America’s “Big” EV Transition: A Gateway Drug for Climate Action?
There’s been a lot of attention over the past couple months casting light on many of the underlying contradictions that come with the praise of a new wave of electric SUVs and pickups. The New York Times published a piece breaking down the comprehensive environmental impact of electric pickups, Bloomberg’s CityLab surfaced new unforeseen safety and regulatory hurdles that come with the electrification of larger vehicles, and Fast Company released an excoriating article by David Zipper entitled “The blatant greenwashing of SUVs,” to list just a few.
A major component to the discussion is an increasingly sophisticated public awareness of the distinction between tailpipe emissions and other forms of environmental impact, e.g. downstream emissions that come from battery production and charging — figures that become substantially larger in step with battery size, which is linked to vehicle size. One study in particular, suggests that electric SUVs are objectively more environmentally harmful than their gas counterparts. There are also serious safety concerns that come into play: electrifying vehicles makes them both heavier and possess faster acceleration, posing increased danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and animals. In many ways, automotive safety has conceptually focused on the safety of the occupant, not those outside of the vehicle (though this has arguably begun to change with the advent of lidar and other sensors associated with ADAS). As the US confronts the crisis of an alarming increase in traffic deaths, particularly in contrast with much of the rest of the developed world, important questions need to be asked, and acted upon quickly.
The major issue with consumer desire with regards to automotive purchases is that edge cases continue to define perceived need as we move from the gas to electric age. Marketing, vanity, and fun aside, people buy an SUV to accommodate the rare occasion that they need to haul passengers or cargo, and when weather might make a less capable vehicle prohibitive. The high vantage point also unfortunately gives drivers a perceived sense of safety and control that is desirable over a smaller car. Pickups skew towards work vehicles, which opens up additional sets of perceived need.
The vast majority of the SUVs we see in and around urban and suburban areas are in many ways overkill, but I don’t think it’s completely fair to antagonize their use. Zipper writes, “If you want to align your transportation decisions with your environmental values, by all means, consider buying an electric car instead of a gas one — but see if you might make do with a sedan instead of an SUV.” Ok. Fair point — as long as it’s an all-weather capable sedan. But how he goes on to conclude the article is where he loses me: “Better yet: Ditch the car entirely and try an e-bike, e-cargo bike, or golf cart, with a battery and carbon footprint that are tiny by comparison.” Having one of these options in addition to a car is absolutely a great choice for someone who lives in a densely populated area where they are able to commute, shop, and participate in activities within a small radius, but so much of the country doesn’t! And to suggest that Americans should be able to just give up their cars — rhetorical or not — strikes me as completely counterproductive to the need for critical thought surrounding our transportation challenges.
The e-cargo bike I bought this summer has been completely life-changing. Truly. It’s totally exceeded what were high expectations. It has obviated my need for a car in the city, it has allowed me to be outside more, be more mobile, be more efficient in grocery shopping, school drop-off and nearby appointments, and to get more exercise at the same time. My kid loves it. So does my dog. But it also cost $6800 — a completely untenable expense for most people, particularly in addition to a car, which have seen major price increases in recent years. I also own a car and feel I need it. I can’t take the family skiing or to visit my parents in a cargo bike. The lack of rail options in the US doesn’t help. We need subsidies, appropriate infrastructure, and other forms of support that reduce the expense and make more attractive viable automotive alternatives — and we need them fast, but getting rid of cars for the vast majority of people is unrealistic and prohibitive.
I recognize the significant problems electric SUVs and trucks bring to the table and believe we should be actively strategizing about how to address them, but I don’t think their production is inherently counterproductive to climate action and our transportation woes. In her NYT piece, Elena Shao quotes Dave Mullaney, a principal on the Carbon-Free Transportation team at the Rocky Mountain Institute, “Some see the E.V. revolution as a crucial opportunity to rethink Americans’ overdependence on cars… Others think it’s best to ‘meet the American consumer where they are.’” I believe production of these vehicles, while not ideal, will promote the creation of more charging infrastructure and move a significant section of the population into EV normalcy. From there, we will be in a much better position to reassess and take proactive action towards change. I think we should think of eSUVs and pickups as gateway drugs. Though, we can’t lose sight of their pitfalls, if they help get people hooked and aware of what else is out there in the EV ecosystem and promote market growth at the same time, I’m ok with embracing them. At least for now.