All Charged Up and No Place to Go: The Promise and Pitfalls of Electric Vehicles
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now, when you think of electric cars, you might think of the long touted benefits to the environment. And likely Tesla, whose famous CEO continued to make headlines this week for not-Twitter.
NEWS REPORT Opening arguments kicked off today in the securities fraud trial of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, actually, for Twitter.
NEWS REPORT It's over tweets from 2018 where Musk claimed he secured funding to take Tesla private.
NEWS REPORT The class action lawsuit alleges that Musk's Twitter activity caused stock prices to roller coaster.
NEWS REPORT Investors claim they lost billions when that deal just never happened. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But in the last few weeks, electric vehicles have been making headlines for other reasons. In Wyoming–
NEWS REPORT Wyoming is proposing a bill to ban new sales of electric vehicles by 2035. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was last Friday. It didn't pass. And in Virginia...
NEWS REPORT Virginia has stopped car maker Ford Motor Companies plan to install a battery factory in its state over concerns of Chinese interference. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yep. Over the last week, if you live in a Republican-led state, it might seem like everywhere you turn there was EV backlash. The latest casualty in a political battle that started months ago.
NEWS REPORT No secret that Joe Biden wants you to buy an electric car. Sure, it's expensive, but come on, you can afford it.
PRESIDENT BIDEN Now we're choosing to build a better America. An America that's confronting the climate crisis. With America's workers leading the way. Look, folks, you know, the great American road trip is going to be fully electrified. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile, Democratic led states have continued to push a move toward electric vehicles, with New York and California promising to sell only zero emission cars by the year 2035, which would effectively ban the sale of new gas powered cars. As it happens in 2022, sales of EVs spiked something like 68% higher than 2021, an increase that many on the left count as a victory. Paris Marx is the host of the podcast, tech Won't Save Us, and the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation. He says the marketers knew what they were doing, at least when it came to the blue states.
PARIS MARX This is your no guilt purchase, right? You don't need to feel guilty about anything anymore because you're helping the environment and all this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay. But some car manufacturers, some politicians say that EVs are actually not that much better for the environment than gas cars. That can't be true, right?
PARIS MARX The electric vehicle is certainly an improvement over the vehicles that we have now. But the batteries that go into electric vehicles, a lot of metals go into making those batteries. The rare earth lithium, there's cobalt in there – graphite. A lot of other minerals are necessary to make those batteries, and that requires a lot of mining. And one thing that we know about the mining industry is that it's not always the most environmentally friendly. It can have impacts on the communities surrounding those mines, and the workers aren't always treated the best.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've observed that the pollution caused by EVs generally happen when they're being produced. While with gas cars, it happens as you use them. That doesn't mean, obviously, that gas cars don't produce emissions when they're being produced as well, but I guess fewer of them.
PARIS MARX And that's right. You know, this is kind of the nuance in the conversation. The electric vehicle, you know, a significant proportion of its lifetime emissions are going to come from production. Right. And in particular from the battery itself. But the more you drive it, the life cycle emissions decrease, because if you're going to, say, drive an electric car or a fossil fuel vehicle for the same number of miles, there will be a moment where the life cycle emissions of the electric car drop below the fossil fuel vehicle because you've driven it enough miles, and that depends on where the vehicle was produced, the type of energy powering the vehicle itself, the type of vehicle that you're actually driving. There are many things that go into that, but say if you have a luxury car that you don't drive very often, you're actually contributing more emissions. Whereas if you buy an electric car, you're replacing the trips that you would have driven in, you know, a fossil fuel vehicle, then yes, you are actually going to have a lower environmental impact if you drive the car until it dies. And that's even if the grid is powered by fossil fuels and isn't just by renewables.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right now, we don't have enough charging stations. In the Inflation Reduction Act, they're dedicating seven and a half billion to building electric vehicle charging infrastructure on federal highways and millions in tax incentives that will make it cheaper for businesses to buy and install their own charging equipment. That's projected to be enough to build half a million public chargers over the next five years, right?
PARIS MARX Yeah. But then we also need to ensure that these are charging stations with high quality chargers that are going to charge your vehicle quick enough so you're not going to be sat there for, you know, 15 minutes, a half hour or even longer waiting for your vehicle to charge up. And then on top of that, you need to ensure that any vehicle can use the chargers at that station. Tesla owns a lot of charging stations right now. For a long time, it was only Teslas that could charge there. Now they've opened that up. But other vehicles still need particular adapters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like Apple cables. You just have to keep buying them and buying them and they keep changing them.
