The electrification of the automobile is entering Ludicrous Mode, to borrow a Tesla-via-Spaceballs-ism. This year, it has become increasingly clear that electric vehicles are the future, with a surge of EVs overtaking the dominance of internal combustion sooner than anyone thought. Was the tipping point Joe Biden test-driving the plug-in Ford F-150 Lightning at a proving ground in Detroit? We’re sure Diamond Joe thinks so.
Across the globe, governments are intervening in pursuit of the 1.5° C Paris Agreement goal. Germany has announced it will end the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles in 2030. The U.K. wants all its vehicles “zero emissions capable” by 2035. Canada’s emissions-free mandate is geared for the same year. In the States, Biden has signed an executive order aimed at making half of all vehicle sales electric by 2030.
Automakers have seen the writing on the wall. GM alone has committed to rolling out 30 new global electric vehicles in the future by 2025. Even Dodge, of fossil-fuel-soaked Hellcat infamy, will build an electric muscle car by 2024. Sure, internal combustion engines have been downsized and turbocharged for better efficiency, but their ceiling is near. EV potential, on the other hand, is huge in terms of added range and power—not to mention its market share stakes in the great EV reshuffle.
But while all these EVs are surely coming down the pike, how prepared are we, really? Will our power grids hold up? Where are the chargers? What are the chances Washington, D.C., can clear the path forward with sensible legislation? And what are the hidden costs? Peeking under the hood, here’s what’s working—and what we need to fix very fast.
The Grid: Do we have the energy for 300 million electric cars?
Judging from a few high-profile failures, the nation’s power grids haven’t exactly inspired confidence over the past few years. The Texas power grid’s catastrophic outages during a February 2021 winter storm killed hundreds and came with a price tag of $195 billion. In California, thousands of wildfires have been caused in part by aging power lines in recent decades, including last year’s Dixie fire, which burned an area the size of Rhode Island.
So it seems like a tall order that our aging grid would be capable of handling a predicted onslaught of 20 million electric vehicles in the future by 2030—let alone an ever-steepening slope of EV switch-ins for America’s estimated 286 million vehicles at present. The truth, surprisingly enough, is that we have the juice.
“A lot of these concerns about capacity tend to be overblown,” says Dr. Michael Webber, author of Power Trip: The Story of Energy and a professor in energy resources at UT Austin. “Yes, our grid is creaky and old and needs to be upgraded to avoid wildfires and be decarbonized. But we have 1.1 terawatts of capacity which we’re only using at about 45 percent most of the time. It’s economically insane.”
Webber says that utilities will not just be able to manage the influx of demand that comes with millions of EVs—they’ll be excited about the additional customers. And if nearly all cars on the road across the world were electric vehicles in the future by 2050, global demand would grow just 25 percent. Since 2007, electricity demand growth has flatlined, thanks to greater efficiency standards in general—despite the proliferation of digital devices—and due to the offshoring of industry. Our consumption is the same essentially as a decade ago, despite having 30 million more people. Utilities do see a few growth areas in terms of electricity usage: data centers and crypto mining, cannabis farming—and EVs.
“Of course, if everyone comes home and plugs in their EV at the exact same moment, that would be a problem,” says Webber. (Which, we add, is about as likely as an urban flood due to synchronized toilet flushing during a Super Bowl halftime.) To prevent overload, utilities will likely offer steep discounts for “smart charging”—where your car would charge by default when demand is lower, say at 2 p.m., or in the middle of the night, rather than at a peak time like 6 p.m. on an August weekday.
Charging Stations: Where’s the plug?
No part of EV ownership feels more “early adopter” than juicing up your vehicle at a third-party DC fast charger. Does it have the right plug type? Have you already signed up for an account? If so, is your RFID tag working? Is that “pump” currently online? Does it recognize your car? (If not, call the 800 number listed on the screen and beg them to turn on station C6941.) It’s the dirty little secret of EV ownership: Public charging can be a real headache, to put it lightly.
