The Culture War Over Electric Cars

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Sonari GLINTON: The Biden administration has made electric vehicles a top priority. The administration wants half of all new vehicles sold to be electric by 2030. Some states, like California, are setting bolder targets, while some other states appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Last month, the bill was introduced in North Carolina. That can only be described as well, the most anti electric car bill to date.

Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s a pretty wild bill. I’d be looking at it if you read it. It almost you’d think it was fiction or something at first.

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Sonari GLINTON: That’s Ryan Cornell. He’s at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. He’s got a really cool title, Senor Global Futures Scientists. Here’s what he has to say about the North Carolina bill.

Speaker 2: One thing it would do is it would make it so that if you’re shopping at someplace, you’re going to a restaurant and they’ve provided chargers out front for people to plug in at. It would need to show up on the receipt somewhere. Exactly. You know, estimated how much that cost was to you, the consumer, from that charger that was out front. It also would have it so that if you provide chargers, you also need to provide gas stations, which seems pretty much, you know, something that’s not feasible. I don’t know of any restaurants that would want that. But then, you know, a gas station out in front of it.

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Sonari GLINTON: Electric vehicles are almost, almost mainstream as battery technology advances and gets cheaper and the price of gas goes up. The impediments like range, anxiety and cost are beginning to disappear. Ryan argues that it makes more sense to own an electric vehicle now than ever before.

Speaker 2: There are so many advantages to an electric vehicle. It’s easier. You don’t have to go to a gas station once a week. It’s you start with a full charge. A lot of the impediments that prevented people from wanting to get an electric vehicle years ago are no longer there. And so if you’re trying to push back and you’re going to try to stymie things, you can try to stop the electric vehicle. This type of antagonizing electric vehicles just for the sake of antagonizing them, might be the most effective strategy.

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Sonari GLINTON: According to Ryan, this North Carolina bill has one goal to keep people from buying an electric car.

Speaker 2: It really does kind of demonize the electric vehicle and that people are going to look at their receipts and see that light on there and think, oh, that’s not something I like. I don’t want to be paying more for someone else’s car so they can plug in. This is something that’s just purely there to, you know, put obstacles in the way of electric vehicle.

Sonari GLINTON: Will electric vehicles be the latest flashpoint in America’s culture wars? Now, there are some legislators in North Carolina who believe that electric vehicles are getting a free ride. But is the latest opposition enough to slow down a technology that seems destined to be the future of transportation? Today on the show, what’s next for electric vehicles? I’m Sonari GLINTON, filling in for Lizzie O’Leary. And this is what next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around.

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Sonari GLINTON: These are just still a very small fraction of auto sales. What’s keeping these cars, if they’re better, out of the hands of consumers?

Speaker 2: I think it’s in this might seem like an oversimplification, but more and more people need to come in contact with them. You see these pockets of people and I mean, it’s probably a bad term used in the midst of a pandemic. But there’s a real like viral effects to electric vehicles. You see areas with electric vehicles and you see more and more of them. The vast majority of people I know own electric vehicles, and I don’t think that’s anything extremely odd or unique about us other than the fact that a few of us got electric cars and a few others got them and got them. And once you drive in the car and you start to see some of those advantages, the average cost of an EV is pretty similar to what the average cost of a car is today. People don’t realize how easy they are to charge. And so there’s a lot of misconceptions and just people haven’t seen one. EV It’s sad in one and I think that when more and more people do that, that’s when they think it’s going to kind of just continue to escalate in terms of the number of EVs you see on the road.

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Sonari GLINTON: I live in Los Angeles and I saw that gas here. There was a gas station where gas is $8 and it was a lot of money. How much of a driver of new EVs do you think that is?

Speaker 2: I think it’s going to be a driver in, especially if it stays high. I think in the short run, people can kind of they’ll push through and they’ll it doesn’t impact their buying of a vehicle as much. But as the amount of time drags on that the prices are high, it for sure is going to increase the demand for electric vehicles. You know, the unfortunate thing is that cars are tricky to get right now and there is a lot of demand for electric vehicles. So there might be that individual who’s looking at the gas prices and think, I’d really like to go out, buy an electric vehicle and may not be able to get one, you know, that day. Hopefully they can. Maybe there’s, you know, the ability to. But I do think it’s driving people in that direction.

