THE HILL 05/08/20
By Michael Shank
Thanks to a new study by Harvard University – that there’s a clear link between long-term exposure to air pollution and higher COVID-19 death rates, there’s yet another reason to electrify our transportation. (As if 50,000 Americans dying prematurely every year from transportation emissions pre-COVID-19 wasn’t enough to electrify cars and trucks.)
Despite President Trump’s recent attempts to further weaken emissions standards, and new attempts in Congress to bail out the auto industry (without pollution-reducing preconditions), the consumer market may have the final say, moving us to an all-electric — and thus healthier — future. Even China understands the lethal pollution-coronavirus connection, prioritizing electric vehicles in their COVID-19 stimulus packages. America should do the same.
Electric vehicles have suffered century-long beatings, but this time they’re sticking around. Why? Because the technology is too good to ignore, markets are finally moving, and it’s a healthier, life-saving choice. That Super Bowl car commercials featured electric vehicles this year indicates that EVs are now the norm. It wasn’t always that way. There were multiple births and many deaths, and now a rebirth that’s here to stay.
First, many births. Few Americans know that electric vehicles in the U.S. date back to the early 1800s. It was American ingenuity at work. A husband-and-wife team, named Thomas and Emily Davenport, based in Brandon, Vermont, were busy inventing the first electric motor and electric vehicle.
It may be hard to believe that we had electric vehicles in the works nearly two hundred years ago. And that by the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, electric cars were a hot commodity, and quite fashionable, accounting for one-third of all cars on the road. This is incredible but unsurprising. Back then (and the same is true now), gas-powered cars vibrated more, were smellier, dirtier, noisier, and more difficult to operate and maintain.
Back then, EVs were free of all that (and still are), which is why Thomas Edison – a proponent of clean energy — got very involved in electric cars, inventing his own battery. Edison, ahead of his time on multiple clean energy fronts, famously told Henry Ford, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” A man clearly ahead of his peers.
At the height of America’s affection for EVs in the early 1900s, engineer Oliver P. Fritchle built an electric car that promised 100 miles on a single charge. And to prove it, he successfully drove from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska. Yet despite all of this progress, once Henry Ford started mass producing gas-powered cars, making them cheaper for consumers, EVs fell behind. And for the next half-century, fossil fueled-cars dominated the market.
That changed with rising oil prices and gasoline shortages in the 1970s, and, against President Gerald Ford’s wishes, Congress decided to promote EV technology and demonstrate the commercial feasibility of EVs. The bill (Electric Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act) passed the House and the Senate, overriding a veto by the White House. But the EV designs of that day, however, failed to match the range and charge of a 100-mile Fritchle, and so despite the much-needed congressional push, the market remained unmoved.
Then, a murder most foul. In the 1990s, in response to California Air Resources Board’s efforts to regulate transportation emissions and require the manufacturing of zero-emission vehicles, America’s big automakers produced a limited run of EVs for lease in California. (The automakers were simultaneously lobbying and suing the state to weaken the rules.)
The cars were hugely popular. The U.S. Department of Energy called it a “cult following”. These EVs came with an 80-mile range and the ability to go from 0-50 miles per hour in seven seconds. But the industry successfully watered down California’s emissions regulations, and these wildly popular EVs were recalled by the auto industry and destroyed. Out of the ashes, that same year, comes Tesla Motors. Why? Because you can’t keep a good thing down.
Now, cue the rebirth. Despite all of these fits and starts, and decades lost to oil and auto industry lobbying, the global market for EVs is now growing 60 percent annually (China is witnessing 85 percent growth over previous years), and in the U.S., sales of electric vehicles doubled last year. Over 100 types of electric vehicles will be offered in the coming year by the auto industry. And in 10 years, expect over 250 million electric vehicles globally, with EV sales surpassing 40 million vehicles per year. The market is moving fast.
This transition makes sense — and cents — since EVs are saving drivers a ton of money. In one year, a typical EV driver will save over $600 compared with owning a gasoline vehicle. Those savings add up substantially. There are other benefits, too, as noted early. Transportation emissions in America already cause 50,000 premature deaths annually and now are generating even higher COVID-19 death rates. By rapidly scaling-up non-polluting and non-emitting electric vehicles, EVs can save lives and provide cleaner air for everyone.
That’s not all we get with electric vehicles. Americans are switching to EVs because they’re fun to drive. The acceleration is exceptional, torque is instantaneous, and the vibration is near absent (no internal combustion engine). Not only are they less expensive to own, with little to no maintenance, but they’re also healthier to operate, and they’re more fun to drive.
So, finally, after nearly 200 years, EVs are here to stay, irrespective of how President Donald Trump or others may protest. And tens of thousands of lives will be saved, as a result of the reduced pollution. But it’s a shame, really, that it took America this long to let such a clean technology emerge. Let’s not make the same mistake again, with any other clean energy technology, and listen to Thomas Edison instead. Let’s not wait until the fossils run out. Let’s put our money on the sun. What a source of power for all these EVs. And what a source of life for all Americans.
Michael Shank is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.