On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that determine what percentage of new U.S. cars should be electric. Like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, this is good stuff.
Here’s the bar-conversation summary of what went down:
In 2021, the Biden Administration issued Executive Order 14037 (skip the EO number if you’re actually in a bar), which was called “Strengthening American Leadership in Clean Cars and Trucks.” Among other things, this Order tasked the EPA with using the authority it has under the Clean Air Act to create more stringent emissions standards for cars and trucks. These proposed rules are those more stringent standards.
If you need to stop reading here, this is your takeaway: The new rules will require more Americans to drive EVs, and that is a good thing. Now we need to hope that the fossil-fuel-worshiping Right doesn’t find a way to get the Right-worshiping Supreme Court to strike them down as unconstitutional because the Founders didn’t believe in electricity or some other equally ludicrous bullshit. Our country needs to dramatically cut vehicle emissions right the F now.
America is Car Country. And while some of our large cities have decent public transportation, a lot of people still rely on personal vehicles to get around—even in urban areas. From an efficiency standpoint, this is dumb, but while changing rules and regulations is hard, changing culture is likely impossible.
We are culturally stuck with our vehicles, and they are choking us out. Here’s an excerpt from the EPA’s new proposed rules:
The transportation sector is the largest U.S. source of [greenhouse gas] emissions, representing 27.2 percent of total GHG emissions. Within the transportation sector, light-duty vehicles are the largest contributor, at 57.1 percent, and thus comprise 15.5 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions.
The cars that we regular people drive are responsible for 15.5 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions—and America is second-largest emitter on the planet. Catastrophe? Yes. Low-hanging fruit? Also yes. A big, blinking let’s-do-this YES.
You now know enough to share this with all of your fuel-huffin’ friends:
But if you want to hear a little more about what could run our EV transition off the road, keep reading. Because the way to make a difference here is to know better than the skeptics and naysayers who want everyone to keep squirting flammable liquids out of smelly hoses every week.
Here’s a link to the 758-page proposal that I read for you. Unless you work for an automaker, I’d just stick to the executive summary. Or you could just trust my synthesis: The EPA proposed that light-duty (passenger) vehicles should not exceed average emissions of 82 grams of CO2 per mile by 2032, ramping down from 186 grams per mile in 2026. In order to hit these targets, 67 percent of new passenger vehicles will have to be electric by 2032.
In 2022, 5.8 percent of new cars sold were electric. That seems like a big hill to climb, but the U.S. market is scampering. EV sales shot up 65 percent last year, from 3.2 percent in 2021. Automakers are herding new electric models onto showroom floors, and consumers are taking them home.
Of course, some folks are not here for the electric transition. Senator John Barasso, R-Wyoming, told Fox News that President Biden “wants to ban the cars we drive,” going on to attest that the electric transition will drive up prices, aid China, and hurt American families. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito similarly slammed the proposed rules saying “blah blah blah, de blahdiblah blah. Blah blah blah.”
I paraphrased that statement, but you can read what she actually said on Twitter. I wouldn’t, though, because, like Barasso, she has turned what should be the positive environmental consequences of technological progress into a politicized statement and is spouting a verbal geiser of bullshit.
They’re not the only ones. There’s a lot of mis- and disinformation floating around. I’m about to address several common critiques of EVs. Some are true, some aren’t. But none of them should stop you from doing everything you can to ensure that, the next time you buy a personal vehicle, it doesn’t have a tiny petrochemical fire burning under its hood.
1: EVs are expensive
This is technically true, but only because math is a pain in the ass: There are somewhere between 275 and 400 new car models for sale in the U.S., and 43 of them are electric. That means that, when you calculate the average price of an EV, a single expensive model has at least 5 times the influence over that figure as it would if it were applied to the entire available fleet.
And there are definitely some expensive EVs. You can shell out more than a hundred grand for a Hummer EV Pickup. Tesla’s flagship Model S starts north of $80,000. You can spend a quarter million bucks on an ultra-luxe Air Sapphire from Lucid, or easily drop $150K on Porsche’s Taycan. It’s no wonder the average cost of a new battery electric vehicle in the U.S. was $61,488 at the end of 2022: Many of them are halo cars.
“Innovations in automotive technology always come in at the top of the market, whether it’s luxury or sports and performance,” says Car and Driver contributing editor John Voelcker. The idea behind these advanced, premium vehicles, says Voelcker, who has covered this area for decades, is that their high costs end up subsidizing the tech that trickles down to more affordable models.
