While the Biden administration’s recent pledge to replace the U.S. government’s fleet of some 650,000 vehicles with EVs is being welcomed, observers warn that simply replacing one car type with another won’t solve a deeper issue at the heart of America’s transportation fabric.
“Gauzy visions of the guilt-free highways of tomorrow could easily distract us from the larger and more entrenched problem with America’s transportation system,” writes opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times. Namely, an addiction to the private vehicle that has led to massive inequity, urban blight, and ballooning greenhouse gas emissions.
“[The] problem isn’t just gas-fuelled cars but car-fuelled lives—a view of the world in which huge private automobiles are the default method of getting around,” Manjoo explains.
That makes going “all in” on EVs “a very American answer” to the climate crisis, he notes: “To deal with an expensive, dangerous, extremely resource-intensive machine that has helped bring about the destruction of the planet, let’s all buy this new version, which runs on a different fuel.”
Meanwhile, as we wait for electrification (Biden has set no timeline for his pledge to convert the federal fleet, nor for his other pledge to set up a national network of 500,000 charging stations) a “more immediate menace” continues to fill the roads. “I refer to the millions of big, inefficient trucks and SUVs that are America’s favourite cars, each poisoning our atmosphere for years beyond any transition to EVs,” writes Manjoo.
And yet, he says, going all-in on EVs and their associated infrastructure will do nothing to disrupt “an entrenched culture of careless car dependency.”
For that, what’s needed is policy—not more (even if different) vehicles. Investments in walking, bikeability, and public transit, changes to zoning laws, and “above all, a recognition that urban space should belong to people, not vehicles,” are what will liberate people from their enslavement to the automobile, says Manjoo.
“Policy changes that reduce the amount Americans drive could lead to far greater efficiency gains than we’d get just from switching from gas to batteries.”
And even as the Escalade remains king of the road in America, the vaunted EV future “is still just a vision, not a certainty.” Manjoo writes that making good on this vision will require EVs that are “cheap and convenient enough to attract a mainstream audience,” and a level of certainty for manufacturers that they won’t go broke making electric cars.
Then there is the ever-present problem of equity, a particularly pressing issue for anyone who believes in a just transition. “At the moment, electric cars are still pricier than gas-powered alternatives, and the $7,500 federal credit on their sales is essentially a subsidy for rich people,” Manjoo writes. “Is this the best use of transportation funds?”
Much more progress is needed on the infrastructure side, as well. Centred.tech reports that a recent study of Chicago’s EV charging network by Northwestern University found that the city’s EV charging framework “would have to expand more than six-fold by 2030 to meet the growing EV demand.”
The study also found that the 449 EV chargers currently available in Chicago are mostly located on the city’s wealthier (and whiter) North Side. The imbalance suggests that equity will need to be a major focus of any future buildout in the city.
That correction won’t be as simple as deploying EV charging stations in South Side neighbourhoods, Centred notes. Residents in many underserved communities “often view these technological additions as signs of gentrification instead of progress.”
Elsewhere, The Guardian reports that Australia’s resistance to investing in EV uptake could leave it a fossil of its own kind—a gas-driven “parallel world” that has fallen behind in the shift to electric. Case in point: where many other countries offer rebates for EV purchases, the Morrison government slaps on a punitive “luxury car” tax instead.
A comparison of EV sales in Europe and Australia points to diverging paths. “Sales of EVs in Europe rose from 3.3% of all new cars in 2019 to 10.2% last year,” but from a mere 0.6% to a not-much-better 0.75% in Australia.
“It’s like we are still trying to work out if the Internet is a real thing or not while other countries are racing after the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the automotive world,” said Behyad Jafari, CEO of Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council. Within days of the Biden administration’s promise to electrify its fleet, GM announced it would be all electric by 2035, and Ford signalled a major shift toward electric in Europe. Jaguar, meanwhile, announced that its Land Rover would be electric by 2025, with the rest of its models following suit within 10 years.
Canberra, however, still drags its feet, trusting that the market alone will make the case for EVs, The Guardian notes. But NRMA, a major Australian motorists’ organization, has refused to wait, committing AU$10 million to build a network of fast-charging stations in New South Wales and in the capital region.
“We have to get ready whether we like it or not,” said NRMA spokesperson Peter Khoury.