If we view the automobile’s history of environmental improvement in modern times – say, from the 1990s to present day – there is an important perspective to be gained. It has never been just about electric vehicles. That’s simply where we’ve ended up at present due to an intriguing alignment of influences and agendas, from technology advances and environmental imperatives to gas prices and political will.
Over the years, auto manufacturers and their suppliers, technology companies, energy interests, and innovators of all stripes have been hard at work striving to define mobility’s future. Fuels in their crosshairs have included ethanol, methanol, hydrogen, natural gas, propane autogas, biofuels, synthetic fuels, and of course electricity. Lest we forget, cleaner-burning gasoline and diesel have been part of the evolution as well.
We Are Betting It All On Battery Electric Vehicles
As a nation, we have always approached this challenge with an open mind and a determination to explore what’s possible, and what makes sense. Rather than declaring a winner, for decades the approach has been to keep our options open as we define the best road ahead for environmental progress. Now, by government fiat and funding, battery electric cars have essentially been declared the winner.
This is troubling. As a die-hard auto enthusiast and auto writer my entire adult life – and a member/supporter of the Sierra Club for decades – I have developed some strong and well-grounded perspectives on cars, their environmental impact, and the future of mobility. My advocacy for electric cars is genuine and well-documented over the 30 years I have been publishing Green Car Journal, and before that through my writing as feature editor at Motor Trend. Honestly, it’s hard not to be a fan of EVs after a year of test driving GM’s EV1 and then spending many tens of thousands of miles behind the wheel of other battery electric cars over the years. Yet, I now sit back and wonder at the ways things seem to be unfolding.
News Focus is Skewed Toward EVs
As expected, electric vehicles took a high profile at the increasingly important CES show in Las Vegas and this attention will certainly continue at upcoming auto shows. News of innovations, strategic alliances, and all-new electric models proliferate today, showing how dynamic this field has become and underscoring the nonstop media attention that EVs enjoy. But progress does not mean electric vehicles should be our singular focus.
There are significant risks with an all-in electric car strategy. Not the least of these is that by deemphasizing the importance of petroleum and the potential use of other alternative fuels in the near-term – crucial components in fueling the national fleet as we appear to be heading toward an electrified future – we risk the stability of our economy and our national security.
Gas Prices Influence EV Sales
Yes, sales of electric vehicles have surged in the midst of extraordinarily high gas prices and heightened concern about climate change. However, history shows us that gas prices spike, drop, and then remain at levels that find drivers once again becoming complacent. This predictable script should provide incentive to make smart moves like diversifying our energy sources as we build the necessary infrastructure for an increasingly electrified world, rather than bet it all on EVs. So many of the elements for the EV’s success remain unclear or continue to pose significant challenges.
If interest in electric vehicles is decoupled from high gas prices and surging because of the urgent need to mitigate carbon emissions, then we will see electric vehicle sales continue to rise, perhaps dramatically. But if increased interest and sales is largely tied to the high cost of gas, then a lot of regulators, environmental interests, and EV-leaning consumers – plus of course automakers that have gone all-in with electrics – are set for a serious reckoning.
All Forms of Electrification Important
All this isn’t to diminish the importance of electric vehicles. Rather, it’s a call to be mindful of the challenges ahead and look at the bigger picture. We should encourage electric vehicles – whether powered exclusively by batteries, a combination of internal combustion and battery power, or perhaps hydrogen – in every reasonable way possible. In particular, hybrids and plug-in hybrids must play an increasingly larger role in the years ahead. We have come a long way over the past 30 years, and we have a long road ahead in the effort to decarbonize transportation and mitigate its impact on climate change. We need to keep at it, aggressively, and we need to prepare.
Let’s just not make assumptions that all will go according to plan. California’s decision to ban the sale of gasoline cars by 2035, in particular, will certainly find unexpected obstacles on the way to that aspirational milestone. It happened before with California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate more than two decades ago, which failed to realize its goal of 10 percent electric vehicle sales by 2001. Beyond California, similar hurdles will exist in other ‘green’ states like Oregon, Washington, and Vermont that have now adopted California’s 2035 gasoline vehicle sales ban, along with other ‘green’ states that will surely follow California’s lead.
Many Challenges for Electric Vehicles
There’s a lot going right for electric vehicles today. But there’s also a wide array of continuing challenges that face EV proliferation. These range from persistently expensive batteries, high vehicle prices, and sold out EV production runs to shortages of essential materials, a nascent nationwide charging infrastructure, and a national grid woefully unprepared to reliably charge tens of millions of electric cars. Then there’s the question of whether consumer EV purchases will continue to accelerate or weaken in tandem with lower gas prices.
It’s one thing to devise ambitious goals and quite another to make them law, especially when so many assumptions are in play. Given all this, is a wholesale shift to electric cars and a ban on the sale of gasoline vehicles even possible just a dozen years from now? As a long-time automotive analyst and EV enthusiast, I have serious doubts.