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Sonari GLINTON: I saw a study that was before gas prices went as high and it showed that there was a 40% savings in the cost of ownership with an electric vehicle. Will it really actually save me money? Because EVs seem to be really expensive over the course of time? Am I going to save money if I buy a more expensive car but I don’t have to fill it up with gas?

Speaker 2: It’s a tricky thing with a lot of decisions we make in that there are like the obvious cost and the less obvious cost, but they are just as real. And when you’re buying a car, sometimes it’s either the sticker price or the monthly payment. That’s what we see. That’s all we focus in on. But there are all sorts of other costs that are just as real as that price right there. You know, the insurance costs, the gas costs, the maintenance costs, like all of those are less real. It’s not like, Oh, I had to replace the tires or get an oil change and that’s fake money. But when I pay my monthly payment every month, that’s real money. All of those are real costs. And when you start factoring all of those in and you start to realize that with an electric vehicle, you’re not getting oil changes, the electricity cost is far less.

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Speaker 2: I mean, it’s different everywhere. We have solar on our house and we charge our cars 100%. With solar, it’s very feasible to do. But, you know, different states have it could be $0.08 per kilowatt hour. It could be $0.15 a kilowatt hour. Like there’s different costs there. But at the end of the day, it’s usually a fraction, you know, ten, 20, 30% of the cost, maybe less than that. Now, with high gas prices to charge an electric vehicle compared to filling up a gas car with gasoline. So huge savings from an energy standpoint. But there’s other savings, too, like I was saying, just the savings from maintenance as well.

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Sonari GLINTON: You know, one of the fears has always been, you know, that big expensive battery that goes into these. And what about what happens if something goes wrong with that? What about those?

Speaker 2: Most of the EVs out there have pretty substantial battery warranty. So what has it gets talked about? And then you actually you look into the, you know, fine print and your battery has a ten year warranty on it or something. So if something did actually happen, you’re going to be covered under warranty. Also, the modern batteries today are just light years ahead of where they were 5 to 10 years ago. And we don’t know for sure because we can’t, like peer into the future or anything. But just based on the the way they’re operating right now and the degradation that we’re seeing is very minimal. And so the suspicion is that the batteries today are going to last a really long time, and that probably wasn’t the case ten years ago. But I think we can be a lot more confident in batteries today and not think, oh, I’m going to have a car for 15 years and never replace the battery three times. You know, I can’t make any guarantees for anyone, but I would think more than likely you’ll probably have the standard battery just right on the whole way through until you sell the car.

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Sonari GLINTON: You know, if we’re going to convert the fleet to all electric vehicles or even a significant portion of it, this seems like it’ll take a fundamental shift in, you know, how we travel and how we get our fuel. And if if it’s not, it’s not all up to consumer. For example, I think of the electric charging station near me on Sunset Boulevard, and it’s essentially connected to a light pole. But you can’t park in the space overnight. And it’s a slower charge here and you actually can’t even park longer than an hour. So I’ve literally seeing people getting a ticket while they’re charging their car and you’re like, Oh, I mean, like that seems to be like a small example, but where is, for instance, in this, you know, cities and states, where do they have to remove roadblocks for, you know, mass adoption?

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Speaker 2: Yeah. And there’s definitely policies and regulations that need to change.

Sonari GLINTON: Give me an example.

Speaker 2: You were bringing up there about having like street parking and having a charger on the street. There are and every municipality is probably different in this regard in terms of, you know, the regulations that are out there. But yeah, I’ve heard of situations where either you can’t charge in those places, you can’t charge overnight, you can’t put in because the way like utilities are registered, if something you’re charging, then you’re considered a utility.