PARIS MARX Exactly. And so this is a real issue that is going to need to be dealt with if we want to make sure that people feel they can go anywhere, they can trust the chargers. They know that they're going to work for their vehicles. And that's not always the case right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So Tesla has been an innovator, but you've noted that the story of electric cars long predates that. It practically goes back to electricity itself, right?
PARIS MARX Oh, yeah. The history of electric cars is very long and we're just in the most recent period of excitement or expectation around it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the 1830s, a Scottish inventor motorized carriage but things didn't really start going until batteries could be recharged. And that happened in 1859.
PARIS MARX And that was a really key development. And so, you know, by the late 1800s, motor vehicles start to become a bit more common on streets. There's still quite a niche product, but in that moment there's a debate as to what is actually going to propel these vehicles into the future. Is it going to be the electric batteries as you're talking about? Is it going to be the internal combustion engine powered by fossil fuels, or is it going to be steam power, which was another, you know, way of moving things back in that period? And for a while it did look like the electric vehicle was going to take off because the electric vehicles moved more smoothly. They were easier to drive the early internal combustion engines. You had to hang crank them to get them started. But then in the end, of course, you know, Henry Ford came along. He brought in the factory and the assembly line, fossil fuel vehicles dropped in cost. And then, of course, when World War One came around, fossil fuel vehicles were very key to that, and that helped to entrench them. There have been a few other moments through the 20th century where it looked like electric vehicles were going to take off, you know, in the 1970s, in particular in the oil shock then. But it's really in the past couple of decades that they've really started to take hold and become the solution to the climate crisis that we're facing, in part because of all the emissions created by our cars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your book, you wrote about another form of transportation infrastructure that has intrigued Elon Musk. He apparently admitted to his biographer that he'd been investing in what he called the Hyperloop in order to stop the state of California from developing a high speed rail system.
PARIS MARX What he proposed with the Hyperloop was it was like a train because California, a decade or so ago was proposing to start building its high speed rail system that is still under construction right now. It's certainly run into problems, but Elon Musk really did not want to see that project built. And so he proposed a Hyperloop instead. So instead of a high speed train, it would be like a vacuum tube that went all the way from L.A. to San Francisco.
HOST It still sounds pretty complicated, Elon.
ELON MUSK It's like a tube with an air hockey table. It's just a low pressure two with a pod in it that runs on on air bearings, on air skis, with an air compressor on the front that's taking the high pressure air buildup on the nose and pumping it through the air skis. [END CLIP]
PARIS MARX It's really said it would be much cheaper to build. It would move people much faster. Of course, there's no sign anywhere in the world of an actual working Hyperloop right now, but it did become part of the ammunition used against the high speed rail project in California. And then the other piece of that, as well as he's not just pushed the Hyperloop, right. He has another company called the Boring Company.
ELON MUSK Traffic it's like acid on the soul. It's horrible. Finally, finally, finally, there's something something that I think could solve the goddamn traffic problem. [END CLIP]
PARIS MARX Which, you know, was initially proposed to be a tunnel under Los Angeles. Now we see one that has been built under Las Vegas, which does not live up anywhere near to what he initially promised it would be. But the boring company has gone around to cities around the United States who were looking at new transit projects and said, here is our idea for this tunnel based transportation system. And instead of a subway line or anything like that, build this tunnel for cars and that would fix the traffic problem. And then every time it comes time for them to deliver, with the exception of Las Vegas, they tend to disappear and not actually follow through on the promises. Meanwhile, they've helped disrupt any plans for transit in those cities or the development of those.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's another technical innovation I suspect, that probably gets in the way of building these mass transit infrastructures, and that would be the promise of self-driving cars.
PARIS MARX Yeah, we can think back almost a decade ago now when the tech companies started to promise this. Just give us a few years and we'll develop these self-driving cars and they'll be all over our cities and they will take you everywhere you want to go. They'll be incredibly cheap. But I think if we look at the ways that we get around, we see that hasn't made much of a difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, they haven't really made reliable ones yet. And and they say self-driving cars won't work until everyone is in a self-driving car because human drivers mess everything up.
