Biden's road to carbon reduction leads with electric vehicles

President Joe Biden signed an executive order last week setting a target goal of zero emissions for half of all new vehicles sold in 2030, including battery-charged electric, plug-in hybrid electric and fuel-cell-powered vehicles. 

Among the infrastructure investments included in the order are:

  • A national network of electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Point-of-sale consumer incentives to spur manufacturing and union jobs.
  • Funding to retool and expand the domestic manufacturing supply chain.
  • Supporting the next generation of clean technologies. 

Additionally, new rules for auto emissions, slated to be applied for model year 2023 vehicles, will cut carbon dioxide emissions annually by one-third during a car’s lifetime — in total, about 200 billion gallons of gas.

U.S. automakers are aligning with the change, contingent upon a spending bill that allocates billions for a national electric vehicle charging network and tax credits that support both manufacturing and consumer purchases.

Steven Polzin, a nationally renowned expert in transportation systems and policy, is a research professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, and part of ASU’s U.S. Department of Transportation TOMNET University Research Center. Polzin recently completed an appointment as the senior adviser for research and technology in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology.

Polzin, who testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure in May, answers questions about how Biden’s vision to move toward zero-emissions vehicles can be attained.

Question:  What are the most critical components to successfully escalating the adoption of electric vehicles? 

Answer: Ultimately the technology needs to work in a way that makes consumers happy. It has to be affordable, convenient, reliable and safe. 

In the near term, regulation and market interventions such as tax credits, exemption from transportation user fees — gas tax or road user fees — subsidies for the development of charging stations and federally supported research can stimulate interest and deployment. 

In the long run, EVs need to satisfy consumers in a financially and environmentally sustainable fashion. This is particularly true since the U.S. only contributes about 14% of global greenhouse gases, and all transportation contributes an estimated 29% of U.S. CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases. So, America can't solve this problem on its own, and the technologies need to be viable and affordable globally. Not every country will have the will or the ability to subsidize the transition to EVs. Ultimately the success of EVs is dependent on EVs performing in a way that makes them the first choice of consumers. U.S efforts to advance EVs to the point where they are the preferred choice absent market interventions is critical to global adoption.

At the operational level, several things need to go right. The battery technology needs to keep improving and becoming cheaper with the impacts from battery production and disposal able to be mitigated. The charging infrastructure needs to be in place, and the power grid and generating capacity need to be able to meet demands. For EVs to have the desired benefits, the sources of electricity need to be less carbon-intensive such that the carbon emissions associated with the generation and transmission of the electrical power needs to be meaningfully less than the emissions from the increasingly efficient internal combustion engines they replace.

These are not easy tasks as they require collaboration across levels of government and between the public and private sector. And they require the technologies to work. Lots of things can go wrong and may not work according to plan. Many bright people expected we would have widely deployed automated vehicles by now, but it hasn't happened. The Segway did not revolutionize urban travel; maglev [magnetic levitation] has not captured intercity travel; high-speed rail has not become financially or politically viable in the U.S. Chip shortages are plaguing auto manufacturing as we speak. International relations can impact the availability of critical raw materials. Incidents such as vehicle battery fires could persist and slow development and employment. The hoped-for reduced electric vehicle maintenance costs, and lower-cost, longer-range and faster-charging batteries may not materialize as expected.   

Events as transformative as the shift to electrically propelled vehicles will inevitably encounter challenges. Hopefully, continuing scientific progress fueled by research will expedite the path forward.

Q: The big three automakers, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (the company formed after the merger of Fiat-Chrysler and Peugeot), have said their ability to meet the new goal depends on research funding, a range of policies and tax incentives and credits. What is the likelihood those incentives will be met or that the industry can step up to the challenge?

A: Companies are planning strategies to meet the challenges envisioned by the current set of proposals; however, they're not oblivious to the fact that conditions can change. They will certainly seek every opportunity to leverage public resources to mitigate their private risk. It's important to remember that this is the second time that emissions standards have changed with a change in administrations. There may be more changes as subsequent administration changes occur. Similarly, changes in conditions both as they relate to the pace of technological change and evidence of the criticality of CO2 emissions in climate change and emerging public attitudes may change the path forward as well.