Speaker 2: That’s, you know, there’s all sorts of kind of areas we get into that make things difficult and just making that a lot easier because it doesn’t seem like a big stretch to say if it’s a part of the country, it’s a part of a city where people don’t have garages, having people parking on the street and very easily be able to plug in while they’re on the street overnight. That’s a solvable problem. I mean, that’s just kind of tweaking some regulations potentially. And I’m sure there’s a lot I know there’s companies out there that want to come in and they want to make parking meters that also have a charger attached to them. Like there are companies that want to do this. And, you know, this doesn’t take some new technology or some new innovation to make it happen. It just probably takes some slight tweaks to, you know, regulations and a lot of cities that are out there.

Sonari GLINTON: All right. So if that’s with the cities and municipalities, what about, you know, the electric grid, which is already in jeopardy, normal times. But the increase is at the end of the day when the sun is at the highest and everybody’s got their AC on. But if we significantly shift to EVs, that means there’s going to be a lot of a surge in charging overnight. What do the big utilities and the grid have to do to accept this? You know, these new cars.

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Speaker 2: In some ways, what you mentioned, you know, EVs are kind of a benefit. One of the nice things about electric vehicles you can pretty much charge any time of the day based on wherever you are at the car. And most people will probably want to charge at night, which is when the grid is least tax. That’s usually when, you know, we’ve got that downslope there. And so you can kind of balance things out a little bit in that many places. That’s that the optimum time if you were going to add a lot more to that, you know, the grid there that it could handle it.

Speaker 2: Now additionally and as we move forward in our implementing and bringing in more, you know, renewable energy and solar and wind and adding batteries the next and this and that, of course, there’s going to be tweaks to the grid and the way in which we do things. But again, I think these are all very solvable problems. And as the grid gets smarter and we can, like I said, choose when certain things are charging and you can even like I said, look at this as a benefit is you can have times the day where the grid is overproducing and you’re charging all those electric vehicles. Everyone has, say, an electric vehicle in their garage or parked at work and it’s plugged in.

Speaker 2: And then, like we’ve seen in Texas recently or elsewhere, that there is a need. All of a sudden it’s incredibly hot and the grid is just taxed and we’re thinking there could be blackouts. Well, if you have bi directional words, that means that the EV could actually send power back. To the grid. So now you have a situation where it’s actually a benefit that the eves are there because in addition to charging, they can now help the grid out by sending electricity back to the grid when needed. And this is technology that exists. This isn’t science fiction. You can have a scenario that’s not, you know, a burden. It’s actually a benefit.

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Sonari GLINTON: We’ll be right back.

Sonari GLINTON: There are bunch of goalposts around the globe for getting to say eliminate the gas car going to all these where the car companies, the states 2030 seems to be is one of those places. That is a big goal of getting, you know, whether it’s in California, across the country, getting this converted. What are the challenges that we face? And I wonder because of this bill that we talk about, what are the political challenges in the way that are to keep us from mass adoption?

Speaker 2: I think one political challenge can be polarization. My hope is, and there’s been a little bit of this, that we don’t go too far down the path, that EVs become polarizing and people don’t want to buy one, even if it’s the perfect car for them, just because that’s not what they are finding politically palatable. So hopefully everyone can just be on board with getting an EV.

Speaker 2: But beyond that, making sure I think infrastructure within the cities is something that we really need to focus on politically and that if you have a garage, you’re pretty much set like you don’t realize it. But if you have an outlet to plug in and if you don’t have an outlet, if you don’t have a garage, that’s trickier. And we want to have charging and on streets, we want to have it at workplaces, we want to have it at restaurants, we want to have it in parks. We don’t need these fancy high powered chargers everywhere. It’s great to have them on on road trips, but just having making charging is ubiquitous as possible where you can charge anywhere. You know, the standard wall outlets are extremely expensive, so just put them everywhere.

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Sonari GLINTON: More than a decade ago, I remember almost getting run over by the late Senator John McCain’s silent hybrid electric car, and he made a point of having one. How does the politics of EVs change here in the US?

