By The Antiplanner
Judging from the headlines, the electric vehicle market is booming. Tesla is now the second-highest selling auto in California. General Motors, Ford, VW, and other companies claim to have set targets to largely transition from petroleum-powered vehicles in a few years. Each week, it seems, new models are being introduced, including everything from subcompacts to giant SUVs and pickups.
Still, the closer I look the more questions I have. In particular, are auto manufacturers (other than Tesla) really serious about making EVs? Will electric vehicles ever be more than a niche product? And are they really a cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
Looking at the sales numbers, it doesn’t appear that most manufacturers are really trying. Tesla is truly booming, having sold well over half a million vehicles in the United States in 2022 and well over a million worldwide. Otherwise, however, the electric vehicle market is truly pitiful.
Despite claims by traditional auto manufacturers that they are moving towards electric vehicles, less than 2 percent of the autos they sold in 2022 were fully electric. No company other than Mini sold electrics as more than 10 percent of their vehicles. Of the pure-electric manufacturers other than Tesla, all of them put together sold less than 30,000 autos in the United States in 2022.
What’s most disturbing is that the auto industry appears to have forgotten everything it learned a hundred years ago about making cars. In the 1910s, Ford developed the moving assembly line to the point that it could double worker pay while cutting the price of its cars in half. In the 1920s, General Motors developed a feedback system in which dealer reports on which models sold better or worse led the company to increase or reduce production of those models, as appropriate.
None of this seems to be happening in the electric vehicle industry, again with the exception of Tesla. Vehicles are sold for prices so high they might as well be hand made. Even at those prices, supply is falling well short of demand.
Ford gained a huge amount of publicity when it released the Lightning, the all-electric version of the F-150, the most popular automobile in America. This led people to place orders for 200,000 of these pickups. Yet in 2022, it made and sold just 15,617, less than 2.4 percent of all pickups it made. What happened to expanding production to meet demand?
Similarly, Cadillac received a lot of press when it announced the all-electric Lyric. Yet it sold just 122 of them in 2022, just 0.1 percent of all the Cadillacs sold that year.
And then there is Fiat-Chrysler, which isn’t making any electric vehicles (other than hybrids) at all. Judging from the sales numbers, this company is heading to oblivion, but its less because they aren’t making electric vehicles and more because they just aren’t making vehicles that people want, at least here in the U.S.
Subaru has an extremely loyal following including many who care about the environment. When it finally released an electric car, the Solterra, it made only 2,600 of them and allocated only a few hundred to the United States — the rest went to Europe. I suspect it could have sold all 2,600 in Oregon alone. Similarly, Toyota only made 2,700 of its BZ4X, which is made on the same platform as the Solterra. What happened to mass production?
Again, with the exception of Tesla, the all-electric manufacturers are no better. Rivian managed to make and sell about 22,000 vehicles, Polestar under 10,000, Lucid less than 2,000, Fisher and Karma under 200 between them. Such small numbers can’t take advantages of assembly line techniques or economies of scale, which is why most of their cars are priced so high.
What I suspect is really going on is that manufacturers are responding to anti-oil laws by making token efforts. California and European countries require that so many cars in vehicle fleets produce zero emissions. Companies that don’t make electric vehicles can buy credits from companies that make only electric vehicles. Ford and GM are trying to sell just enough electric vehicles to meet the legal targets. Companies like Chrysler are getting by buying credits from Tesla. Tesla is making its profits selling those credits, not selling cars.
All of which makes me wonder if electric vehicles are viable in the long run. Despite the range of vehicles that are appearing, I’m beginning to wonder if battery technology will ever truly be competitive with petroleum-powered engines.
The average petroleum-powered automobile on the road today is more than 12 years old, which means they can be expected to live 24 years on average. Electric vehicle batteries are only expected to last 10 or 12 years, and the cost of replacing them can be upwards of $20,000. If the vehicle life is shorter and/or battery replacement costs high, then electric vehicles are even more of a luxury that you might think looking solely at the sticker price.
Which brings me to my next question: will electric vehicles be anything more than a niche product? The problem is that people buy vehicles for all kinds of purposes and most people try to get a vehicle that will do all kinds of things. But electric vehicles are really only good for operating in cities, not between cities. Not only is range anxiety a problem, but recharging can be expensive and time consuming.
