Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden’s $2 trillion energy plan includes Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Clean Cars for America proposal. To enable the proposal, Biden will provide consumers rebates to swap old, less-efficient vehicles for newer American vehicles along with targeted incentives for manufacturers to build or retool factories to assemble zero-emission vehicles, parts, and associated infrastructure. These supposedly zero-emission vehicles are still not capturing the American public’s hearts or pocketbooks.
In 2018, fewer than 400,000 electric vehicles were sold in the United States despite the market supporting a 17-million-plus sales level for about five years—almost all of it gasoline-powered. And, electric vehicle sales dropped significantly in 2019. Electric vehicles have been widely available for more than a decade, which is enough time for a market to develop for a new type of vehicle. That electric vehicle sales growth has been weak relative to expectations indicates that people fundamentally do not want to purchase them. Given a choice, few Americans purchase electric vehicles. In the United States, people want SUVs and pickups. According to IHS Markit, SUVs, vans, and pickups made up 72 percent of U.S. vehicle sales in 2019, while sedans made up 22.1 percent. Consumers are wary of the poor range of electric vehicles, the lack of refueling stations, the long time to refuel, their high cost and loss of trunk space for batteries. They also prefer larger vehicles.
Electric vehicles have been and continue to be supported by federal and state incentives, which is why the market exists. But that market is mainly for elites who can buy Teslas, BMWs, and other high-priced electric vehicles, and most are in urban areas where vehicles travel short distances. The federal tax credits consist of $7,500 per vehicle (for manufacturers who have produced less than 200,000 electric vehicles) and 30 percent for refueling stations. And state rebates include California’s rebate of up to $7,000 per car, Oregon’s rebate of $2,500 per car, and New Jersey’s rebate of up to $5,000 per car, though in the latter case, program funding has been cut by over 50 percent as state revenues fall due to the coronavirus pandemic. In California, which provides the strongest incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, electric vehicle sales declined in 2019, coinciding with the reduction in tax credits available to high-income individuals.
Researchers see two new challenges to electric transportation: degraded batteries stemming from rushed charging and spikes in power demand as plug-in cars flood U.S. roadways. The current life of big, expensive car batteries can be degraded by what is called “lithium plating,” which occurs on car battery terminals when attempting superfast charging. Lithium is a soft, silvery-white and soluble metal that tends to be unstable. During fast charging, instead of being absorbed into the graphite battery terminal, lithium can solidify, forming plates on the terminals. Once lithium plating occurs, the cell becomes increasingly unstable, potentially leading to battery failure. Faster charging shortens battery life, which is expensive because lithium-ion batteries can account for as much as 65 percent of the price of an electric vehicle. The only option currently available unless one wants to contribute to the destruction of two-thirds of an electric vehicle’s value is slower charging, which is impractical for many people.
Steps can be taken to minimize plating damage such as using the EV’s motors to heat the battery before recharging. Another is to charge the vehicle slowly overnight, which may be difficult to achieve for owners that live in apartment buildings, have city street parking or do not have access to a nearby charging station. And, if owners charged their vehicles overnight at the same time as they turn on their appliances, televisions, and air conditioning, power grids could become overloaded creating spikes in demand. Also, some drivers may not have the patience to wait while an electric vehicle recharges. Currently, software prevents a battery from being fully recharged at high speeds.
To be competitive with gasoline vehicles, electric vehicles need to be capable of a full charge in 15 minutes or less. Automobile makers know that electric vehicles need to be reasonably priced, able to travel 300 miles on a single charge and allow fast charging. Currently, they are able to achieve only 2 of these 3 requirements, choosing to value range and moderate prices over fast charging.
Electric Vehicles are Not Emission Free
Electric vehicles are not zero-emission: it takes more energy to manufacture a battery-operated electric vehicle than an internal combustion engine because the manufacture of batteries is very energy intensive. As battery size increases to enable bigger cars and longer range, the carbon dioxide footprint of electric vehicles can surpass that of equivalent internal combustion vehicles, even if the electricity used is increasingly carbon-free. An International Energy Agency study suggests that, on average, for a mid-sized car, greenhouse gas emissions are around 25 percent lower for a battery-operated electric vehicle compared to an equivalent internal combustion engine. Allowing for uncertainties, if the entire light duty vehicle flee were converted to battery, an overall greenhouse gas savings would probably be around 15 to 20 percent. In addition, the end-of-life recycling cost is higher for electric vehicles than for internal combustion vehicles.
Biden’s environmental plan and Schumer’s Clean Cars for America are not panaceas for a carbon free transportation system due to the state of the electric vehicle battery technology, the mix of fuels used in generating electricity, and the requirements of vehicle owners. Currently, vehicle owners can “fill up” in no time and there are gas and diesel stations galore in the United States. Encouraging American vehicle owners to switch to a higher priced vehicle with longer refueling times and less range will require a unique and persuasive marketing strategy that is not noticeable in these plans, and unlikely to be accepted by a public that is very careful about the vehicle they purchase to fit their individual needs.