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What If Americans Say 'No' To An EV Revolution?

Allowing the "free market" to decide if EVs take-off seems a little risky

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Photo: Darryl Dyck / The Associated Press (AP)

I’ve always questioned the idea that Americans could get fully on-board with electric cars. Living through Covid, where Americans more or less chose/are choosing to ignore a pandemic and do little to nothing in response didn’t make me more confident that they’d be inclined to respond when faced with extinction. Americans are literally experiencing climate crisis right now and choosing to get mad about beer commercials and country music.

But, for the last decade or so, I’ve been repeatedly assured that once EVs comprise 5% of new cars sold in the US, we’d hit a tipping point and be off to the EV mass-adoption races. Buyers would “see the benefits”—low maintenance/fuel costs, silent torque, etc and be convinced. We’ve seen it happen in other countries, but in my totally unscientific analysis, I’ve noticed that a lot of those countries are somewhat unlike the United States.


Some are smaller geographically, with better public transportation. Some have a relentless focus on building infrastructure. They all have something the United States doesn’t: functioning governments capable of intervening when the market fails to deliver desired outcomes.

I feel like I need to pause here and say I don’t really have an interest in whether the EV revolution succeeds or fails. I don’t own any automaker stock, I personally think we need to be thinking in terms of radically reimagining and drastically shrinking the global vehicle fleet as opposed to just replacing todays fleet with an electric one. I don’t see a way for us to consume our way out of climate catastrophe. But, I do think that as long as the world requires cars, it’s better for the new ones to be electric/electrified.


It’s too early for the EV people to panic. In the first quarter of 2023, EV market share hit 7% for the U.S., which is encouraging. A recent post by our friends at The Drive suggests this is just a natural part of the adoption process, which I have no real reason to disagree with.

But when I read about dealers (who are not exactly pro EV in general) having a hard time moving EVs and consider the shameful state of American charging infrastructure, and the natural geographic challenges we have, I have to wonder if we’re starting to see the limits for EV adoption without intervention. I could be wrong, but it does make sense to me on an intuitive level.

Do we really believe that American consumers are willing to pay a premium for an EV and contend with the largely imaginary “range anxiety” only to face the inconvenience of a deeply shoddy charging network? For what, torque? A sense of responsibility to the Earth? What about the past behavior of American consumers would lead you to conclude that large numbers of Americans care about the environment when it comes to what they buy and how they live? Now limit the pool to the Americans who are likely to have enough money to purchase a new car. How many people are we talking about?

For a lot of Americans, an EV could work if they have a home charger and or a charger at work. Really, a lot of them could get by charging overnight on a regular outlet at home most days. But again, what are their incentives to try that? Or to give up the well-established ease of the gas pump? A $7500 tax credit?


A large group of automakers recently acknowledged that the charging infrastructure issue is so difficult to solve under present circumstances that their best path to providing working chargers for their customers was to borrow Elon Musks. They’re probably right. But while an additional 1,782 reliable charging locations (20% of which are in California) represents a huge boost for Ford Lightning owners, it’s still a bandaid—a stopgap measure to boost the number of usable chargers until...something happens...and reliable chargers become commonplace.

The barriers are clear:

1. Even for the few Americans who have the money for a new car, EVs are expensive.


2. Unless they’re willing to move to a place with a lot of Tesla EV chargers, people are probably going to encounter a level of inconvenience when it comes to charging their cars, which to a lot of consumers, is unacceptable—regardless of what the actual reality of EV ownership would be for those people.

In normal countries, these are solvable or solved problems. In countries where EV mass adoption is well underway, governments have intervened to build chargers and subsidize the cost of an EV to the consumer. They have also taken measures to make owning gasoline powered cars less convenient and cost-effective.


The U.S. has made $2.5B available for private companies who want to build charging networks with the intention of getting chargers placed every 50 miles on major corridors. It has offered up to $7500 in tax rebates to people who can afford a new EV. But the charging network money hasn’t yet resulted in a viable charging network and because it’s the work of Democrats, the incentive program is limited and too fucking complicated to be useful. It’s not that nothing is being done, it’s just that what’s being done doesn’t seem like enough considering the enormity of the task.

In 2020, France announced a plan that would allow buyers to claim more than $13,000 if they bought an EV. In Norway, the government functionally cut the cost of buying an EV by half, funded an EV charging station for every 50 kilometers on major roadways, and did a bunch of other stuff that some say was too successful–in April 2023, EV market share there was 91.1%.


Automakers are now heavily invested in the EV transition happening. And while we all know that the long term answers to climate change will very likely mean fewer cars in total, not more EVs, I think most people would agree that building EVs and other electrified cars is better than building more gas/diesel ones, assuming we can find the raw materials, etc.

Policy makers have certainly made that case, finding opposition from the usual climate extinction wanters who hold elected office in the country. But automakers, banks, utilities and suppliers haven’t been shy about pushing their priorities in other areas. Remember the disastrous Cash for Clunkers program? Are they pushing as hard as they could for EV infrastructure support? They now have a lot to lose if this whole thing falters.


At a time when the march toward what many assume is an inevitable EV revolution is in question, should we just assume that the U.S. will follow the same curve as other countries where the circumstances are dramatically different? Eh, who am I kidding. The free market will provide a solution if you just let it cook!