If you listen to the White House, you might think electric vehicles are the Veg-O-Matic of federal policy—the handy solution to every pesky problem. First, there’s climate change, of course. On the campaign trail Joe Biden called global warming “an existential threat.” To fix it, we need to “get internal-combustion-engine vehicles off the road,” he said. Once in office, the president signed an executive order mandating that, by 2030, half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. must create “zero emissions.”
High gas prices? Team Biden has the answer: “When we have electric cars powered by clean energy, we will never have to worry about gas prices again,” the White House tweeted in March.
What about the economy? At a press event on the South Lawn of the White House, the president repeated one of his favorite campaign themes: “When I hear ‘climate,’ I think ‘jobs,’” he said. “Good-paying union jobs.” Then he climbed into a $60,000 plug-in Jeep Wrangler and drove off. Problem solved!
But wait, there’s more! EVs fight poverty, too. Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki touted Biden’s $5 billion plan to build “500,000 electric-vehicle charging stations,” noting that the plan prioritizes “rural and disadvantaged communities.” Because nothing says you care about the poor like giving them a place to charge their Teslas.
But can electric cars stop Putin’s tanks? Of course they can! We just need to keep “transforming our economy to run on electric vehicles powered by clean energy,” the president recently explained. “That’ll mean tyrants like Putin won’t be able to use fossil fuels as weapons against other nations.” Well, OK then!
To be fair, electric cars aren’t the Biden administration’s only policy preference when it comes to energy and the environment. The White House also backs wind and solar power—including a network of gargantuan wind turbines lining the East Coast—and made moves to limit gas and oil drilling (oops!). But EVs are the policy option the administration likes to talk about the most. Biden and his staff seem to have decided that promising a shiny EV in every driveway is the most appealing way to frame their green agenda. This might be good politics, but is it good policy? The answer isn’t as straightforward as the Biden team thinks.
Environmentalists have loved electric cars since the days when the actor Ed Begley Jr. used to putter around Hollywood in a General Motors EV1. And there are some good reasons to prefer electrons to fossil fuels when it comes to powering vehicles: Although today’s engines are dramatically cleaner than those of the past, gasoline and diesel engines still account for a big share of this country’s air pollution. In particular, they produce about half the smog-producing nitrogen oxides that continue to linger over U.S. cities. Light-duty vehicles—cars, trucks, vans, and so forth—also produce about 15 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. So any technology that can help reduce vehicle emissions is a good thing.
Also, let’s face it, electric cars can be pretty cool. To get a sense of what car enthusiasts think about EVs these days, I called former Car and Driver editor in chief Eddie Alterman, who now serves as chief brand officer for that magazine’s publisher, Hearst Autos. If anybody is manning the barricades defending our gasoline-fueled, internal-combustion freedom machines, it ought to be the gang at Car and Driver. But Alterman reports that a fair proportion of the magazine’s readers already own some type of electrically powered vehicle, whether a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or battery EV. Many others are at least EV-curious. “They’re really excited about the performance possibilities,” he says. “If you look at high-end EV sports cars like the Porsche Taycan and the Audi RS e-tron GT, these cars are legit in terms of performance.”
As for around-town transportation, Alterman says, “EVs provide a better driving experience for most people.” (Long road trips are a different story.) And while the up-front costs of buying an EV remain high, he says, “they’re a lot cheaper to drive on a daily basis, especially now.” Consumers are getting the message. Just five years ago, EVs made up a measly 1 percent of new car sales. Then, along came Tesla’s breakthrough Model 3 and, more recently, the surge in gas prices. In the first quarter of 2022, new electric-vehicle registrations shot up 60 percent, even as overall new-car registrations dropped, Automotive News reports. Electric vehicles now make up roughly 5 percent of the light-vehicle market.
And carmakers are rolling out new models geared to the American go-big-or-go-home sensibility. Ford sold out the entire 2022 production run of its F-150 Lightning pickup almost as soon as it started taking orders. (In response, one shameless California dealer marked the truck up to $145,000.) Meanwhile, GMC has brought back its long-discontinued Hummer brand, in an all-electric reincarnation. The Hummer’s three electric motors crank out 1,000 horsepower, and can boost the behemoth from 0 to 60 in a Ferrari-like three seconds. This isn’t Ed Begley’s EV.
So some people really like electric vehicles. And EVs are, arguably, pretty good for the environment. But does that make EVs the silver bullet against climate change? The White House sure thinks so. Last year, Biden’s EPA announced much stricter fuel-efficiency standards: By 2026, automakers will need to achieve fleet-wide averages of 55 miles per gallon. Manhattan Institute economist Jonathan Lesser calls the move a “stealth electric-vehicle mandate”; to meet the standard, manufacturers will have to multiply the number of EVs they sell whether buyers clamor for them or not.