Will that get fixed with the Biden administration’s $7.5 billion effort to build a national network of 500,000 public chargers, passed as part of the recent infrastructure bill? Not unless there are better standards in place, says Britta Gross, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon Free Mobility Global Program.
“The patchwork sort of free-market effort that we’ve rolled out thus far—where every start-up company has sort of carved out how they want to go about this business—hasn’t served us very well. We need consistent standards to build a system that feels bigger than a bunch of little pieces.” What we need, according to Gross, is a network of charging stations that pulls from the best assets of the network that Tesla has been building for over a decade.
“They’re large stations, they’re highly visible—even in rural places like Fargo, North Dakota—and they’re very reliable,” says Gross.
The RMI has recently offered advice to the DOT on guidelines for building an interstate charging network that would cover 164,000 miles in the federal highway system. Their recommendations include concentrating on building larger, standardized, “confidence-inspiring” stations that are no more than one hundred miles apart, with at least eight DC fast chargers per station. Their ongoing funding would be contingent on reliability and uptime. Will the DOT go for a similar plan, or will it simply dole out the money to the states, ensuring the patchwork approach continues? We should know later this year.
Cities present another oddly overlooked problem: Folks who live in multiple-dwelling units (apartments and the like) have little access thus far to overnight charging. London has converted thousands of its lampposts into charging stations; we have not seen a similar plan of attack. Not to mention lower income areas, where fast chargers are all but nonexistent.
The Price: What does a kilowatt-hour cost again?
Some of the costs of driving an EV aren’t so hidden. The cars themselves tend to be more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts in the showroom—though there are exceptions. You can get a new Nissan Leaf for under $28,000. The average price of an EV in 2021 was over $56,000, about $10,000 more than the overall average, according to Kelley Blue Book. That’s not counting the $7,500 tax credit that most vehicles, aside from Tesla and GM models, are eligible for. But the price premium for EVs will no doubt come down as the market matures. The number of EV models available in the States is doubling in 2022 alone, and costs should erode as EVs get cheaper to produce in greater numbers. Some experts posit that by 2026, SUVs will “cross the threshold” and become less expensive to make than internal combustion vehicles. Cars may cross that invisible line one year later. Savings will follow.
The cost of charging an EV at home is relatively predictable (assuming you have a dedicated outlet). A 2018 study found that you can expect to pay $485 a year, on average, to charge at home versus $1,117 to fuel up an internal combustion car. But what’s not so clear is how much it will cost to fill up at a public DC fast charger—where rates can be all over the place. At gas stations, the price of a gallon is displayed clearly. At charging stations, not so much. Some charge by kilowatt hours delivered, and some charge for the length of time that you’re connected. Many times you won’t know until you’re standing in front of a machine. Ahmad Faruqui, an energy economist and a Tesla Model 3 driver based in Danville, CA, says that the cost of fast charging through third-party charging services can be frustratingly ambiguous. “You can watch the price change on the screen every two seconds at some places,” he says.
And speaking of unknown costs, what will states do when most of us in the future are in electric vehicles? Will they lose out on the gas tax money used to repair roads? Not likely. States across the country are already testing pay-per-mile road usage charges, where your driving is tracked either by a device or an odometer reading.
Fast Figured: According to the latest EV numbers, it’s go-time…electric vehicles are the future
42% of all EVs in the U.S. are currently in California.
84% of new cars sold in Norway in January 2022 were EVs.
20 miles per minute is the maximum quickcharging speed of the Lucid Air sedan.
600,000 number of EVs Ford plans to build per year by the end of 2023.
The Politics: Can American “diplomacy” swing a total auto overhaul?
With the current state of paralysis in Washington, D.C., and a partisan gap wider than ever, it seems like a big ask to pass the legislation that’s needed to usher in electric vehicles in the future. But you might be surprised to learn that Democrats and Republicans haven’t sounded quite so far apart on EVs lately. For one, EVs have gone from being an ecological issue to one of national security.
