Bad Americans are buying electric cars

Keller Strother got his first Tesla, a Roadster, in 2011. He still has it, though his garage now includes two other Teslas and a vintage Porsche 911 whose gas guts were recently replaced with a battery and batteries. electric motors. In a warming world, where about a quarter of Americans want to buy an electric vehicle, Strother has four.

“The technology is so viable and it’s a better solution,” he says. “And I’ve always been a bit obsessed with having the right tool for a job.”

The adoption of electric vehicles is finally accelerating in the United States. But what the fever line doesn’t show is that it’s lumpy. A large proportion of battery-powered cars are purchased by households that already own an EV, or two or three for that matter. The EV early adopter has given way to the superuser or, some would say, the hoarder. And despite their good intentions, these double divers can unwittingly reduce the climate benefits their cars can provide.

“A, the wrong people are buying these cars,” says Ashley Nunes, a Harvard economist who studies this dynamic. “And B, the way these people use these cars makes it very difficult for them to provide an emissions advantage.”

In a recent Bloomberg survey of electric vehicle drivers, 14% of respondents said they owned more than one battery-powered vehicle, and 6% of respondents owned three or more. This doubling dynamic is also clear in the sales data. According to Edmunds, some 26% of EV buyers in the second quarter either traded in their used electric car for a new one or simply added another to their garage. Another 9% of recent EV buyers were already driving a hybrid.

Scientists, politicians and auto executives have championed electric cars as a replacement for gas-powered vehicles, but most of the time that’s not happening – at least not yet.

Repeat buying isn’t so bad. It’s a validation of the technology, a clear model that, when familiar with both options and given the choice, many prefer to drive electric. It also suggests that the typical reservations of EV curious people – namely range anxiety and charging confusion – quickly fade with use.

“It speaks to a level of excitement,” says Berkeley economist Lucas Davis. “These people love their cars.”

But this presents a problematic paradox: an electric vehicle is only a decarbonator insofar as it offsets both gasoline driving and the emissions needed to manufacture it, a process that leaves a much larger carbon footprint than that of a gasoline-powered car. The only way the machine can hedge its carbon, so to speak, is in miles. But, above all, in homes with two, three or four electric vehicles, each successive car tends to drive less. If a vehicle is going to sit idle in a garage, a gas-powered version is arguably a cleaner option than an electric vehicle, due to all the carbon that goes into making the latter.

Take Strother, 62, and his three Teslas. With his wife, he only sails about 15,000 miles a year on his fleet; after more than a decade, his seminal roadster has only 11,000 miles on the odometer.

“I haven’t commuted since 2000,” says Strother. “I occasionally drive over 30 miles in a relay, but not often.”

The couple at least charges their vehicles from home solar panels.

Davis at Berkeley found that in multi-vehicle households, an electric vehicle tends to be the secondary or tertiary car. About two-thirds of households with an electric vehicle also owned a gasoline-powered car, which was driven more often. In addition, this vehicle is most often relatively inefficient, namely a large truck or SUV.

“That’s bad,” Davis said. “If electric vehicles are to be an environmental solution, it depends on their widespread adoption beyond what is a niche product for the wealthy.”

Right now, of course, most Americans can’t even afford a single new electric vehicle. Production is expected to lag demand for years as automakers rush to set up new battery factories and assembly lines. Partly because supply is so scarce, the average price for an EV in October was nearly $59,000, nearly a quarter more than the industry as a whole, according to Edmunds.

Many Americans willing and able to pay those prices don’t need to sell their current car to make the switch. And they often keep both: American households equipped with an electric vehicle own an average of 2.7 vehicles, compared to 2.1 vehicles for the whole country.

Another recent study of American driving habits found that a household that replaces their secondary gasoline vehicle with an electric vehicle typically must own the car for more than 10 years before offsetting the emissions associated with its production.

“This is where the typical narrative becomes problematic,” said Nunes, the Harvard economist who co-authored the report. “I don’t know anyone who drives a 10-year-old electric vehicle. Do you?”

It turns out that Americans are pretty bad at scrapping cars of all kinds, and they get worse over time. Partly because vehicles are so reliable these days, people hang on to them longer. There are now 272 million registered vehicles in the United States for 228 million drivers. We have closets full of outdated computers, drawers of dated iPhones, and driveways and garages full of 5,000-pound frills.

There’s also a trend of drivers swapping one electric vehicle for another, according to Tom Libby, associate director of industry analysis at S&P Global Mobility. Specifically, Libby says a lot of drivers are ditching their Teslas for models from Lucid, Polestar and Rivian. These brands are newer and more unique, and none of them are led by a political lightning rod.

While the United States recently established point-of-sale tax credits for electric vehicle purchases, Nunes argues that governments should incentivize driving electric vehicles rather than just buying them. An electric car offers some parking privileges and access to carpool express lanes, but Nunes is considering greater financial subsidies.

“There are questions about the extent to which these vehicles can deliver on their green promises,” he says. “It’s not because the technology isn’t good enough; it’s not because the network won’t get cleaner; that’s because it all…depends on how they’re used.

Right now, the most impactful type of electric vehicle ownership sounds like Jim and Maureen Holtan, who live in Oakland, California. The couple gave their old Nissan Cube to their son-in-law in early 2020, bought a Chevrolet Bolt and quickly drove it to Phoenix and back to see if the tech was ready for the trip.

“That’s when we realized there was no reason to drive anything else,” said 69-year-old Jim Holtan.

This spring, when the catalytic converter was stolen from the couple’s second car – an old Ford Escape – they scrapped it and bought a second Bolt.

“My wife was the original skeptic,” says Holtan, “and she said, ‘It better be another electric car. miles per year.

Like the Strothers, they also charge them from home solar power. There is evidence that the mass market for electric vehicles may be waning. Not only is there a parade of all-new electric options, but they’re getting bigger and better. As they drive farther, haul more, and even tow, battery-powered cars and trucks make a strong case for serving as a family’s primary vehicle. And when prices drop, they will increasingly be an option for one-car households and those still driving jalopies.

In the meantime, Nunes has simple advice for climate-conscious drivers: “If you want to buy an electric vehicle, drive it into the ground.”

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