fuel
    – user2433
    Nov 16, 2015 at 2:39
  • 1
    There are Teslas with half a million miles on the original batteries. Electric motors last virtually forever. EVs are better all around and are the future.
    – user2433
    Nov 16, 2015 at 2:39
  • Electric vehicles are at a disadvantage in cold weather. You don't have the waste heat off the ICE to heat the passenger space. This can amount to several kW. Batteries don't work well when cold. This can be a problem in an unheated garage or street parking in northern climates. Dec 15, 2016 at 18:06

Well my opinions are. I have a ice car and would accept a ev car, my problem is that i drive older x3's and the engines are as good as new provided you maintain them. Ev engines are fine. The huge problem for me is the battery. If you buy an older ev say 8 years old, well the battery is spent. An 8 year old car is fine, the engine is fine and does not need replacement. A new battery on a 8 year ev will cost thousands, even if you save money on gas in those 8 years nobody will want to pay several k for a battery. Just like I would not want to pay several k for a new engine after 8 years. Still way too expensive for my view. I also live in canada in freezing temps, another problem.

  • Welcome to Sustainable Living. Most EV manufacturers guarantee a lifespan of 8 years for the battery but this does not mean it's spent after 8 years. Yes, it is expensive to replace it eventually, but general maintenance costs are much lower. The question is how the total cost of ownership compares between EV and ICE car. This depends on your milage.
    – THelper
    Mar 26, 2022 at 7:04
  • 1
    Worse, the 8 year old fossil fuel car will also have lower efficiency, but that's not part of the rating system for second hand cars so most people are unaware of how bad the problem is. With electric you at least get the obvious "range is only X", but almost no-one fills the tank, drives to empty and says "range now X" on a fossil car... let alone put that on the ad for the car
    – Móż
    Mar 26, 2022 at 7:37

My opinion is that the electrical motor is not last long as piston engine.Because:

1.The brush connection will be rust and ruined out.

2.The brushless motors require complex electronic circuit which is hard to maintain.

3.Futuristic battery and capacitor are high technologies which isn't suitable for fixing,regenerating and it also costs a lot of money.

4.Motors are actually more complex of design and material compare to piston engine,it can't handle high temperature that lead into electrical component damages.

5.In cold weather,gas engines create much heat that maintains the good operating temperature for mechanical parts,the e-motors will not do this and the rotor can be frozen as well.

6.Reverse the current when braking can cause an over heat,inductive energy that can damage the teflon coat or destroy the soldering(that's why trains still use regular brake combine with electric brake)

Conclusion: e-bike is a result of civilization high technology while it has a lot of advantage,however it does have a lot of disadvantage of maintenance and recreation if apply for a specific civilization low technology reality.

  • I disagree. Electric engines have much less moving parts and require less maintenance than combustion engines. Electric cars are also cheaper to maintain than petrol cars and although not much is known yet about their longevity, it looks like they will surpass that of a combustion engine.
    – THelper
    Aug 12, 2019 at 14:09
  • Your disagreement does not provide any point for against my points.An electronic circuit board has zero moving part but its lifespan is far shorter than an motor.So i see no logical point here.
    – Lan...
    Aug 13, 2019 at 15:30
  • Can you provide some references or data to support your points?
    – LShaver
    Aug 18, 2019 at 16:26

Although hybrid cars are efficient on paper - the reality is far from that. Until battery technology advances well enough to have a cost-effective product in the long run, my choice will always be on the side of diesel, or even petrol engines - there are still other options still, take a look at this article: https://www.marlincash.com/fuel-efficient-cars/

  • 3
    Are you taking into account the recently revealed large-scale fraud in efficiency claims for diesel cars? As always with these things, the advertising is almost meaningless, what counts is your actual usage and what that costs. Literally, "your mileage may vary".
    – Móż
    Sep 29, 2016 at 0:54

Both advocates for the different vehicles, EVs vz ICEs, have very good arguments in their defense with some obvious bias because of feelings of connection to their vehicle. The internal combustion engine,ICE, has served humanity well for hundreds of years thanks to its Belgian inventor Nikolaus Otto Etienne Leonor in 1858. However, innovation has to advance and the most practical solutions have to emerge. In this case it seems like we are at an inflection point and the tilt is favoring the EVs. Yes, the demand on electricity would be overwhelming and the grid would not be able to handle it if suddenly all vehicles were EV, but that would not actually happen because the increase in EVs production would go hand-in-hand with new power generation from renewable sources. All things considered the EVs win the future.

  • 2
    Welcome to Sustainability.SE! Thanks for your answer, but this doesn't really add much to the topic. What causes the tilt in favor for EVs? What about concerns of sustainability?
    – LShaver
    Dec 5, 2016 at 18:13

Lots of good answers here, but they miss one important characteristic:

Charging time of electric motor powered battery car versus refuel time of an internal combustion engine car.

To get any useful amount of charge, even the best charging solutions require at least half an hour, and these fast charging solutions don't charge to full level, they stop at around 70%-80%. Not only that, but this speed requires a fast charger. Many charging stations are slow ones.

In contrast, it's only few minutes to refill a gasoline or diesel car.

Hydrogen may be a solution to the charging time problems. It can be generated using electricity on site on the refueling station, and hydrogen refueling doesn't take that much longer compared to gasoline / diesel refueling. Hydrogen cars ideally use fuel cells and electric motors. The obvious drawback is lower energy efficiency compared to direct electricity use in batteries. Also, hydrogen fuel cells are today quite expensive.

  • 1
    This is true, but I don't see how charging time is relevant from a sustainable point of view. It's a (minor?) discomfort for the user, not the environment.
    – Aubrey
    Apr 30, 2019 at 10:17

I believe electric cars are much more efficient than the classic combustion engine, they do not give off pollutants like the combustion engine cars. But they do produce ill wanted chemicals producing the electricity.

  • 1
    And you totally ignored the need to produce and then recycle the batteries both of which produces a great deal of crap. Btw burning gas to produce electricity emits very little pollution.
    – sharptooth
    Dec 4, 2013 at 6:39
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    Welcome to Sustainable Living! Thank you for your answer but could you please elaborate and address more of the issues raised in the question? As it stands your answer doesn't contribute much.
    – THelper
    Dec 4, 2013 at 7:33

If everyone starts using electric vehicles (EVs) over Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars, we will need to produce more electricity.

There is no free lunch, because electric power is produced by burning non-renewable (and still polluting) forms of energy -- if not coal, then natural gas or nuclear power). Hydro electric generation has its own set of environmental concerns. There is also solar and wind power, but just imagine the areas that will be required to accommodate these very large solar panel farms and wind turbine generators to satisfy all the increased demand.

There will be NIMBY concerns if located near urban areas and even in rural areas, and given that these solar and wind farm locations have to be in areas where there are either significant number of cloud free days or where there is a reliable steady flow of wind at the surface there are not too many alternate locations.


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