State of the Planet

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The Politicizing of Electric Vehicles

Greenhouse gas reduction requires that we decrease our use of vehicles powered by fossil fuels. As part of the effort to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, last year the EPA proposed strict tailpipe-emission standards that would require huge increases in electric vehicle (EV) sales. According to Coral Davenport in last weekend’s New York Times:

“Last spring, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the toughest-ever limits on tailpipe emissions. The rules would be so strict, the only way car makers could comply would be to sell a tremendous number of zero-emissions vehicles in a relatively short time frame. The E.P.A. designed the proposed regulations so that 67 percent of sales of new cars and light-duty trucks would be all-electric by 2032, up from 7.6 percent in 2023, a radical remaking of the American automobile market.”

But the regulatory process advanced, auto unions and automakers expressed reservations about the pace of change, and, in an election year, the Biden Administration seems compelled to respond and slow down the rate of change. From the same article:

Administration officials are tweaking the plan to slow the pace at which auto manufacturers would need to comply, so that electric vehicle sales would increase more gradually through 2030 but then would have to sharply rise. The change in pacing is in response to automakers who say that more time is needed to build a national network of charging stations and to bring down the cost of electric vehicles, and to labor unions that want more time to try to unionize new electric car plants that are opening around the country, particularly in the South.”

While these regulations have the impact of encouraging the adoption of a new technology, their impact should not be overrated. In China, incentives for electric vehicles were more direct, taking the form of direct subsidies. As those subsidies were removed, sales began to slow down.

New technologies replace old ones when they are better, cheaper and more reliable than existing technologies. When the internal combustion engine replaced the horse as the main means of personal transport, they met all those conditions. We didn’t regulate the horse or charge a manure collection fee. The car was simply a better technology. Electric vehicles will replace the internal combustion engine when they are less expensive, more feature-packed, and more reliable than vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine. The fact that we have not seen that yet is because the technology is new and some flaws must still be addressed. Most people are cautious about being an early adopter of a new technology. As Apple has learned, some folks wait in line to get the new iPhone model, but most of us are content to wait until all the bugs are figured out. Some people love to be “first adopters,” and they get both the benefits and costs of being first.

In theory, electric vehicles should eventually meet all the conditions required for new technologies to replace old ones. Electric power, especially coming from renewable energy, is already less expensive than gasoline. Ask an Uber driver in southern California why they drive a Tesla, and they will tell you that their fuel costs have been dramatically reduced. Moreover, their fuel costs are far more predictable. Gasoline prices vary widely, depending on supply, location and season. However, at this point, charging stations are far less common than gas stations, and some people are afraid that their electric vehicle could run out of juice while they are on the road.

Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts and should be less expensive to maintain than internal combustion engines. However, spare parts can be expensive when a technology is new, and there are examples of electric vehicle repairs that have been more expensive than anticipated. That is an issue that will recede as the market expands, but it is a problem today. Finally, since electric vehicles are newly designed, they have exciting and attractive new features. One example is Tesla Vision, the multi-camera feature that shows the people, vehicles and everything else surrounding the car on a screen in the dashboard. Electric door switches and other doodads make electric vehicles interesting and attractive to certain types of customers.

In other words, the odds are that, over time, this new technology will replace the old one. The pace can be accelerated, but there are limits to the speed of diffusion of new technologies. But it will happen. Just as streaming video displaced DVDs and DVDs displaced video cassettes, the new will replace the old. While it’s obvious that the right wing’s opposition to electric vehicles is a response to President Biden’s effort to promote electric vehicles, it still amazes me that anyone thinks it’s politically wise to oppose this new motor-vehicle technology. The technology will improve, and when it does, it will leave political opposition in the dust.

Fortunately, reality has a way of asserting itself. In Texas, some politicos tried to limit the use of wind power but ran into the business interests that make money off the wind—including members of several local Chambers of Commerce—and had to retreat from their policy initiative. Donald Trump seems to hate electric cars, and in Texas (of course), there is an effort to tax them since gasoline taxes fund road repairs and EV owners have been called freeloaders who need to pay their fair share of the costs of roads. It’s true that as electric vehicles replace conventional vehicles, we need to find a new way to fund roads. But certainly, that could wait until there is an actual decline in gas tax revenue.

Just as the promotion of EVs through regulation has a limited impact, political opposition to the technology also won’t do much either. What probably will have an impact is competition between manufacturers of electric vehicles. That is likely to drive down prices while improving technologies. Not all the competition will be fair since some nations, like China, may subsidize homegrown manufacturers, and other nations, like our own, will raise tariffs to protect American manufacturers. However, the appeal of EVs globally will take place even if Donald Trump doesn’t like them. A recent Times piece by Keith Bradsher tells the story of the growth of China’s BYD, which he describes as “China’s Tesla killer.” According to Bradsher:

“The company passed Tesla in worldwide sales of fully electric cars late last year. BYD is building assembly lines in Brazil, Hungary, Thailand and Uzbekistan and preparing to do so in Indonesia and Mexico. It is rapidly expanding exports to Europe. And the company is on the cusp of passing Volkswagen Group, which includes Audi, as the market leader in China. BYD’s sales, over 80 percent of them in China, have grown by about a million cars in each of the past two years. The last automaker to accomplish that in even one year in the American market was General Motors—and that was in 1946, after G.M. had suspended passenger car sales during the four preceding years because of World War II.”

While politics about subsidies and tariffs ensure that EVs will continue to attract the attention of policymakers around the world, as EV technology advances and new features are added, we can expect their use to grow. The pace will be difficult to predict, but it won’t be driven by climate policy. It also won’t be affected by politicos that disdain them. Just as in every other case of the diffusion of new technology, it will be driven by customers in the marketplace. In the United States, people have made major investments in their motor vehicles, and a family’s cost of vehicles, insurance, fuel and maintenance are significant elements of the cost of living. When EVs are perceived as a method of reducing these costs, we can expect a rapid increase in adoption.

Electric vehicles powered by renewable energy are a central element of a global effort to reduce greenhouse gasses. I believe this transition has begun, but it cannot be wished or regulated into existence. It will take new technologies and lower prices, which are already on the way. Batteries, renewable energy and the vehicles themselves are improving. A tipping point will come—we just don’t know when.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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