“We’re behind the rest of the world in a major way when it comes to EVs, and the U.S. doesn’t like to be behind on key technologies— so there is some consensus growing, and both sides are recognizing that we’re not the leaders right now on this,” says Dr. John Paul Helveston, an assistant professor of engineering management at George Washington University. The main concern: China currently controls 75 percent of the battery manufacturing capacity, along with nearly 100 percent of the material refining that goes into those batteries. “It presents a deep vulnerability for the U.S.,” says Helveston, who adds that the situation could be seen as comparable to the oil crisis of the 1970s, which revealed the U.S.’s over-reliance on access to oil in the Middle East.
Other forces are at work, too. As a New York Times op-ed noted last year, some once-wary Republicans like Senators Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have warmed to electrics once related jobs arrived in their states—in both cases, Ford EV plants. New alliances are developing. Labor and climate groups have united, somewhat surprisingly. Old alliances between automakers and oil companies have weakened in favor of groups like Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), which lobbies for automakers, battery manufacturers and charging infrastructure providers.
This is not to say that pols of both stripes will roll out the red carpet for EV subsidies. President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation holds $320 billion in clean energy funding, including EV tax credits; however, it appears to be stalled out, possibly for good. Without sweeping action, the U.S. is unlikely to catch up with the rapid scale of EV adoption that’s taken place both in Europe and China.
The Environment: Are electric vehicles every bit as green as they seem?
EV skeptics commonly bring up two key areas where plug-in cars don’t quite live up to their squeaky clean reputation. One, most of them aren’t truly emission-free, because they are charged from an electric grid powered in part by fossil fuel. Two, the production of an electric car has a bigger environmental impact than the production of an internal combustion vehicle.
Here’s the thing: both of those statements are true—but it’s pretty complex.
A 2019 MIT study found that the production of an EV does in fact generate higher emissions than the manufacturing of a conventional internal combustion automobile. Both mining for battery materials and the production of those batteries—often in fossil-fuel-powered Chinese factories—create a large if relatively covert carbon footprint. But even considering that factor, EVs are much greener over their life cycle. The same study found that even powered by the current U.S. electric grid, and including the production of both battery and vehicle, EVs produce 55 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of internal combustion cars over their life span. That figure will improve over time as renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar create a larger piece of our energy pie. In 2021, renewable sources made up 22.5 percent of the total energy we use in the U.S.; by 2030, that figure could range from 30 to 50 percent, by some estimates. So EVs are not only green, but they’re getting greener.
“Electricity will continue to be cleaned up,” says Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change (and an author of the above study). “But the additional emissions related to electric car production, including mining of materials, batteries, tires and various other components, will be much harder to eliminate.”
So while EVs are certainly greener than internal combustion cars, trouble spots in the production process are coming into focus, including the dirty practice of mining for cobalt, a material necessary for building many of the lithium ion batteries used to power EVs. Currently, 60 percent of the material is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Aside from child labor and workplace safety issues, there are also environmental concerns. Little research exists on the ecological impact of large industrial cobalt mines there. Tesla has switched to cobalt-free batteries. Other manufacturers will likely follow.
Roads will be looking (and sounding) mighty different over the next decade and change if electric vehicles are the future. Here’s a glimpse of the upcoming EV rollout.
Ford F-150 Lightning is here—the plugin of America’s top-selling vehicle.
Delayed Tesla Cybertruck hits streets—or not. “Hopefully next year,” says Elon Musk in 2022.
Land Rover is expected to unveil its first EV.
EVs predicted to overtake gas vehicles in the U.K. & E.U.
Automakers must hit 40 mpg average fleetwide, as per EPA emissions standards.
U.S. Army’s light duty, non-military vehicles go all-electric. So does Alfa Romeo.
Chrysler goes all-electric.
EVs hit 50 percent of U.S. sales—a Biden goal. Bentley, Jaguar, Volvo all go EV.
Audi stops producing gas vehicles.
GM is done with gas vehicles. Federal vehicles go all-electric, as per another Biden goal.
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