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Opinion

Six ways to boost electric vehicles

Getting more American drivers into electric vehicles carries both environmental and national security benefits. But to get Americans to really buy EVs, the Obama administration needs to learn from the past and plan better today.

By Steve A. Yetiv / May 1, 2013

A Nissan Leaf charges at an electric vehicle charging station Aug. 18, 2011, in Portland, Ore. Op-ed contributor Steve A. Yetiv writes: 'Just because automakers produce plug-ins doesn’t mean that consumers will want them. Drivers believe that the disadvantages of driving an electric vehicle far outweigh the advantages.'

Rick Bowmer/AP/file

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Norfolk, Va.

Just over a year ago, Anthony FoxxPresident Obama’s nominee for transportation secretary – unveiled a pilot program for electric-vehicle charging stations in Charlotte, N.C., where he is the mayor. If he wins confirmation, Mr. Foxx can help the president push electric vehicles (EVs) on a national scale.

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Getting more American drivers into plug-ins carries both environmental and national security benefits. Because most of America’s oil goes into vehicles, moving to EVs would decrease oil consumption and pollution. But to get Americans to really buy EVs, the administration needs to learn from the past and plan better today or an EV initiative will surely fail or be more costly than it is worth.

Around the turn of the last century, electric vehicles were heavily pushed by such notables as Thomas Edison and President Woodrow Wilson. They accounted for 38 percent of American automobiles, while only 22 percent were gasoline powered. However, consumers started to prefer cheaper gas-driven cars which also had better range and didn’t need to be juiced by electric outlets. Efforts to market electric vehicles were inadequate.

Fast forward more than 100 years. The EV may try to make a comeback, with the Obama team’s urgings, but it faces similar problems.

Washington has legislated much higher fuel efficiency standards for automakers, requiring a 54.5-miles-per-gallon fleet average by 2025. And automakers are building EVs to hit these targets, as well as hybrid electric cars that also use gas. But America is on the wrong course for making EVs succeed.

Just because automakers produce plug-ins doesn’t mean that consumers will want them. Drivers believe that the disadvantages of driving an electric vehicle far outweigh the advantages, according to a 2011 national survey of 2,300 adult drivers by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Drivers cited limited driving range, relatively high cost, and the inconvenience of recharging batteries as the primary issues – although not all of those perceptions match the facts.

So what can the Obama team and Congress do to surmount these and other EV-related problems?

First, the government can give buyers bigger tax breaks and significantly increase funding for battery research. More effective and cheaper batteries would make EVs more marketable. In mid-March, 2013, Obama urged Congress to authorize spending $2 billion over the next decade on EVs and biofuels. Congress should do so, and spur innovation and green jobs.

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