For years, the world has been shifting to electric vehicles (EVs) —without the United States.
Lacking a clear, coordinated plan to decarbonize the car industry, the U.S. has fallen behind in EV sales: In 2019, 1.1 million EVs were sold in China and 539,000 in Europe; only 320,000 were sold in the U.S., a drop of 12% from the previous year.
Meanwhile, American car companies have been hesitant to make big commitments without federal support, though they’ve seen the writing on the wall. When Trump rolled back fuel economy standards in March, some big carmakers — Ford, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen, and Volvo — agreed to meet California’s stricter emissions limits anyway (GM just jumped on the bandwagon).
On this directionless path, we’ve seen global emissions rise to record levels and market share of EVs in America stall at a paltry 2%. Fortunately, with President-elect Joe Biden in the White House, good news may be just around the corner.
“[Biden] will have it in his hands to make the United States a top market for the sales of EVs just [as] they approach price parity with internal-combustion engine cars,” wrote Ethan Zindler of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, in a recent commentary. “Best of all, he can do it regardless of who controls Congress.”
Biden’s climate plan calls for more than 500,000 new public charging outlets by 2030, a full electric vehicle tax credit, and a new fuel economy standard. Even if Biden just reinstated Obama-era car emissions rules, EV sales would jump 25% by 2026, according to a recent BloombergNEF analysis.
With the Trump roadblock lifted, we’ve already seen a deluge of activity on the EV front. Last week, corporations formed a coalition called Zero Emission Transport Association (ZETA) to advocate for “100% electric vehicle sales throughout the light-, medium-, and heavy-duty sectors by 2030.” GM and Ford announced more aggressive pushes to EVs, though at different rates. And Wall Street raced to funnel more money into EV startups.
All these moves are big for a country with cars in its DNA. The pickup truck, the Western road trip, and the drive-in movie theater are all American innovations that benefited greatly from federal policies, getting boosts from interstate projects and sprawling city planning that catered to the independent ownership of cars (the inequity that sprouted from this policy is for another post).
EVs can lean into this existing infrastructure, while simultaneously fighting climate change — and they’re a more affordable and realistic solution than investing in, say, bullet trains, which doesn’t seem like a priority for Biden.
Already, carmakers are leaning into the American ideal of flashy bigness, rolling out electric sports cars, SUVS, trucks and even (god help us) an electric Hummer. These innovations (or reinventions) could create an untapped EV market that unlocks a whole sector of jobs in engineering and manufacturing.
“The clean vehicle sector already boasts hundreds of thousands of jobs but, if we encourage its growth, the United States can decisively win the global race to develop a new clean transportation economy and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans right here at home,” said Joe Britton, ZETA’s executive director, in a statement.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. Four years of Trump, combined with indecisive leadership on behalf of auto manufacturers (save for the unicorn that is Tesla), set the auto industry further back than it needed to be. Now, American car companies are playing catch up.
But the momentum seems to be headed the right direction. And if Biden gets the ball rolling, and we avoid another nightmare presidency, EVs can propel a fading American industry back onto the runway.