Which is absolutely happening: A Tesla Model 3, which is comparable to something like a BMW 3-Series, can be had for a little over $40,000—a couple Gs less than a base-model 3-Series. That is, notably, also less than the $49,507 average price for all new passenger vehicles for sale in this country.
And not all EVs are squaring up against luxury cars. Take the Nissan Leaf, which starts at less than $30,000. That will only buy you a base model with 149 miles of range, but that’ll get most people to work and back with charge to spare. Meanwhile, the Chevy Equinox EV, which looks sweet and will have an estimated 300-mile range, will likely cost less than the gas-powered version of the same car. This is thanks to government subsidies that were expanded under the Inflation Reduction Act.
It’s also worth understanding that it’s a lot cheaper to own an EV than a gas-powered car. “The average American cost per kilowatt hour is something like 14 or 15 cents now,” says Voelcker, who had that figure dead on, right off the top of his head. “Say you get three miles per kilowatt hour in an average EV. That means to go 100 miles—or 33 kilowatt hours—that’s about five bucks. If you do that same 100 miles in a 25-mile-per-gallon vehicle at $4 gas, it’s 16 bucks.”
Over the course of a year, those bucks add up. At 12,000 miles per year, you’d spend $600 on electricity vs $1,920 on gas. Think of that as more than $100 off your car payment every month.
The entire ownership experience is cheaper with an EV. Because they have fewer moving parts, there’s less to break or maintain. “The old trope is ‘tires and wiper blades’—that’s all you have to replace,” says Voelcker. Even brakes rarely wear out on an electric ride, because so much of your stopping power comes from using the electric motor to slow down the wheels instead of the conventional friction surfaces.
2: You can’t road trip in an EV
This one is true-ish. “If you have only one vehicle and you need to do regular trips beyond that vehicle’s rated range, you need to go with a Tesla,” says Voelcker. The problem is not that other EVs can’t travel as far or charge as quickly. It’s that Tesla’s cross-country charging network is the only one that actually, reliably works. And Tesla has, to its credit, designed its navigation system to easily route drivers to chargers as they need them.
“We stopped doing stories about Teslas driving coast to coast about eight years ago because everybody gets it: You can do it,” says Voelcker.
Yet social media is full of EV drivers posting images of broken or nonfunctional charging stations that leave them stranded on their way to Grandma’s house. This is absolutely a problem that needs to get fixed. But it’s also less of a problem than you might think.
The idea that you need to be able to fill up your tank or battery in five minutes at any given time is as outdated as traveling with extra ink for your pen.
Road trips are a very specific and small part of the vehicle ownership experience. Even if you take a 200-plus mile road trip every other week, that’s only 25 times a year. If you use your car to go to work, you’re doing that 260 times a year. That’s ten times as much, and the average commute, round trip, is 41 miles. Even the base-model Leaf can handle that plus an unscheduled adventure with ease.
The idea that you need to be able to fill up your tank or battery in five minutes at any given time is as outdated as traveling with extra ink for your pen. The world is just not like that anymore. Forget about the gas station (unless you, like I, need a reliable source of Pizzeria Pretzel Combos). Once we transition to EVs, the vast majority of our refueling will happen at home—something we couldn’t do with gas cars because it’s not feasible to store massive amounts of noxious explosive chemicals in the garage. Gas stations are a necessity born out of fuel’s inherent awfulness, whereas anyone with access to a plug can top their EV off while they sleep.
There is, of course, some complexity to this—and, because this is America, some unequal access. Though, according to Voelcker, “four out of five households with the income to buy a new car have dedicated off street parking,” that’s not everyone. And a smaller subset of that number has off-street parking with an electrical outlet. The problem becomes more acute for those who rent and/or may not be able to afford installing higher-voltage charging outlets in their homes.
Voelcker points out another option. “Charging at work is the under-appreciated aspect of EV ownership.” If you still go into an office, and that office is in some sort of office park or in an urban center, you can likely juice up your ride while you file those TPS reports.
And public charging stations are actually more ubiquitous than a lot of the negative coverage would lead you to believe. There are more than 130,000 of them in the U.S. (vs 145,000 gas stations), and that number is only going up. “You just don’t register them because they’re relatively small and compact,” says Voelcker. In my town of 1,500 people, we have two public chargers, and more could be on the way soon.
If you can’t charge at home or work, Voelcker recommends building a routine around the nearest public juice bar. “Find a restaurant near a charger; find one near your barber,” he says.