The ability to follow through on the various proposals is also subject to intervening priorities and challenges. For example, the public resource commitments envisioned in current proposed authorizations will need to be followed up with annual appropriations — actions that are sensitive to the economic and political realities at each budget cycle. We are currently in unprecedented times as it relates to monetary and fiscal policies. There are certainly both public- and private-sector risks that economic conditions may not always support current plans with respect to electrification of roadway vehicles. 

Q: Can current vehicle electric power systems sustain trips of the same distance as a typical tank of gas without relying on a network of charging systems?

A: Electric vehicle range has been increasing, and there's empirical evidence that the vast majority of people's trips are of a length that can be accommodated by the electric vehicles coming to market. However, range anxiety is perhaps the most significant consideration in EV purchase decisions. Several accommodations can address this issue. Larger battery capacity can be provided, and researchers are working to both increase the energy density and reduce the weight and cost of batteries, making longer-range vehicles more practical. Faster charging and a larger network of charging stations also may resolve the battery range issue. Plug-in hybrids can be an attractive alternative, and it appears they will be counted toward EV market-share goals. 

Some multicar households have found accommodation by having an EV to use for short urban trips while retaining an internal combustion engine or hybrid vehicle for longer trips. There may be other considerations that have to be addressed as well; for example, communities subject to power outages from inclement weather such as hurricanes may be reluctant to be dependent on vehicles that require a functioning power grid. How EVs function in emergency evaluation or extreme weather situations will merit consideration going forward. 

Q: Will today’s gas stations become charging stations that charge for electricity instead of gasoline fuel?

A: The role of fuel stations remains to be seen going forward. For longer-distance travel, one would expect recharging stations to operate perhaps in a manner like today's fuel stations serving the interstate. In urban areas, more of the recharging activities may be occurring at the home or perhaps work/destination end of trips and not necessarily be carried out at a commercial recharging station. Thus, it's easy to envision a diminished role for traditional urban or suburban gas stations in an EV future.

Q: Amazon has introduced electric delivery vehicles in several cities, but they average about 150 miles on a single charge. How soon before electric vehicle technology might be used for cross-country shipping?

A: Several manufacturers are in the process of developing electrically propelled heavy vehicles for use in pulling trailers. It remains to be seen how fast battery and battery-charging capabilities mature such that battery range is adequate for use in longer-distance trucking applications. There are huge research investments underway on batteries, battery charging and motor efficiency that may extend the viable range of electric trucks. For example, a Canadian company, EXRO Technologies, that specializes in optimizing motor and battery efficiency, recently announced the opening of a U.S. facility for research, development and testing in Mesa, Arizona.

Other companies are experimenting with battery exchange strategies so the recharge delays for large truck batteries can be avoided by robotically switching out batteries in a time frame similar to that involved in fueling a vehicle. England is considering a dedicated truck lane with overhead wires to supply power similar to electrified rail. 

Q: What other obstacles might be expected in the transition to electric vehicles, and how can they be overcome?

A: There is the prospect of a number of additional consequences associated with the move towards electric vehicles. We've already seen the emergence of electric scooters, electric bicycles and electric skateboards as increasingly common means of travel and recreation in urban areas. These means of travel do replace some vehicle trips and are efficient means of travel as the scale of vehicle matches the purpose and can provide very resource efficient mobility. We may well see a myriad of other emerging vehicle sizes and types powered by efficient electrical motors. More bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, three-wheeled and small four-wheeled vehicles are likely to emerge to address specific purposes and market opportunities.

Just as some American communities have seen golf-cart-type vehicles emerged to provide community circulation, in China slow-speed, low-cost electric vehicles have been outselling standard-size electric vehicles. While offering efficiency, the challenges associated with emerging micro-mobility travel choices relate to managing and regulating the use of various rights of way such that the vehicles can coexist safely with the myriad of other vehicle sizes. The inherent vulnerability of passengers in these vehicles exacerbates urban safety challenges.

The emergence of alternative and environmentally benign electrically propelled means of travel also potentially challenges the success of public transportation as it can diminish the environmental motivations for using public transportation and can result in underutilized public transportation failing to accomplish its environmental objectives. 

