First of all, let me say (write) that I am not pro electric cars. I would not own one in their current state (or what I would imagine their state to be in the next 8 - 10 years). They are slow, expensive (to purchase and maintain), take too long to refuel (recharge… whatever), and have a limited range.
To answer your question, yes, the electric car does cause pollution. I think the auto manufacturers are able to say this (that the electric cars are “completely non-polluting”) because the electric cars don’t produce the pollution directly. The pollution is produced indirectly at the electric plant (I am assuming a coal burning plant for this discussion). However… the internal combustion engine is much less efficient than an electric plant. Therefore, you will have to burn more fossil fuels in an internal combustion engine, thus causing more pollution than an electrically powered auto.
What about cost?
Is air pollution all that matters? What about the lead-acid batteries in electric cars (the most oft used electricity storage device in electric cars)? These batteries eventually wear out, are expensive to replace, and must be disposed of. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary pollutant produced by the internal combustion engine. The reason CO2 is considered a pollutant is that it is a greenhouse gas (it traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere), and adding more of it to the atmosphere is causing “Global Warming”. What is usually left out of this bit of information is that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a point of diminishing returns as far as its ability to trap heat. That is, adding more CO2 to the atmosphere is having a negligible effect on “Global Warming”. My point is… damn the efficiency of the process if it is inconvenient and expensive, because the environmental impact from the extra pollution of an internal combustion engine does not amount to much.
I should point out that there are other pollutants formed from both an internal combustion engine and an electrical plant that are more harmful to the environment. I have not done much research on this, but I would think that the gasoline is cleaner than the coal burned at the electrical plants, so the burning of more gasoline may balance out the burning of the dirtier coal. Hmmm…. It could happen.
If you are at all interested in the future of electric cars, check out this Discover Magazine article. I thought it had lots of potential (back in 1996 (I think)) when I read it, but haven’t heard anything about it since. Interesting concept though.