Dig #3 You’re just plugging your EV into a fossil-fuel-powered grid anyway
This is also known as the Coal Tailpipe or the Long Tailpipe, and, like many anti-EV sentiment sentiments, it’s rooted in older truths that get less accurate every day.
Is our electric grid dirty? Yes, but it is getting cleaner. And even the worst charging situation in the country is more efficient than most cars. “If you take an EV, charging on the dirtiest grid in America, the equivalent lifetime CO2 burden is equivalent to about a 40 mile per gallon gasoline car,” says Voelcker, who adds that this conversion accounts for the manufacturing of the battery, the substances you need to put in the battery, the conversion of electricity into the battery, and so on.
And our grids are switching to renewables at a brisk clip. The U.S. electric supply was 42-percent coal-powered in 2014; as of February 2023, it’s at 19.5 percent. Renewables like wind and solar are now at 21.5 percent. We’re still burning too much natural gas, but as massive projects like the Double Black Diamond solar installation in Illinois come online, clean power will be less of a coastal thing.
If you buy an EV today it will become cleaner every year you own it—unlike an internal-combustion vehicle, which loses its efficiency and burns more gas per mile as the engine wears out.
Dig #4 The battery is an environmental shitshow
Skeptics also like to talk a lot about the heavy metals that go into EV batteries, and how they’re ecologically damaging, generally mined under dangerous and exploitative conditions.
Everyone should be talking about this—loudly—because it is unfortunately too true. We’re making progress, but it can’t happen quickly enough. The Department of Energy is taking steps to shore up domestic production—hopefully mandating conditions that are far safer than the famously terrible situations in mega-mines like you’ll find in Chile.
Is this a reason to not buy an EV? That’s something you need to decide for yourself, but if you do, I’d urge you to not buy a brand-new gas-powered car in protest.
In the not-too-distant future, we may not need to mine as much as we do now. Another positive development on the horizon are large-scale battery pack recycling efforts. “Used EV batteries may well provide the bulk of the metals for future cells,” says Voelcker. “When you take an old battery pack and grind it up, the lithium atoms stay lithium atoms, and the same is true for the aluminum and the cobalt.”
While it may be hard to build a business around recycling the few grams of heavy metals in a AA-scale rechargeable, it’s a different equation when the battery is the size of a sofa. There’s more to pull out. Companies like Redwood Materials (started by a co-founder of Tesla) aim to capitalize on the soon to be flood of older car batteries coming out of service.
And while a spent EV battery may not be good enough for your daily commute, it could have other talents. Companies like Big Battery take older car packs and use the capacity they have left in less demanding applications like off-grid power.
Dig #5 Building an EV is more CO2-intensive than a gas-powered car
According to Kevin Czinger, CEO of the automotive startups Divergent and Czinger Vehicles, a battery built in China incurs a carbon debt of 200 kg of CO2 per kilowatt hour. He knows; as founder of early EV startup Coda, he was building massive battery plants in China back in 2010.
“China has about 80 percent of the global production of EV batteries,” says Czinger. “Over 50% of Teslas have batteries from [Chinese manufacturer] CATL,” he says. According to Czinger, the reason China can create these cells at such competitive prices is because of their national power grid, which is primarily coal-powered.
This is a huge problem right now, but it is changing. China is decarbonizing its grid—not fast enough, but it’s happening—and a lot of battery production is shifting to the U.S. as companies like GM and Tesla tool up for the next generation of vehicles.
But even with dirty batteries, EVs become cleaner than their gas counterparts in short order. “There is a payback period,” says Voelcker, and it depends on the size of the vehicle and where that vehicle’s energy comes from. “In the U.S., that might be 40 or 50,000 miles,” he says. Given that any new EV will easily go 100,000 miles, that’s not too bad. And the payback period will shrink as our grid gets cleaner.
I know I sound like an EV apologist, and maybe I am. But having spent my life obsessed with cars, I can’t tamp down my enthusiasm. EVs are environmental concessions with very little downside. They’re quiet, fast, affordable, and, for many Americans, more convenient than gas-powered rides.
Are there downsides? Of course. You may need to linger for 20 minutes at your fuel stop instead of five. The manufacturing situation still needs a zillion details sorted—including how many jobs EV production will create or cost in the long term. Renters and lower-income drivers need access to convenient charging solutions.
But the long term detail we need to be focused on is how many greenhouse gasses we’re spewing, and EVs objectively emit fewer of them. Cutting those emissions needs to be the destination of our life’s trip.
See you at the charger—maybe we can play cards or something.
Take care of yourself—and the rest of us, too.