PARIS MARX Yeah, which is going to be a bit difficult to do, especially if we're thinking about the timeline that we have to address these problems and especially reduce transport emissions. But the thing with self-driving cars as well is again, it wasn't just a promise that was put out there by the tech industry. The New York Times reported, I believe it was in 2018 that self-driving cars have become part of the pitch for groups like Americans with Prosperity that are funded by the Koch brothers. They were going across the country fighting efforts to increase transit, to build new transit projects.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is because they're big investors in oil.
PARIS MARX The oil industry, auto parts as well. So they profit from the way that things are. And once the tech companies started to promise self-driving cars, that became part of their pitch against transit. Self-driving cars are going to be here in a couple of years. So why would you invest in this outdated infrastructure?
BROOKE GLADSTONE There is a cultural issue, though. Just in case you didn't know, Americans really like to drive big cars. You noted in an article that when President Biden made a stop in Detroit in the fall of 2021 to promote the Democrats infrastructure bill and the electric vehicle rollout, he jumped behind the wheel not of a bolt, GM's electric subcompact, but the new Hummer EV, a vehicle that you wrote is the embodiment of everything wrong with the trajectory of vehicle design in the past couple of decades. The International Energy Agency found that between 2010 and 2018, the growing demand globally for SUVs was the second largest contributor to increasing emissions. And you reported that they're expected to account for 78% of new vehicle sales by 2025. How is this complicating the ecological benefit of EVs?
PARIS MARX Yeah. Even though the engines are getting more efficient in many of the cars that we drive, the vehicles are getting heavier. So it takes more power to propel them and then that creates more emissions. And so then when we translate that to electric vehicles, if we're not going to rethink how much larger these vehicles have gotten, we just switch that over to electric vehicles. Then we have really large vehicles that require incredibly large batteries. And those batteries make the vehicles even more heavy. It's going to require more energy to power them. But because those vehicles are even heavier and they still have the high front ends that SUVs and trucks have today, that also makes them more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. These big trucks and big SUVs are 2 to 3 times more fatal if they hit a pedestrian. If you make the vehicles even heavier, you make them more dangerous. And that's a serious problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we love our big cars. And in fact, aren't most American cities designed around cars as the main form of transportation? I mean, the infrastructure is already there. New York City is a big subway, but it's still clogged with traffic. Is it realistic at this point to see a future where we move away from that idea and the use of any car, electric or otherwise?
PARIS MARX The more that we can get people to move from fossil fuel vehicles to electric vehicles, it is still a net positive. But I think one thing that we forget is that there used to be different options in a lot of American cities where you didn't just have to drive to get around. And it was policy choices that took those options away and basically forced everyone to have to own a vehicle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Didn't we already start to see at least a little bit of that discussion during the pandemic? Cities that were passing bills that allowed for more development around bike lanes and such.
PARIS MARX Totally, especially in that first year of the pandemic. There was a lot of discussion around how our cities could be different because a lot of cities closed some main streets to cars in order to allow people who live in the city to get out and walk around. They started allowing restaurants to do dining on the sidewalks or on the streets, made that space available. And I think for a lot of people, maybe they'd traveled to Europe and seen that things can work differently. But actually seeing these things in their own cities showed them that our cities can be different, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, when we talk about the social life of cities, cars and their upkeep, they're expensive. They're not accessible to a lot of people. So. That's a big chunk of a population left out of this conversation and and not really being served.
PARIS MARX Electric vehicle prices are often even more expensive than a fossil fuel car you might save over the long term when you're fueling up because you don't need to buy gas all the time. But then a lot of people have been hit as well as gas prices have gone up over the past year. And we should remember that these sorts of conversations have been have before. If we look back to the 1970s, when we had the oil shocks, then there was a discussion as to whether it made sense to have so many big vehicles. There was encouragement for people to cycle more and there was a bicycle boom in the 1970s because of that. So we're in this moment right now where we have an opportunity to do something different. We're making this large transition from fossil fuel to electric vehicles in order to address the climate crisis. But that also gives us an opportunity to have a deeper discussion around the transport system, around the decisions that we've made over the course of the last century. And also, you know, what is going to increase quality of life, make our roads and our communities safer into the future. And I think that we should try to seize that conversation instead of just letting the automakers and the mining companies and various politicians just have us focused on electric vehicles over anything else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much, Paris.
PARIS MARX It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Paris Marks is the host of the podcast Tech Won't Save Us and the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation. Coming up, proxy partisan battles aren't just rolling down America's highways. They're camped out in our kitchens, too:.
NEWS REPORT He says: god, guns, gas stoves. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.