This article was originally published in Climate & Capital Media.
Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but when he launched his assembly line Dec. 1, 1913, he brought his Model T to the masses, spurring road construction and the growth of the steel and rubber industries. Other automakers challenged him, and we set off down our car-centric course.
The drive for emissions-free cars and trucks is in full throttle, with car companies stepping up both electrification and autonomous driving. Showcasing the increasing melding of the tech and automotive world, they debuted many innovations via the Consumer Electronics Show this month in Las Vegas.
BMW unveiled its color-changing car; Chrysler showed off its Airflow Concept, announced its commitment to launching its first battery-electric vehicle by 2025, and plans for a full battery-electric portfolio by 2028. Chevrolet touted its first all-electric Silverado truck.
In China, the budget electric car Hongguang Mini is the top seller, more than tripling sales in 2021 to 395,451 units and outselling Tesla in the world’s largest EV market.
Plug-in carmakers finally are promoting their products big-time to the public, reports Bloomberg News. In 2021, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and others spent an estimated $248 million on nearly 33,000 spots, a fourfold increase over the previous two years. We’ll also see an EV charging box advertised for the first time by Wallbox, recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
We also expected a flurry of EV ads during this year’s NFL Super Bowl as at least five auto manufacturers said they would advertise in America’s premier television event.
All that investment in development and promotion points to industry faith in a healthy, lasting market for individually owned cars.
But as carmakers develop non-polluting vehicles, the door opens on the question: Where are we going in them? Activists and automakers think they know the answer.
In 1970, there were 108 million cars, trucks and buses on U.S. roads. Today, 276 million vehicles traverse the country. Worldwide, 1.446 billion vehicles are in operation. If we all swap our fossil-fuel-powered cars for electric ones but don’t change our habits, we’ll spew less carbon, but we’ll be caught in the same traffic jams and still demand larger freeways, particularly around our big urban centers.
In 1970, there were 108 million cars, trucks and buses on U.S. roads. Today, 276 million vehicles traverse the country.
And when we get truly Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) that need no humans to get around, we might create even more congestion as we send our wheeled robots on errands to pick up prescriptions, groceries — or nachos or ice cream if we’ve got a sudden whim.
"We have an obsession with the personal freedom offered by the private vehicle and are in love with personal travel," says Robin Chase, co-founder of car-sharing service Zipcar and author of "Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism."
Chase urges us to steer away from our car-centricity and embrace ride-sharing to improve the quality of our lives and further cut our carbon contributions.
And carmakers such as Tesla, Kia, Hyundai, Ford and Stellantis, as well as Google-related Waymo and other tech companies, are racing to the same conclusion. It’s just good business.
"We intend to establish in the future an autonomous Tesla ride-hailing network, which we expect would also allow us to access a new customer base even as modes of transportation evolve," Tesla says in a 2020 Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
Elon Musk told investors in 2020 that soon-to-arrive full self-driving capabilities will allow Tesla owners to profit from letting others pay to ride in their premium sedans-turned robocars when the vehicles would otherwise sit idle. Tesla would also profit from selling more subscriptions to its self-driving software, Musk says.
A few examples of other companies investing billions in ride-sharing: Google’s sister company Waymo already operates a fully autonomous ride-hailing service in the suburbs east of Phoenix; Lyft, Ford and Argo AI recently launched an autonomous rideshare service in Miami; and Hyundai, via its joint venture Motional, is testing its driverless robo-taxis in Las Vegas, with an expected launch of service in 2023.
We have an obsession with the personal freedom offered by the private vehicle and are in love with personal travel.
Kia, like Chase and other ride-sharing advocates, says self-driving cars can spur community redesigns and improve our quality of life. "The cars will just drop you off at the destination and go on to serve the next customer. There will be no need for sprawling parking lots and underground parking garages."
Parks could replace parking spaces, Kia says.
Stellantis isn’t waiting for driverless vehicles. The parent of Jeep, Dodge and Fiat is expanding its Free2Move car subscription and sharing services operating in 170 countries.
Combine ride-hailing acceptance with congestion pricing discouraging people from riding alone on crowded urban streets in their space-guzzling 120-square-foot, 2-ton vehicles, and we could arrive at AV heaven, Chase says. New York City is developing a scheme to charge most motorists who drive south of Manhattan’s Central Park.
Such low-emission zones, charging fees for vehicles that don’t meet tough requirements, are already in use in London, Milan, Singapore and elsewhere.
How do we get there?
First, we have to want electric vehicles — but we don’t — says a recent study by Deloitte, the international consulting and financial advisory firm. That could change due to government regulations and carmakers’ efforts to win our hearts.
For its 2022 Global Automotive Consumer Study, Deloitte surveyed more than 26,000 consumers in 25 countries. The notions of lower fuel costs and fighting climate change get us kicking EV tires, Deloitte finds. The fear of too few charging stations and limited driving ranges steers us back to internal combustion engines when considering our next car purchase.
Americans, Deloitte says, expect more than 500 miles from a fully charged battery. South Koreans ranked second with the expectation of nearly 400 miles range. People surveyed pretty much everywhere name personal vehicles as their first choice to get around rather than calling a cab, taking a bus, hailing a ride-share vehicle or riding a scooter or bike, Deloitte found. While in the U.S., the personal vehicle was the first choice of three out four people; in India, it was the top pick for under half of those surveyed, but still outranked other modes.
Electric vehicle sales are ticking up, but in the first half of 2021 they accounted for only 1.1 percent of car sales in Australia, 2.6 percent in the U.S. (but 8.3 percent in California); 4.6 percent in Canada and 16 percent and rising in the European Union, reports The Driven, and 6 percent in China, says Statista.
In China, the budget electric car Hongguang Mini, with a base price of $4,500, is the top seller, more than tripling sales in 2021 to 395,451 units and outselling all Tesla models, in the world’s largest EV market.
In the U.S., the personal vehicle was the first choice of 3 out 4 people.
In time, consumers may not have a choice.
Governments are adopting carbon-cutting policies signaling the end is near for internal combustion engines.
The European Union’s Green Deal calls for a 55 percent reduction in new car emissions by 2030 and no emissions from new cars by 2035. At least six car companies, including Ford, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Volvo, pledged at COP26 to phase out gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 worldwide, 2035 in "leading markets."
The U.S. has been toughening emission standards since 1970 when Congress passed the Clean Air Act enabling the then-new Environmental Protection Agency to regulate auto pollution. The EPA mandated catalytic converters on all new cars starting with the 1975 model year, which also meant phasing out leaded gas by 1995.
EPA also pushed for more fuel efficiency. That led to more efficient engines and the expansion of electric vehicle offerings, for which Tesla took the lead.
In December, the EPA set rules that starting in the 2023 model year aim to reach an industry-wide target of 40 miles per gallon by 2026. The tougher standards will push sales of EVs and plug-in hybrid vehicles from about 7 percent market share in model year 2023 to about 17 percent for 2026 models, the agency projects.
Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that President Joe Biden signed in November, the government will spend $7.5 billion to reach the goal of having 500,000 public charging stations by 2030.
The U.S. will soon be home to 13 new battery factories, many in the Southeast or Midwest, says the Department of Energy. Eight are joint ventures between automakers and battery manufacturers.