August 10, 2021

Electric Cars for All

Do we want to be told by the government what kind of vehicles we can buy with our hard-earned money?

President Biden’s latest executive order calls for 50% of all cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. in 2030 to be “zero-emission.” Credit Biden for a push in the right direction — clearly, we must continue to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and gasoline-fueled vehicles are a prime target. But mandating an arbitrary, expensive, and unrealistically tight timeline will buy far more economic turmoil than environmental benefit.

The new executive order is part of a broader Biden administration plan. Major expenditures to achieve that goal are already embedded in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, and more are sure to be included in the larger spending bill right behind it.

Even with heavy government spending, Biden’s goal is daunting. While electric vehicles (EVs) have been manufactured in the U.S. for over 20 years, they currently represent only about 2% of the new car market — and most of those are manufactured by one company, electric-only Tesla. The new order calls for increasing the number of EVs and plug-in hybrids sold per year from 300,000 to over eight million.

We’re already moving in that direction, with Tesla demonstrating convincingly that electric cars can be stylish, high performing, and fun to drive. Surely, the other auto manufacturers will follow their lead. But in eight short years?

Moreover, the Biden plan comes with its own set of knotty issues that should be addressed before, not after, we dive in headfirst. Among these:

  • It calls for overnight, top-to-bottom upheaval of an entire industry, including automobile manufacturers, the sprawling array of ancillary industries and businesses, and about 150,000 gas stations coast to coast. That will disrupt the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans.

  • Attempting to simultaneously build a green electricity supply network and a green transportation system makes both more difficult. Many regional and local electric grids are already stretched to capacity and struggling with reliability issues related to major shifts to wind and solar generation. It’s not at all clear that they can accommodate the massive increase in electricity demand posed by eight million new EVs per year.

  • The overall environmental benefit of a near-term shift to EVs may not be the slam dunk commonly assumed. Manufacture of lithium-ion batteries require energy-intensive mining of rare earth elements. Moreover, as EVs reach end of life, their disposal becomes a toxic waste burden.

And even if all is achieved as planned, the climate change benefit will be modest at best — probably too small to measure — for the simple reason that EV’s are not actually zero-emission. The electricity that powers them is generated elsewhere, in almost all cases involving some greenhouse gas emissions. The bumper-sticker slogan “my coal plant powers your Tesla” has a ring of truth.

But the jackpot question: Is this what the American consumer wants?

We Americans can be a cranky lot. It’s that independence thing. Do we want to be told by the government what kind of vehicles we can buy with our hard-earned money? Are we just a wee bit uneasy trusting the government to provide enough charging stations nationwide (at 30 minutes per charge) to support a high-traffic July 4th weekend?

As a point of comparison, Joe Biden ran into far more trouble than he ever expected in selling — for free — a vaccine that will protect nearly every recipient from a deadly disease. The central problem turned out not to be manufacturing or distributing enough vaccine doses; it was convincing the many skeptics that the government’s prescription was the one they want.

His plan in this case is to wean the public from their clear preference for conventional cars by spending enormous amounts of money — our money — to offset the auto manufacturers’ cost in producing EVs, and then to bribe us (via cash rebates) to buy them. And it will penalize those who stubbornly resist by making the kinds of vehicles most Americans want — particularly gasoline-powered SUVs and light trucks — less available and much more expensive.

That’s hardly a recipe for building public acceptance.

More fundamentally, there’s no mistaking the overall tone of the Biden administration’s message to American citizens, as revealed by its massive spending plans and Biden’s growing stack of executive orders: Step aside children, we adults in the room will decide what’s best for the planet, for our nation, and for you — and we’re going to take you there, whether you like it or not.

It’s not just our cars; it’s every aspect of our lives — health, education, information, social interactions, the works. And although that’s not quite socialism, it’s well down that track. Are we ready to hand over the keys? I’m not.

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