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Despite Federal Boost, Roadblocks Remain for Electric Cars

Electric car Wikimedia Commons.jpg
Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz
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Complete linup of Tesla's electric cars exhibited at Tesla Store Washington D.C.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed an infrastructure bill that includes $7.5 billion for the construction of electric vehicle charging stations across the U.S. as a step toward combating climate change.

That was only half of the $15 billion that President Biden said was needed to build a required network of a half million vehicle charging stations. But it was, nonetheless, a major boost for zero-emission vehicles.

And it followed a press conference that Biden held at the White House last week, during which he signed an executive order with the ambitious goal of making half of all vehicles sold by the year 2030 be electric vehicles.

“They’re a vision of the future that is now beginning to happen – a future of the automobile that is electric,” Biden said, standing in front of a row of electric vehicles and joined by the CEO’s of General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (a Dutch-based company was formerly Fiat Chrysler.) “There’s no turning back. The question is whether we’ll lead or fall behind in the race for the future.”

How realistic is this 50 percent goal? Well, electric vehicles today make up only two percent of new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. That’s less than half of the global average, and only a fraction of the 11 percent of new vehicles sold in France and Britain, not to mention the 75 percent in Norway, according to the Pew Research Center.

To break America of its deeply-ingrained, gasoline addiction will probably require stronger federal regulations and financial incentives – and perhaps a federal carbon tax on the sales of gasoline and other fossil fuels – and not just non-binding goals such as the one that President Biden announced last week.

This is according to David Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of a book about the electric vehicle industry. He said several obstacles remain to wider acceptance of electric cars and trucks.

“The two big things that people talk about are range anxiety—the fear that people have that, 'Does the vehicle have enough range?'—but related to that is cost,” Kirsch said. “Right now, electric vehicles cost quite a bit more than an internal combustion car.”

Notably, the Senate infrastructure bill approved yesterday includes no additional money for tax incentives or discounts to buy electric cars.

Jeremy Michalek is a Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Director of its Vehicle Electrification Group. He sees real barriers to buying electric vehicles for rural residents who need to drive more than about 300 miles – the capacity of many batteries – and for urban dwellers in apartments.

“A lot of households rent, and do not have access to outlets,” Michalek said. “As we get to bigger and bigger numbers that’s going to become a bigger challenge.”

To overcome these obstacles, it will require a massive build-out of charging stations – more than funded by the Senate so far. But David Reichmuth, Senior Engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said this buildout will be necessary to completely overhaul our vehicle fueling system.

“Even getting to 50 percent is only half of the way that we need to go,” Reichmuth said. “We have to get to complete electrification of cars and trucks and try to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

He said that switching to 100 percent electric may deliver a jolt to our transportation system. But it will be less of a shock than seeing our world burn from climate change.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].