Zero Emissions by 2035…. hmmm

GM recently announced it would join the initiative already in play in European cities, nations, and several U.S. states to sell only zero-emissions new vehicles by 2035. They technically announced a plan to be “carbon neutral” by 2040 and have zero-emissions vehicles by 2035. It is a bold plan that will require leaps in technological innovation that we, frankly, haven’t seen from the established automotive industry in quite some time. 

I think the move toward EVs by auto manufacturers is, somewhat, inevitable and will have the desired effect of reducing pollution (at least one kind of pollution). Cars and trucks are the low-hanging-fruit of the environmental debate; they are clearly polluting, nearly everyone has one, and they are everywhere. Logic would dictate that a reduction in emissions from vehicles used by billions of people worldwide will result in a cleaner environment, and I’m all for that. 

Volkswagen Vision EV Concept
Volkswagen Vision EV Concept

Let’s not forget, though, that EVs aren’t the only solution. There are exciting efforts ongoing with flex fuels that are good for the environment in their production and use. These fuels would power Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles currently on the road today. Since the average age of vehicles being driven is over 12 years old, finding a way to cleanly operate ICE vehicles should be done parallel with EV development. One of the many reasons some auto manufacturers are equally dedicated to alternative fuels as they are electric vehicles.

No Consequences

I don’t think any of the proclamations being made at this time for zero-emission vehicles only by 2035 will hold up. They are bold statements that earn companies and governments positive press now and can be walked back later with little public attention. None of the government and corporate leaders making these proclamations will be in power in 15 years. When 2035 arrives, and the goals haven’t been met, the excuses will be on page 10, not the front page where the current announcements reside. This is a proven and tested PR model, it gains attention and buzz now with little down-side in the future.

Electric-vehicle sales are growing as new models are brought to market, but they still only represent about 3% of the total vehicle sales in the United States. To go from 3% of sales to 100% of sales in 15 years is rather ambitious, in my opinion. It’s possible, but many things will need to change for that to happen. EVs right now are not an affordable option for tens of millions of people in the country. We need to have affordable EVs that can fit people’s lifestyles to make large-scale adoption happen. You can buy a brand new ICE vehicle today from several manufacturers for less than $25,000. That vehicle can be driven across the country with little to no planning regarding the route and refueled virtually anywhere. There are zero electric-vehicles for sale today that fit that description. The current EVs for sale with a range allowing significant travel on a single charge cost between $60,000 and $200,000. 

Charging, not Range

I don’t think EV range is as big a deal as people make it to be and shouldn’t be the deciding factor for buying one. The average American only travels about 260 miles per week, which is well within the single-charge range of many EVs on the market today. The advances required in battery technology and manufacturing to enable EVs to fit current ICE vehicles’ economic range are massive. Many programs are developing to improve battery weight and capacity, but we are still a long way from the desired goal.

The charging network and availability are still in their infancy in the United States. Until people can easily charge an EV overnight at their house or apartment or their work during the day, mass adoption is just not going to happen. I like to drive long-distance road trips, and logging 400 to 600 miles a day is not out of the norm when traveling. For this, I would need to stop two or three times to charge an EV, with each stop often lasting more than 45 minutes. While I stop now for gas, food, and restroom visits, those stops don’t equal the time I would have to spend stationary to charge an EV once.  

The Real Issue

The main problem I see with the mandate to restrict all new car sales to electric vehicles in the U.S. is our infrastructure. We do many things very well in this country; taking care of and modernizing our infrastructure is not one of them. No one likes to spend money on un-sexy projects like roads, bridges, and power grids. But the entirety of modern society depends on these things to work, and right now, they are in desperate need of modernization. 

Switching the public’s automotive habits from ICE to EV will cause significant usage increases on the electric grid, especially in urban areas where these systems are already strained. Large scale charging stations akin to current gas stations will have to be built and operate reliably all over the country. Power grids already struggling with demand in extremely hot or cold periods of the year will be taxed even further. We can get there, but it will take politicians and citizens alike to make some difficult choices during a time where we are faced with lots of difficult choices. 

Billions of dollars will be required to enable a dominant EV market for the entire country, people of all walks of life. EVs only work for those in the higher economic realms today; that cannot be the case when the only new cars available to purchase are EVs. 

Porsche Taycan 4S
Porsche Taycan 4S

Finally, don’t take this as an anti-EV post. I look forward to the day I have a fun and exciting EV as a daily driver. I’ve driven a Tesla Model S and a Porsche Taycan Turbo, and they are fantastic vehicles. One for the software and technological boundaries it pushes, and the other because it is a truly engaging and fun vehicle to drive. It is only a matter of time before automotive manufacturers can economically make a series of EVs that fit every niche, from people movers to fun sports cars. During that time, we cannot be focused only on the cars. We need to realize the changes required to our power grids, roads, and charging networks that will allow EVs to clean the environment; and be willing to spend the money and time to make those changes.