As the country confronts carbon emissions, it's important to keep things in perspective such that investments in time and resources are targeted to provide the greatest benefit. While transportation is important, it is only a piece of the puzzle. Policymakers with the support of research will need to determine which investment priorities offer the greatest benefit as conditions change over time. For perspective:

  • U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are an estimated 14.5% of global totals and declining as a share. 
  • Transportation uses are an estimated 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
  • Roadway travel is an estimated 83% of total transportation emissions.
  • Personal vehicle travel is an estimated 49% of roadway travel emissions.
  • Commuting, for example, is an estimated 19% of roadway travel.
  • Thus, U.S. commuting represents about one-third of 1% of global carbon emissions, and post-COVID telecommuting should reduce that to less than 0.3%.

Being a small part in a big problem does not reduce the importance of addressing it but does point out the importance of understanding the totality of the problem and prioritizing strategies and investments accordingly. 

Q: You recently told the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure that all modes of transportation are fraught with inequities. How will electric vehicles help diminish those inequalities?

A. Yes, all modes — means of travel — have different impacts on both the users and those that might be impacted by their externalities. For travelers, they have different time and money costs, levels of comfort, security and safety, convenience, reliability, flexibility and carrying capacity. In addition, they impose externalities on other persons associated with their construction/manufacturing, use and disposal.  

One of the motivating aspects of EVs is the expectation of reduced CO2 emissions premised on the expectation that the power-generation sources are clean, and the resources used in manufacturing and decommissioning are not environmentally burdensome. This of course benefits everyone but is particularly important for those most sensitive to climate change impacts, which are often lower-income segments of the population that are less able to protect themselves from the consequences of climate change. In addition, one of the virtues of EVs is they have no propulsion system emissions and diminished noise production. Populations adjacent to major roadways have shown health impacts from exposure to emissions from internal combustion-powered vehicles and can also be burdened with lower property values. Low-income populations often bear these impacts disproportionately so as EV market penetration becomes significant, they stand to benefit as propulsion system emissions diminish. 

Another potential inequity revolves around the arguments for lower fuel efficiency standards — that being that higher standards will increase vehicle costs and force sales of smaller, more efficient vehicles that could have a safety cost as larger vehicles have the safety benefit of larger mass in protecting passengers in vehicle accidents. This cost and safety consequence could fall harder on lower-income households. 

EVs could also have economic impacts if the rapid pace of technology evolution results in the operational life of electric vehicles being shorter than traditional vehicles. Currently EVs tend to have faster depreciation, and if technology continues to evolve rapidly, resale values could continue to suffer, increasing the total cost of ownership. Similarly, there could be economic consequences if technologies are widely deployed prematurely, leading to retrofits, recalls or early vehicle retirements as has been evidenced in some of the early deployment in transit coaches.

There are other elements of equity to consider as well. Automakers are directing significant shares of revenues earned through the sales of internal combustion engines to subsidize the development of EVs. Large amounts of public general-purpose revenues, much of which will be debt obligations for future generations, will be used to subsidize vehicle purchase tax credits, charging stations and perhaps other elements. At least initially, EV investments support higher-income households that have typically been the purchasers of EVs. 

In addition, internal combustion engines, through their consumption of fuels, provide tax revenues to support transportation infrastructure. At the local, state and federal level, fuel taxes average in excess of $0.50 per gallon — 2 to 3 cents per mile for personal vehicles to more than 10 cents per mile for heavy vehicles — that contribute to the trust funds to support roadway expenditures. In almost all current instances, EVs are exempt from user fees to support transportation infrastructure. While hopefully everyone will benefit from EVs, there are certainly arguments that the investments to support EV development are not distributed equitably across segments of the population. Other groups, for example vehicle manufacturing workers, are fearful that EVs will reduce manufacturing employment with a disproportionate impact on these well-compensated blue-collar jobs.

As one would expect from a significant and transformative change in something as fundamental as mobility, additional disparate impacts are likely to emerge and subsequently be addressed by policy decisions and initiatives.

Terry Grant
tvgrant1@asu.edu