Speaker 2: You know, it’s one of those things that kind of started out as being pretty bipartisan. I think it trended blue for a while where that was almost, you know, a signifier. You got your electric vehicle, you’re driving around and people might feel like they were pretty confident in what your politics were. I think it’s coming back towards the center a little bit and maybe that’s me being naive and just going to wishful thinking. But I do think that is happening. And part of that is just as it gets more and more into the mainstream. But I am worried and, you know, circling back to something like that North Carolina law, that the intent of that could be to try to then push it back where it does become more politicized and be more of a signifier and something that people will go to the restaurants and they will look at the receipt and say, oh, those dirty deeds are costing me money and making my meal more expensive. I don’t like them. And it becomes like, you know, different groups of people. You’re a gas person, you’re an electric person. You’re, you know, this party or that party.

Sonari GLINTON: What’s interesting is that if you are if you’re wanting an electric vehicle, there are hundreds of them that will come on board in the years to come. But one of the problems that we’ve seen, for instance, with delays with the car industry this year has been have been supply chain issues. And it seems like that has slowed progress for many automakers. How big of a setback has this supply chain crisis been for the near future of, you know, the electric pickup truck or electric cars in general?

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Speaker 2: You’re seeing it with all cars across the board. I mean, that’s the one thing, is it it’s not exclusive to electric vehicles. It’s just a drive by some car dealerships frequently. And it’s kind of odd to look at that. And they’re pretty barren. In contrast to years ago, every single spot in that giant parking lot was full of cars, and now they’re like half full or quarter full, which is it’s hard to see. And so you’re trying to speed up the adoption of something and you are then limiting the number of those that can actually get to market that’s going to slow that down. And it’s an unfortunate timing for it because I do feel like we are at a point right now where you’re seeing so many more, like you said, come onto the market and we should be seeing that real kind of exponential growth and we’re seeing a lot of growth. But I think it would be higher if people could get the cars that they want. And especially with higher gas prices, people want electric vehicles right now, but there’s a lot of people that want them. I can’t get them.

Sonari GLINTON: All right. I have two sisters. One is 35, one is 57. They’re both in the market for new vehicles. If they’ve even thought about test driving, they’re very hesitant about it. What do you say to people like that who are hesitant, who can hear all of this? And they’re like, that’s fine. I will. I’m going to keep with my manual transmission. What do you say to those folks?

Speaker 2: I mean, first off, it’s a totally normal and understandable sentiment. I mean, we are comfortable with what we’re familiar with. And it’s you know, we’ve all grown up with going to gas stations. That is just the normal that is the paradigm that has existed since we were kids and before that. And I will say, though, that once you switch to a Navy, there is I can never imagine going back the closest kind of analog I can think of. An iPhone or a smartphone that I would rather switch back to a flip phone, then I would flip the switch back to a gas car because you get used to those conveniences. So someone who hasn’t maybe driven one for a week or a month or is just kind of they know a little bit about it but haven’t really experienced it in full yet. When you start driving one and you don’t have to, it’s really actually annoying to stop once a week and go to a gas station. We just have grown up with it and it’s a normal thing.

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Speaker 2: But I mean, think back to other technologies that have changed and once upon a time seemed normal. One we used to have to get up every time we wanted to change the channel and that was fine, you know, that was just normal. But now that we have remotes going back to getting up to really annoying or dial up Internet, I remember anyway, we lived through the nineties like, you know who’s on the phone to get the dial up. There’s I want to try to imitate the noise it makes, but that was fine. It worked. I’ve usually used the example of like a TV and someone said, There’s a new TV coming out now, but an iPhone works perfectly to me. Like it works really well. It’s a good deal, but you’ve got to once a week bring it to someplace, fill it up with this kind of nascent fluid, and then bring it home. We’d be like, You’re crazy. I’m not going to do that. And the reason is that we are used to plugging it in and it’s normal for cars because we’re used to doing the opposite. And as soon as you flip that going back seems crazy.

Sonari GLINTON: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, Ryan.

Speaker 2: It was great talking to you.

Sonari GLINTON: That’s it for the show today. TBD is produced by Adam Campbell. Our show is edited by Joanne Levine. Joanne Levine is also the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is Vice President of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger what next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Sonari GLINTON. Thanks for listening.