Electric Vehicles: The Imperfect Solution We Need Right Now

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Editor’s note: I found that this guest contribution reflects my own thoughts. Although I prefer walking and bicycling, I also drive an EV. When I drive, I don’t want to blow exhaust on the pedestrians and bicyclists who are even “more zero emissions” than a person driving a zero emissions vehicle. A heartfelt thank you to this guest contributor from Portland. —Cynthia

By Ellen J Currey-Wilson

As the Biden administration aims to persuade Americans to transition to electric vehicles, they will face opposition from a public far more comfortable with gas stations than charging stations, and from a fossil fuel industry intent on maintaining the status quo. In addition, opposition to electric cars will come from some of our country’s most passionate environmentalists, among them my friends and neighbors, whose attitudes I worry could impede the transition to electric transportation.

I live in a dense urban area where driving a car isn’t necessary. I happily walk, take a scooter or electric bicycle, or hop on public transportation to get to wherever I need to go. Not surprisingly, many of my fellow urban dwellers view cars and trucks as nothing more than noisy, smelly monstrosities that take over our roads, pollute our air, and kill people. Rather than put more cars on the road, they want to create car-free cities, add more high-speed rail, and construct bicycle superhighways.

I want those things as well, but I also wholeheartedly support replacing gas and diesel-powered cars and trucks with electric ones. Sadly, when I share my enthusiasm, I’m often met with skepticism. I’m told that electric cars are no better than gas-powered vehicles. It’s a common sentiment, but it’s misinformed, and it needs to be addressed if the transition to electric vehicles is going to be successful.

Electric vehicles are not a perfect answer, but they’re one of the answers in response to the climate crisis. I worry that if we only choose to support perfect solutions, we could fail to improve our situation at all, and our situation is far too dire for hesitation. If a guy who’s thinking of buying a new gas-guzzling Toyota Tundra 4×4 hears from both the left and right that an electric vehicle is no better than his dream truck, he likely won’t bother to explore another option.

If we’ve learned anything from the last election, it’s that sometimes we need to put aside the desire for perfection. Bernie Sanders urged his supporters to vote for Biden not because he thought Biden was the perfect candidate, but because he thought he was good enough, and far better than the opponent. When it comes to improving our environment, he was right. Electric cars are a good enough next step, and a far better choice than their internal combustion engine counterparts, especially when it comes to improving the air we breathe.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the fact that the air we breathe determines not only our lifespan, but also our quality of life, based in large part on where we live. Those who live next to freeways and petrochemical plants are more likely to suffer from asthma and other diseases that not only make them more susceptible to Covid-19, but increase their likelihood of dying from it. By relying on the internal combustion engine for transportation, we are harming those who need the most protection, and disproportionately people of color.

Citi Bikes, regular & electric, in New York City. Photo by Cynthia Shahan.

Armed with this information, my friends will insist that this is why everyone should simply stop driving and opt for a bicycle instead. Recently, I rode with one of them on an impressive electric bicycle with an attached trailer. My friend was able to carry not only me, but her two toddlers and a couple of bags of groceries, proving that a bicycle can be a true car replacement. That said, it’s not a choice everyone will embrace, and expecting everyone to follow suit can unfortunately smack of elitism.

I think about the woman with a portable massage table that she totes to her clients’ houses, the self-employed housekeepers who bring their own cleaning supplies, the landscaper who drives a pickup into wealthy neighborhoods along with lots of heavy equipment, the young student who works nights and feels safer coming home in her car, or the man who feels anxious in crowded places.

Blix Packa Cargo E-Bike

We are already facing an uphill battle to get any of these folks to transition to an electric car or truck. As it is, most electric vehicles are purchased by upper-income white men. Rather than ask everyone to stop driving and advocate for closing streets, we will be better served if we give people practical information about electric vehicles. We can emphasize the ease of charging, the distance one can drive before needing a charge (vehicle range), and the joy of never needing to buy gasoline.

More importantly, we can make electric vehicles as affordable as possible. Tax incentives, rebates, and programs such as Clean Cars for All will help motivate people from all walks of life to give up their gas-powered vehicles far more than shaming them for their choice to drive at all.

In addition to making electric vehicles affordable, we need to make sure the electric vehicle industry is addressing manufacturing concerns, another area where misconceptions abound from both the left and the right. While the manufacturing of electric vehicles is far from perfect, electric vehicle technology is changing at a rapid pace with an eye toward improving its environmental impact.

Finding replacements for cobalt in batteries, creating greener long-lasting tires and regenerative braking systems, and using renewable energy in manufacturing are all transforming the industry for the better. Batteries are now made to last longer, up to 200,000 miles, with plans for a million-mile battery in the works. In addition, scientists are also learning how to recycle battery components, and they’re working to make future batteries with saline.

As more factories, homes, and businesses, and in turn electric vehicles are powered by solar and wind rather than fossil fuels, the quality of the air we breathe will continue to improve. We can further improve it if we promote electric car sharing rather than individual car ownership, and we will reduce traffic congestion as well. In addition, as more self-driving features are perfected and self-driving car technology improves, car travel will be far safer.

We need to embrace multiple solutions and we need to do it now. By all means, let’s focus on re-designing our cities, closing streets, building bicycle superhighways, and giving pedestrians the right of way they deserve, while also making sure every gas and diesel-powered car, truck, and bus on the road is electric. These are not mutually exclusive goals. In Norway, every vehicle sold will be electric by 2025, and the country’s capital has a beloved car-free city center.

We must aim to do the same here. As I jog uphill to my favorite city park, I long to be running along a road free of cars, but for now, I’m happy enough whenever one of the cars that passes me is electric because I won’t have to gulp down exhaust in its wake. I will catch up to the driver to thank her for driving an electric car, because while it isn’t a perfect choice, it’s nonetheless a breath of fresh air.

Featured image courtesy of Forth

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