The Electric Car Fantasy
Senator Chuck Schumer’s ambitious proposal bucks basic economics—and science.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer has promised that if Democrats win the Senate in 2020, they’ll pass a law requiring that every car in America be electric by 2040. Chinese policymakers must be celebrating, because China makes the majority of the world’s batteries and has the most new battery factories under construction. The Chinese will need someone to buy all those batteries. This past summer, when China abandoned subsidies for electric vehicles (EVs), sales collapsed. China’s plan now is to require automakers to produce EVs, but at a paltry 3 percent to 4 percent of output. Perhaps Beijing will ultimately increase the allocation, but truly revolutionary technologies never require governments to order their adoption. As for Schumer’s plan, it will fail on every front—including saving China’s battery industry.
Let’s start with what consumers want. SUVs and pickups now account for 70 percent of all vehicles purchased. Most people, it seems, like big vehicles. The minority who buy purely for economy choose small cars with gasoline engines. This option, by the way, puts less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than a Tesla.
Consumers are price-sensitive in every category, a reality that politicians ignore at their peril. Batteries add about $12,000 to the cost of small and midsize cars. That’s meaningful for all consumers but the 1 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, automobiles constitute the most expensive category of consumables for the average household, costing twice that of health care. (Housing is the biggest expense, but that’s not a consumable.) A recent McKinsey analysis suggests that automakers could “decontent” EVs to cut costs—that is, take out the extra features that every salesman knows are what sells cars.
Setting aside details like cost and features, the key claim is that widespread use of EVs will reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions—except that it won’t, at least not meaningfully. First, it bears noting that regardless of Washington’s creative accounting, the all-EV-option would entail at least a $2 trillion cost to America’s economy, just in higher car costs. Then, simple arithmetic shows that this option wouldn’t even eliminate 8 percent of world oil demand. And the impact on global carbon-dioxide emissions would be even smaller.
Why? It takes energy—the equivalent of 80 to 300 barrels of oil—to fabricate a battery that can hold energy equal to one barrel. Thus, energy used to make batteries brings a carbon “debt” to EVs which, depending on where the factories are located, greatly diminishes, or even cancels out, emissions saved by not burning oil.
None of this changes the fact that, for the first time in a century, EVs are exciting options for niche markets. Credit for that goes to the three scientists who received the 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing the lithium battery—and to Elon Musk. If Teslas weren’t well-designed and appealing, even subsidies wouldn’t have enticed well-heeled buyers. Nor would every automaker be trying to compete. But for perspective on sales adoption in niche markets: even Tesla’s impressive cumulative total of over 500,000 sold in the six years after its introduction was eclipsed by the Ford Mustang, selling 2.5 million in its first six years.
The reality: there’s no stroke-of-a-pen way to change energy use radically for mainstream cars, 100 million of which are purchased every six years in America. And, as the International Energy Agency notes, efficiency improvements expected for combustion engines will save 300 percent more global energy than will all the EVs forecast to be on roads by 2040.
Senator Schumer is looking for a transportation revolution in all the wrong places. New York City was the epicenter of history’s last mobility revolution, when citizens embraced the automobile, leaving behind the era of filthy streets congested with inconvenient and expensive horses and a fatality rate tenfold higher than for car passengers today. Changing the fuel used by today’s cars is no more revolutionary than changing the type and source of horse feed 120 years ago.
For a real energy revolution, policymakers should join Bill Gates in calling for the only viable path to a radically different future: much more research in the basic sciences. That’ll require different budget priorities, as well as patience. Someday a chemist or physicist may discover, for example, a way to make a low-cost room-temperature superconductor. That would really change the world. Such a discovery would mean that electrons could be poured into a meta-barrel as easily as oil is poured into a steel one. Meantime, if today’s electric cars were genuinely compelling, consumers wouldn’t have to be ordered to buy them.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
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