To goose demand, Team Biden also backs much bigger rebates for people who buy electric cars. Biden’s doomed Build Back Better plan included a $12,500 rebate for EV buyers—but with a catch: Only vehicles built in unionized U.S. factories would qualify for the full rebate. The plan pointedly penalized Tesla—which outsells all other EV brands combined—and other companies building EVs in non-union plants. (The White House likes to talk about the climate “crisis,” but policies like this reveal its true priorities: Rather than trying to maximize EV sales, the rebate plan was designed to maximize the money flowing to Biden’s union supporters.) Build Back Better famously collapsed under the weight of its own grandiosity. But Democrats are still talking about somehow passing the “climate-related” parts of the bill.
Under the original rebate plan, a married couple making a combined $800,000 would be eligible for a $12,500 rebate on the purchase of a $110,000 Hummer. That doesn’t sound like a policy calculated to appeal to the masses. But it does appeal to a certain core Democratic constituency. You wouldn’t know it from the way Biden talks, but EVs are still luxury products. Even Tesla’s “affordable” Model 3 generally sells for over $50,000. For a certain type of buyer, the high price is part of the appeal. A 2021 market-research survey showed that consumers who say they are ready to buy an EV are mostly “highly educated and actively engaged professionals” with an average household income of $150,000.
For people in this demographic, buying an EV confers two types of status. First, of course, is the traditional status that comes from showing your neighbors you can afford an expensive car. But EV purchasers aren’t just signaling wealth, they are also signaling certain liberal virtues. They care about the climate; they’re willing to spend more to help save the planet. So buying an EV offers the best of both worlds: You get to show the world you are doing good and doing well at the same time.
If this kind of status jockeying spurs some people to buy EVs, that’s fine with me. More EVs on the road means cleaner air and less pressure on our fuel supplies. But the administration is fooling itself if it thinks most Americans are itching to become part of the EV elite. “It’s such a coastal attitude,” Alterman told me. “It’s magical thinking.” People in liberal policy circles often assume their own tastes and biases should set the standard for the nation. They benefited from college, so they think everyone should go to college. They like organic food, so everyone should eat organic food. And they love their EVs, so they think everyone should drive one. But the fact is, EVs will be an elite choice for years to come. Not everyone can afford to spend $50,000 on a new car—or to buy a new car at all. Some people need the longer range and convenient fueling options that internal-combustion engines provide. And not everyone lives in a suburban home where they can recharge a car in their own garage each night.
But there’s a bigger problem. Biden’s policies assume that EV sales can double or triple year after year, and that their environmental benefits will scale up with them. It turns out that’s not so simple. Alterman asks, “How sustainable is sustainability?”
EV motors and batteries require a host of exotic minerals—lithium, cobalt, rare earth metals. Environmental rules make it almost impossible to mine those in the U.S., and the quantities available from China, Africa, and other sketchy suppliers are limited. Prices are spiking. Several years ago, a team of British scientists calculated what it would take to convert all of the UK’s motor vehicles to battery operation. Going all-electric would require nearly “two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, [and] three-quarters of the world’s lithium production,” they concluded. And that’s just the UK. The U.S. has roughly nine times more vehicles. Before we bet the future of the planet on building hundreds of millions of EVs, maybe somebody should crunch the numbers on the resources required. In most cases, the life-cycle environmental footprint of EVs is still better than that of internal-combustion vehicles, but the margin isn’t as big as some supporters think.
And electric vehicles need…electricity. The EV revolution advocated by the White House will put enormous new demands on the power grid. There’s little indication the grid will be ready. The same people advocating for a wholesale shift to EVs also believe we can run our electric grid primarily on wind and solar power. But the rollout of these renewable sources is going more slowly than promised. And the states most committed to the renewables-first approach—including California and New York—are struggling just to meet current demand. They’ve learned that closing nuclear plants while trying to ramp up intermittent wind and solar power makes the grid less reliable and forces electricity prices through the roof. To its credit, the Biden administration supports keeping nuclear plants open. But it still doesn’t have a realistic plan to increase American power generation. A program to convert U.S. transportation to electric power—without a parallel program to ramp up the production of electric power—is an exercise in wishful thinking.
While Biden’s team touts EVs as the feel-good solution to climate change—and almost everything else—it avoids grappling with these economic and engineering realities. And when it comes to this country’s total carbon output, EVs will not save us that much. I noted that light vehicles produce about 15 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Theoretically, converting half of them to electric operation would cut those emissions in half. But reality isn’t so neat. New gasoline engines today are far more efficient than those of 20 years ago. So, while EVs are cleaner still, their advantage over new internal-combustion cars is much smaller than in Ed Begley Jr.’s day. That means even a heroic push to roll out electric vehicles will have only a modest impact on total emissions.
The White House likes talking about EVs, not because they make so much environmental or economic sense, but because they make emotional sense to Biden’s core voters. It’s great that American companies like Tesla are making such beautiful electric cars. And these vehicles are a fine option for the consumers who can afford them. But the rest of us shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the transportation choices of the elite. And Biden shouldn’t pretend that shiny new EVs can be the foundation of America’s climate policy.
Photo: Plug’n Drive
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