Friday, November 10, 2023

Electric Vehicles – Still Controversial, and No, Not Poised to Take Over

The past couple of years have been huge for electric cars, trucks, buses, and other transportation devices.  Per David Wallace-Wells in “Electric Vehicles Keep Defying Almost Everyone’s Predictions,” on January 11th in the New York Times, there were “almost 30 million” in existence, tripling in two years as has their market share.  In Germany and Norway, they made up 55% and 80% of new vehicles, and China almost sextupled their percentage in two years, to 20.3%.  Also, “there are 10 times as many electric scooters, mopeds and motorcycles on the road as true electric cars.”  In all, per Wallace-Wells, “as with everything else on climate, it’s not one story unfolding but many, and all at once.”  Back to that later.

Other things that have happened in this area are hardly as overwhelmingly positive.  As Greg Norman wrote in Fox Business on January 3rd, “Tesla fined $2.2M for exaggerating driving range of its vehicles:  report.”  The problem was in winter, when “the actual driving range” dropped by up to half.  In Atlantic on January 4th, David Zipper opined that “Electric Vehicles Are Bringing Out the Worst in Us.”  His concern was that “automakers’ focus on large, battery-powered SUVs and trucks reinforces a destructive American desire to drive something bigger, faster, and heavier than everyone else.”  That problem has been worsened by their “huge batteries,” resulting in, for example, a Chevrolet Silverado weighing a ton and a half more in its electric version, that and other differences often serving to neutralize environmental benefits.

That same month, we saw “Wyoming lawmakers push for electric-car ban and to limit sales by 2035” (Natalie Neysa Alund, USA Today, January 17th).  They cited an insufficient number of charging stations, problems with “critical minerals” in their batteries, and economic damage to oil-company employees.  Contrarily, California’s government has announced an end to allowing new gasoline-powered “cars, pickups and SUVs,” to take effect in 2035.

On the issue of metals, on September 16th, The Economist issued an article, “Keep digging,” which cited the Energy Transitions Commission think-tank as projecting that, in pursuit of a “carbon-neutral world,” requiring among other things “a 60-fold increase in the fleet of electric vehicles,” demand for copper, nickel, cobalt neodymium, graphite, and lithium will increase from 50% to 600%, outstripping current mining capability.  As excavating mines, per this piece, takes from 4 to 17 years, that is more timely a problem than it may seem.

How is the market for electric vehicles looking now?  This month, two contributions seemed almost to disagree.  Bloomberg’s Big Take on November 8th described “The global fight over EVs,” with that organization predicting that “all forms of EV sales will hit $8.8 trillion by 2030 and $57 trillion by 2050.”  The other article was “Automakers Delay Electric Vehicle Spending as Demand Slows,” on November 7th in the New York Times; “in recent weeks, General Motors, Ford Motor, and Tesla cited slower sales,” though the share of electric vehicles in US new-car purchases rose year-over-year in July through September from 6% to 8%. 

We’re still seeing growth, but it may have limits.  Electric cars certainly have their American niches, but there are real reasons why they may not conquer the automotive marketplace without coercive policies or outright bans.  First, with weight problems and American electricity coming 35% from fossil fuels, they are not nearly as environmentally beneficial as they may seem.  Second, battery life has only fundamentally improved when they are gigantic, and we are nowhere near having one with a 500-mile range, fitting in an ordinary car trunk, mass-produced, and acceptably inexpensive.  Third, with auto insurance companies charging extra for multiple vehicles, having an electric car for short trips and a gas-powered one for longer ones seems impractical.  Fourth, though there have been real improvements in the number of charging stations and their reliability, in many places the infrastructure is not good enough, and seems, nationwide, to be at least a decade away.  Fifth, prices are still too high.

The best applications for electric vehicles are those that run for consistently limited mileage and can recharge daily during off-hours, such as city buses, taxicabs, school buses, and local delivery trucks.  Another worthy development is hybrids, which combine the reliability of liquid-powered vehicles with low emissions and high fuel economy.  It may turn out that demand for privately-owned electric cars will level off, especially in some areas.  If that happens, we should not be shocked – it will be the market, and other aspects of reality, speaking. 

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