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.

Rick Bowmer/AP/file
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.'

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.

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.

Second, the Obama team can work to raise the federal gasoline tax, making EVs even more competitive against gas-powered vehicles. (To make a higher gas tax more palatable, such an increase could be offset with lower payroll taxes, leaving consumers with no overall tax increase. Or, some of the gas tax monies could be used to pay down the national debt; the poor will also need to be protected against any regressive gas tax).

Third, the government and automakers need to expand the limited number of plug-in stations. Indeed, EVs still require power, and most people don’t have access to off-the-grid or renewable energy. So that needs to change to make EVs environmentally sustainable.

Fourth, the extra electricity needed to run EVs should come from cleaner sources of electricity such as wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, and even natural gas. If America is merely going to produce the extra vehicle electricity with coal, it may defeat the environmental benefit of EVs because coal is dirtier than oil.

Fifth, as of now, EV batteries require lithium and rare-earth minerals, and some studies show that mining them is damaging to the environment. The steps listed above can create economies of scale for the production of EVs, thus lowering their costs, increasing their sales, and further incentivizing research that can make batteries cheaper and more environmentally safe. Innovators need to feel that this trajectory is being put in motion.

Sixth, bipartisan support for EVs does not now exist, but President Obama wants to move ahead. One way to generate support is to focus on improving battery costs and efficiency, before moving with the other five steps above. Success with batteries, when it comes, will then make a broader move toward EVs (and hybrid-electric vehicles) more plausible economically and politically.

EVs can make a real difference. Indeed,  a new report by the National Research Council finds that by 2030, America could halve the amount of oil used in its vehicle fleet largely by relying more on cars that use alternative power sources, like electric batteries and biofuels. That’s significant.

Embracing EVs can meet both environmental and national security goals, but only if we remember history and plan better for the future.

Steve A. Yetiv is the Nathan I. Jaffe professor of international relations at Old Dominion University and author of “Crude Awakenings” and “The Petroleum Triangle.”

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