50% Electric Vehicles by 2030?
It will take more than a non-binding executive order and soothing words from the Big Three
If we all converted to full electric cars (EVs) tomorrow (not hybrids, which retain a gas engine) many of us would need to figure out a way to plug in our cars to at least basic house current (15 amps at 110 volts) while parked at home. Seventy-eight percent of drivers in the U.S. drive less than 40 miles in a day, a drive requiring less charging time on a 110V, 15 amp outlet than the time most cars spend at home each day. With this basic home charging we would need far fewer non-home charging stations than we have “gas” stations today. I have owned an EV for three years. In that time I have only used a non-home charging station when I have been more than 150 miles from home.
There is more good news about electric vehicles. Electric motors provide nearly instant acceleration. Merging on the freeway with an EV is not a problem. Brakes wear out much more slowly in an EV than in a vehicle powered by internal combustion—regenerative braking kicks in as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator. That not only returns some electrons to the battery but it slows down the car. Driving downhill on a mountain road requires little or no braking and no downshifting. EVs are nearly silent, there are no roaring engines and no blue smoke belching from an exhaust pipe. Electric vehicles (EVs) require far less maintenance: they require no oil changes, air filters, catalytic converters, or exhaust systems. All they share with carbon burning vehicles are the tires, suspension and steering systems, windshield wipers (and washers), and the minimally used brakes. (Of course, with a hybrid or even a “plug-in” hybrid you keep all the complexity and maintenance issues of a conventional vehicle while adding a battery and an electric motor.) Furthermore, and I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek, but in the event of the apocalypse you can manufacture “fuel” for an EV at home with solar panels—but if you’re dependent on oil extraction, refining, and distribution for your fuel you could be out of luck.
So with all these advantages what’s the problem? Why don’t we see far greater numbers of EVs on the road? Range, lack of standardization, and inertia. While it may be true that most cars in the U.S. travel less than 40 miles in a day, many people are understandably reluctant to buy a vehicle with a range of only, say, 100 miles. before searching for a charging station, figuring out how to connect to it, and then waiting hours for the vehicle’s battery to take on a charge. Drivers’ comfort with the ease of long distance travel in their carbon-burning vehicles is a source of skepticism and of massive inertia against the adoption of EVs. The Big Three automakers, fully wedded to their profit centers in internal combustion engines and the burning of fossil fuels, understand range issues and lack of standardization—and they are likely just fine with that status quo.
Whatever else one might think about Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, the largest EV manufacturer, Musk clearly understood these issues (and others) when he bought a large share of Tesla stock and became the chairman of Tesla in 2004. Tesla not only built cars that are exciting to drive, cars that would compete with anything else on the road, but Tesla, importantly, in 2012, embarked on investing in a worldwide system of Tesla “Superchargers” to address the issue of range.
We recently returned from a trip from Spokane to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in a full-on EV, a Tesla Model 3 (the economical version of a Tesla vehicle), that we’ve had for three years. With a range of nearly 300 miles on a full charge, the availability of electrical outlets at motels and some camp sites, and the ever-growing network of Tesla Superchargers (now including West Yellowstone MT and Jackson WY) acquiring “fuel” for the trip required only minimally more planning than with a carbon fueled vehicle.
For the first time since I’ve owned the Model 3 I explored what was available in non-Tesla Supercharger “fast” charging, what’s called Level 2, the only charging for other EVs that might undertake this trip (other than 110V, 15 amp conventional outlets at motels and homes). The disparate entities investing in the placement of these charging stations are no doubt motivated by noble intent (see Yellowstone Forever in Gardiner MT), but “filling up” a 100 mile battery at a Level 2 charger like this would take around four hours; chargers offered by different networks offer confusing directions (lack of standardization); and if your vehicle’s range is really only 100 miles, you’ll have a hard time making it through the parks before running out of electrons. Only a devoted EV nerd would attempt this trip in a vehicle dependent on the existing non-Tesla charging systems. It is hard not to suspect that the Big Three makers of carbon-fueled automakers are just fine with this, too.
On August 5th President Biden signed an aspirational executive order aimed at making electric vehicles half of all new vehicles sold in the United States by 2030. (The order also proposed new emissions standards to replace those Trump threw out during his administration.) According to Yahoo News:
Biden's 50% goal, which is not legally binding, does have buy-in from Detroit's Big Three: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, now a unit of Stellantis.
Conspicuously not invited to the signing ceremony was any representative of the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, Tesla Motors, a peculiar omission.
With this executive order and the Big Three’s cooperation we’ll see American highways fill up with full-on electric vehicles (not just hybrids) in the next nine years, right? I wish I believed that, but I would be a fool to do so. Remember when mileage standards were introduced and the Big Three used a gaping loophole in the requirements to shift production to the gas and diesel-guzzling trucks that offered a better profit margin?
The Big Three automakers have, for at least a century, invested in the technology to burn gasoline and diesel fuel to power transportation. Along with this investment, a huge and enormously lucrative infrastructure has developed to mine, refine (think Koch brothers), and distribute the fossil fuels that currently power most of our transportation. There is massive inertia in all this.
EVs are not like smartphones. Smartphones filled a nearly virgin economic niche. Smartphones took advantage of a niche that almost entirely new—before smartphones there were cell phones, but there were no pocket dictionaries, encyclopedias, adaptive calendars or pocket entertainment centers. The first iPhone came out in 2007 and now, fourteen years later, smartphones are ubiquitous. They seem essential to daily life.
In contrast, electric vehicles are filling a niche that is already fully occupied. EVs’ challenge is to replace methods of transportation deeply embedded in our way of life and the economics of every family, a niche occupied by enormous, decades-old corporations comfortable making vehicles powered by internal combustion engines that have consistently generated a profit for stockholders. To expect the Big Three to risk that profit on an electric vehicle future is like expecting a leopard to change its spots.
If we are to achieve a low or no carbon future that might blunt the impending catastrophe of climate change, shifting to EVs from the internal combustion engine (and electrical power generation away from fossil fuels) is essential. Corporations deeply entrenched in the economics of fossil fuels cannot be expected to lead the charge. The shift will not happen without government intervention that standardizes a fast charging network similar to (and probably integrated with) Tesla’s Superchargers, a network supports efficient long distance travel. For government not to take the lead is to condemn EVs to a niche market local travel and, worse, to give up on addressing climate change.
As long as Republicans (and a few Democrats, like Joe Manchin) who are wedded to and dependent on the fossil fuel companies, people who give only lip service (if that) to global warming, as long as these people remain in office, addressing the need for the standardization and provision of fast-charging infrastructure will not happen. Without such governmental standard setting and support a zero carbon future cannot occur. Keep that in mind as you contemplate for whom to vote in coming elections.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Corporations are only as good as the people who run them. I have no doubt of the good faith efforts to promote conversion to EVs of many people employed by the Big Three, but the soul of these corporations is wholly invested in the fossil fuel economy. These corporations, by flashily signing on to Biden’s aspirational executive offer are simply buying time. As corporations their motivation is guard the lucrative investments they’ve already made.