Opinion | There’s One Big Problem With Electric Cars

I am starting to worry about the electric car.

Not the thing itself; I’ve found electric vehicles to be superior to their fossil-powered predecessors in just about every important way, and although I am a car-crazy Californian, I don’t expect to buy a lung-destroying, pollution-spewing gas car ever again.

But electric motors are merely a power source, not a panacea. From General Motors’ Super Bowl ads to President Biden’s climate-change plans, plug-in cars are now being cast as a central player in America’s response to a warming future — turning a perfectly reasonable technological hope into overblown hype.

The planet will be much better off if we switch to electric cars. But gauzy visions of the guilt-free highways of tomorrow could easily distract us from the larger and more entrenched problem with America’s transportation system.

That problem isn’t just gas-fueled cars but car-fueled lives — a view of the world in which huge private automobiles are the default method of getting around. In this way E.V.s represent a very American answer to climate change: To deal with an expensive, dangerous, extremely resource-intensive machine that has helped bring about the destruction of the planet, let’s all buy this new version, which runs on a different fuel.

But while we go about the project of building electric cars into tomorrow’s infrastructure — Biden has pledged to create a network of 500,000 charging stations around the country and replace the roughly 650,000 cars in the federal government’s fleet with E.V.s — let’s not overlook a more immediate menace on the roads today. I refer to the millions of big, inefficient trucks and S.U.V.s that are America’s favorite cars, each poisoning our atmosphere for years beyond any transition to E.V.s.

The promise of electric cars grants us a little leeway to party on in the gas-guzzling present — E.V.s offer a politically simple, one-stop expiation for our unsustainable ways, so long as we all ignore the Escalade in the room.

Fixing the problems caused by cars with new and improved cars and expensive new infrastructure just for cars illustrates why we’re in this mess in the first place — an entrenched culture of careless car dependency. Liberation from car culture requires a more fundamental reimagining of how we get around, with investments in walkable and bike-able roadways, smarter zoning that lets people live closer to where they work, a much greater emphasis on public transportation and above all a recognition that urban space should belong to people, not vehicles. Policy changes that reduce the amount Americans drive could lead to far greater efficiency gains than we’d get just from switching from gas to batteries.

During his time as mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, the new secretary of transportation, advocated plans to reduce car dependency. But asking Americans to begin to imagine a future of fewer, smaller cars and less driving will be a great political heave. I can already imagine the Fox News segments pillorying Biden and Mayor Pete for their “war” on S.U.V.s and pickup trucks.

I too might sound like a mirthless environmental scold. But perhaps we all need a little scolding.

Between 2009 and 2019, the average fuel economy across all vehicles increased only slightly, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Our cars were getting an average of 22.4 miles per gallon in 2009, and by 2019 efficiency had grown to 24.9 m.p.g., a gain of about 11 percent.

We could have done much better, with efficiency rising perhaps as much as 4 percent or 5 percent a year, John DeCicco, a research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, told me. After fuel economy standards were raised under George W. Bush and then even more under Barack Obama, manufacturers began installing a host of new technologies to make cars more efficient. Most vehicle types became significantly cleaner — average fuel economy for sedans, for instance, grew to 30.9 m.p.g. in 2019 from 25.3 m.p.g. in 2009, a gain of about 22 percent.

So how did most cars get so much better without changing the bigger picture very much at all? It’s simple, DeCicco says: We ate our gains.

As cars became more efficient, people began buying larger, heavier and more powerful cars. In particular, we got hooked on sport utility vehicles and those formless blobs on wheels known as crossovers, which became one of the hottest segments of the car business. A decade ago, about half of all cars sold were sedans, which are some of the most efficient vehicles on the road, and about a quarter were S.U.V.s, which are some of the least efficient. By 2019 only a third of cars sold were sedans, and about half were small or large S.U.V.s. Given more efficient cars, we bought more car.

Federal policy hasn’t helped. In 2017 the Trump administration began to undo Obama’s fuel rules, a reversal that fostered uncertainty and division in the car industry and perhaps pushed carmakers to lay off new fuel-saving technologies.

The growing adoption of electric vehicles over the last decade did little to counteract these larger forces; any environmental benefits we got from zero-emission E.V.s were swamped by the much larger market shift toward bigger cars. While electric cars are important, DeCicco wrote recently on his blog, “much more stringent clean car standards are the real priority for putting the U.S. automobile fleet on track for climate protection.”

Naturally, the car industry is not in favor of significantly stricter fuel standards. Carmakers expect Biden to raise fuel standards, but they are pushing for something less than the Obama rules, which would have required passenger vehicles to achieve an average of 54.5 m.p.g. by 2025.

Among environmentalists, there is more than a little suspicion that the flurry of new electric vehicle announcements — including G.M.’s pledge to sell only zero-emission passenger cars by 2035 — is a negotiating tactic to forestall very tough fuel standards. Carmakers will gladly give us some awesome E.V.s tomorrow for lenient rules today.

There’s a chance I’m being overly cynical. To the car industry’s credit, the push for electric vehicles does appear to be real. Carmakers are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to bring about the electric future, and in the next few years they plan to release dozens of electric models. Ford, for instance, is pumping electrons into its most iconic models — an electric Mustang, the Mach-E, was just introduced to positive reviews, and the F-150 pickup truck, for decades the best-selling vehicle in America, will be offered in an electric version next year.

But it’s worth remembering that the electric future is still just a vision, not a certainty. The car industry’s electric dreams are fueled by a singular success — Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric-car juggernaut. In a pandemic-crushed market otherwise brutal for the car industry, Tesla shipped just shy of half a million vehicles in 2020, about a third more than it sold in 2019.

But no other carmaker has found much luck in electric vehicles, and serious questions about the business remain. Will E.V.s become cheap and convenient enough to attract a mainstream audience? Can carmakers that now rely on big pickups and S.U.V.s for their profits make money on the electric models? How should we address the inequities in the market? At the moment, electric cars are still pricier than gas-powered alternatives, and the $7,500 federal credit on their sales is essentially a subsidy for rich people. Is that the best use of transportation funds?

And what do we do about gas-powered cars? You may have seen that bizarre G.M. Super Bowl ad in which Will Ferrell and his celebrity pals invade Norway because it has been wildly successful at selling electric vehicles. What the ad doesn’t mention is the reason so many Norwegians are buying E.V.s: The country has imposed steep taxes on gas-powered cars, accelerating the transformation to a cleaner future. Should we follow its lead?

All of these questions will affect the viability of the electric car business. Note that even Tesla has never made a profit just by selling cars. The company has amassed oodles of zero-emission regulatory credits that it sells to other carmakers; in 2020, Tesla brought in more than $1.6 billion through credits, without which its business would have posted a net loss.

Then there are all the problems with cars that electric motors won’t fix. Cars have insatiable demand for roadway and urban space, capturing our cities for their near-exclusive use. They are expensive and inefficient — the ridiculous notion of paying thousands of dollars a year for a machine that’s mostly parked is no less ridiculous because the car is being charged while it’s parked. And whether our cars are powered by electrons or petroleum, it’s likely that more than a million people around the world will keep dying in crashes every year.

Can we fix these issues with more advanced tech? Perhaps, someday. But we’d make better progress if we identified the correct problem: not gas, but cars.

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