Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Opinion | Biden’s EPA is slowing the EV transition

I am willing to believe that electric cars are the future. In fact, I think they probably are. And that future can’t come too soon: America’s vast fleet of gas-powered vehicles emits noxious combustion byproducts that not only contribute to global warming but also can be hazardous to human health. Especially in cities, it will be better when these pollution machines are replaced by cleaner, quieter electrics.

Naturally, the Biden administration wants to race toward that future. And just as naturally, there are better and worse ways to make that happen. And with its new tailpipe emissions rules, which would require more than half of all new cars to be electric by 2032, the administration has chosen one of the worse ones — the kind that risks delaying the brighter, greener tomorrow officials are trying to bring about.

The only way to reach that tomorrow is in EVs that are undeniably more appealing than the gas guzzlers they’re meant to replace. For one thing, most American drivers are also American voters, who can unelect any politician who foists an unwanted EV on them. More important, most of the drivers who will steer the future aren’t Americans at all: They’re the billions of people living in poorer countries who would like to adopt a more comfortable, higher-carbon lifestyle.

We are fooling ourselves if we think we can stop them from doing so by cutting back our own consumption to set a good example. They want to emit more carbon not because turnabout is fair play but for the same reasons you live in a home filled with electric lights and appliances, perhaps vacation in far-flung places, and might drive to the grocery store instead of walking.

We’re rich enough that we’re often willing to pay something extra to make those choices cleaner and greener. But most of us aren’t that willing, which is why even Democratic politicians are frantic to keep gas prices from rising too high, never mind that costlier gas would obviously help reduce our emissions. Poorer people in other countries are likely to be even less willing to make those sorts of sacrifices for the sake of the environment.

So the best way to get everyone into electric cars is to invest in research and development for the technologies that will make them the clearly superior choice: better batteries (and renewables to power them), better materials, cheaper production methods. The second-best way is to build infrastructure, such as charging stations, that will make it easier for consumers to choose EVs — and therefore for companies to invest in designing and building them.

The worst way is to just mandate that companies sell them, which is what the Environmental Protection Agency is doing with its new emissions standards. For automakers to meet them, all-electric vehicles will have to account for at least 56 percent of new cars sold in 2032, with plug-in hybrids accounting for an additional 13 percent.

This won’t make foreign consumers want to adopt them; indeed, it relieves automakers of the need to make a car that can entice consumers on its own. Yet it also risks a political backlash that actually slows the pace of adoption, if consumers revolt against a technology that’s not ready for prime time. Worryingly, these regulations dropped just as dealers were warning that EV sales — which had been accelerating nicely last year — were slowing down.

It turns out there’s a big difference between selling an EV to a gung-ho early adopter and getting everyone else to make the switch from gas. Early adopters tend to be affluent and thus can afford the higher sticker price and insurance costs. So affluent, in fact, that most of those early adopters also own a gas-powered vehicle, which helps allay one of the most pressing concerns people have about buying an EV: “How do I charge it?”

Charging is a snap if you own a single-family home with a garage, can afford to have a fast home charger installed and rarely drive farther than an EV can go on a single charge. But if you live in an apartment or have to park on the street, you are suddenly exposed to the maddening world of public charging. A Wall Street Journal reporter recently did a tour of public chargers in the Los Angeles area, which has a relatively robust charging infrastructure, only to find that 40 percent of them had serious issues.

To its credit, the Biden administration has been trying to address the charging shortage; the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $7.5 billion to build 500,000 public chargers across the country by 2030. That said, that’s less than half of what McKinsey estimates will be needed to handle a scenario in which half of all new cars are EVs. Also, by December, we had only built … zero of them.

Presumably, that pace will pick up a bit this year as kinks are ironed out. But it hardly inspires confidence that we’ll have the infrastructure necessary to entice most consumers to choose an electric car for their primary vehicle — which is what will have to happen for most cars sold to be electric-only. Mandating that change before you’ve got the infrastructure in place is putting the cart before the horse. Which is what some Americans could end up driving if they can’t figure out where to charge an EV.


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