In general, there are three categories of chargers: 120-volt AC (called level 1), 240-volt AC (called level 2), and DC fast charging. If you plug your car into a regular wall socket, you are getting level 1 which, depending on your vehicle, may charge 2 to 3 miles of range per hour. In other words, leave your car plugged in overnight and you might wake up to a 20 to 30 mile range.
Level 2 chargers can be installed in your house for about $1,000. They charge your batteries at the rate of about 15 to 30 miles per hour. Overnight, you get 120 to 240 miles of range. That should be enough for your daily driving if you aren’t a delivery person or Uber driver. But what if you want to drive cross country? I’ve often driven 800 miles in a day, but you won’t be able to do that if you are dependent on level 3 chargers.
DC fast chargers can charge a Tesla to 80 percent of its range in half an hour and a Rivian pick-up truck to 80 percent in 45 minutes. Tesla has installed thousands of these around the country, but if you don’t have a Tesla, you can’t use them. Tesla is starting to allow vehicles from other manufacturers to use its system (which seems to me a bad idea if it wants to sell more of its own cars), but unless your vehicle is one of those, you will have a hard time finding a DC fast charger.
The 2021 infrastructure bill included a lot of money to install a nationwide network of chargers, but from what I understand, they are mostly going to install level 2 chargers.
This greatly restricts the serviceability of electric vehicles. Yes, you can get a honking big pickup truck and tow a giant trailer with it, but will you be able to find a charger that will fully recharge it in less than 24 hours before your battery runs dead? Moreover, even if you can find a fast charger, it may cost you almost as much to “fill your tank” as it would have cost to buy gasoline for a petroleum-powered vehicle — at least, the savings won’t ever justify the extra cost of buying an electric.
Most people don’t drive 800 miles a day every day, but most people probably drive more than 350 miles a day, which so far seems to be longest ranges available, at least a few times a year. For those people, an electric vehicle can only serve as a second vehicle if at all.
Finally, for people who say they care about climate change, will electric vehicles really reduce emissions — and just as important, will they do so cost effectively? The problem is that most of the electricity produced in this country still comes from burning fossil fuels. Using state electricity profiles for 2021 published by the Energy Information Agency, we can calculate the greenhouse gas emissions per mile and compare them with petroleum powered cars.
According to table 2-14 of the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, the average car on the road used less than 2,800 BTUs per passenger-mile and the average light truck less than 3,300. Using emissions coefficients published by the Environmental Protection Agency, that works out to 199 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile for cars and 231 for light trucks.
In 2021, the average electrical power plant in the United States emitted 885 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, which translates to 401 grams per kilowatt-hour. The EPA estimates that electric automobiles get 2 to 4 miles per kilowatt-hour, with 2 being typical of big pickups and SUVs but 3 being typical of most cars. At 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, an electric vehicle is responsible for emitting 134 grams per passenger-mile.
That’s for the U.S. as a whole. A few states, such as Vermont (which relies mainly on nukes) and South Dakota (which relies heavily on wind power), are much lower, but several states are much higher. Specifically, if you live in Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, or Wyoming, a petroleum-powered vehicle is better for the environment than an electric.
For many of the states in between, electric vehicles save a few grams of emissions, but it probably isn’t enough to make much difference and certain not worth the extra cost. Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, DC, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, and Wisconsin all fit in this category. Even in some of the other states, you would probably do more for the environment with a Prius than a Tesla. Beyond that there is the whole question of how can we afford to expand electricity production enough to power all of the electric vehicles that manufacturers say they plan to be producing in the next decade or so.
In the meantime, plug-in hybrids make more sense for most people than pure battery-powered electrics. The batteries on some plug-ins last more than 30 miles and level 2 recharge times are around 2 hours, so owners can make multiple 30-mile trips in a day using almost no gasoline. Long trips can rely on gasoline after the batteries run out with no range anxiety or worries about what a recharge will cost.
The EPA says that, given a typical mix of in-town and intercity driving, many plug-in hybrids effectively get 80 or more miles per gallon, which is much better than a non-plug-in Prius. People who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should worry about finding the most cost-effective ways of doing so. Until battery and recharge technology improves and until more manufacturers begin using true assembly-line techniques to bring the price of electrics down, forcing a transition to pure-electric cars may be self-defeating.
The Antiplanner is a forester and economist with more than fifty years of experience critiquing government land-use and transportation plans.
Originally published by The Antiplanner. Republished with permission.
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