- joe biden's progressive campaign promises prove he's bullish on the power of evs to make a difference in the fight against climate change, but having the right attitude won't make them just happen.
- giving the president-elect tailwinds are a slew of new electric vehicles (among them the gmc hummer ev, above) due to go on sale during his first term, including a lot of pickup trucks that can shift the public image of evs and a lot of ev production that is or will soon be happening in red states.
- as usual, cheap gas and a senate potentially still controlled by republicans means any plans biden has will be tempered to some degree.
the upcoming biden administration elicits unequal parts worry and excitement when it comes to electric vehicles and the future of the automobile industry. the excitement is there, in spades and with good reason, but there are worries from many corners as well.
excitement over electric vehicles flows from the president-elect himself, who promoted two distinct ev policies in his campaign climate plan. first, his day one "unprecedented executive actions" include moving the federal government procurement system toward 100 percent "clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles" as well as making sure u.s. fuel-economy standards are set so they get "100 percent of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles [to] be electrified" alongside annual improvements for heavy-duty vehicles.
second, biden's "year one legislative agenda" is to include accelerating the deployment of electric vehicles by working with governors and mayors to deploy over 500,000 new public charging outlets by the end of 2030. the plan also calls for restoring the federal government's electric-vehicle tax credit and targeting it toward middle-class consumers while prioritizing electric vehicles made in america when possible.
that's what the president-elect has said himself. industry sources who spoke to car and driver on background said once biden is inaugurated, he could use the presidential bully pulpit to signal to americans that the future belongs to evs. he could also stop the fight with california over fuel-economy standards and get back to promoting one national standard.
it's also the case that some of the names being suggested as members of a biden cabinet are strong proponents of evs, among them mayor eric garcetti of los angeles, former chicago mayor rahm emanuel, and oregon rep. earl blumenauer. the tea leaves are still too weak to read with precision, but it's something to keep an eye on as biden gets ready to be sworn in in january.
there are going to be limits
of course, any worries that the biden administration is about to run roughshod over an automobile industry that's had such success working with the oil industry for over a century are simply unfounded. our sources pointed to two large roadblocks, including likely republican control of the senate, which will limit how far biden can push his plans, and low gas prices. a $2 gallon of gas makes the economics of going electric less appealing than $4 gallons, but even in an era of relatively cheap gas, there might be some reasons for republicans to work with biden on evs.
those reasons can be counted in four letters: jobs. plug in america's policy director, katherine stainken, pointed out to c/d that there is a relatively under-the-radar ev production boom happening in red states, citing the cadillac lyriq being built in tennessee (where volkswagen is expanding ev operations and nissan has been building the leaf for years), tesla opening a plant in texas to build the cybertruck, sk innovation's $2.6 billion battery plant potentially coming to georgia, and the lordstown motors plant in ohio, along with lucid and nikola in arizona.
"there's a lot of new manufacturing happening around the united states for electric vehicles, and we hope that will resonate with some of the republican senators," she said.
center for automotive research president and ceo carla bailo wrote that despite the excitement around evs, she sees a downside for existing internal-combustion engine and transmission plants that will need to be managed during the transition. “we have several years before internal-combustion engines will be obsolete, and we should begin to prepare the workforce and plant management accordingly,” she wrote. with biden, she said, "we will have someone in the white house committed to the resurrection of the paris accords and improved air quality for the u.s. there will remain good checks and balances due to the situation in the house and senate to move pragmatically.”
another source said senators who realize biden has the power to put executive orders into place might be encouraged to find middle ground on some ev proposals to stop the administration from going too far left. or not, if republican senate leader (for now, anyway) mitch mcconnell continues his drive to be seen as the "grim reaper" of progressive legislation.
electric trucks could change the landscape
there's another factor that might override the political concerns. government incentives alone can't force people to buy evs and small numbers of people buying evs won't have the climate impact biden is talking about. everything needs to work together, and it just might be time for everything to come together in the shape of america's iconic pickup truck.
no all-electric trucks are available today from any major automakers, but there will be a fair number released during biden's first term. this new generation of trucks is likely to simply outperform a lot of the gas or diesel pickups available now. most of them will have onboard power, allowing users to plug in tools at a worksite or offer electricity while remote camping. rivian says its r1t pickup truck will go through three feet of standing water, for example, and ford has hyped the towing capability of its upcoming electric f-150, famously pulling a million-plus-pound train in a promotional video. these sorts of features might be what it takes to give evs the boost they need, politics be damned.
"there's all this potential that we can't even imagine right now when you're driving a pickup in the middle of nowhere and you're bringing power with you," said plug in america executive director joel levin. "where will that lead? what kinds of creative things will people do?"
we're about to find out.