Electric cars will eventually be all cars, but the speed by which they displace conventional cars will depend on making them affordable for low- and middle-income drivers.
The transportation sector in the United States is the single-largest emitter of planet-killing greenhouse gases, surpassing power plants for that deadly distinction. Public transit and private fleet electrification will be critical components in the clean-energy revolution. But tackling the climate crisis means addressing a more urgent priority: reframing Americans’ century-plus-old relationship with the passenger vehicles that produce most of those gases.
People raised on the potent elixir of instant mobility—having the freedom to jump in a car or truck and go—aren’t about to give up rides or curtail usage as fast as the Earth needs them to. Being in charge of one’s transportation choices is central to personal identity in a country where the majority of people drive to work. Yet the U.S. still idles behind Europe and China in the electric-car transition.
This transition already risks leaving low- and moderate-income people behind at a time when the country should be accelerating this shift to meet the ambitious net-zero emission goals needed to save a habitable planet. These concerns have spurred the push for an equitable transition that avoids the apartheid that has characterized the country’s most significant economic and technological transitions, from the homeownership push that produced redlining of African American and Latino neighborhoods to the digital revolution that opened a still-gaping divide.
Once sought-after by wealthy early adopters amassing cool points, electric passenger vehicles must now be affordable for all. Local, state, and federal policymakers need to knock down the barriers that the market does not address.
“When it comes to making a transition to a clean energy technology, whether it’s with vehicles or with buildings, or with food, it’s going to be harder, more expensive, and more difficult for certain communities to get there if we’re not very, very intentional about them doing so,” says Alvaro Sanchez, the environmental equity director at the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute, a racial and economic justice research group.
IN DOWNTOWN WASHINGTON’S CityCenterDC, a small Tesla showroom sits in an enclave of upscale restaurants and luxury boutiques. There are usually one or two cars on display, like the Model X, whose wing car doors that open upward sometimes attract more curious onlookers peering through the windows than potential customers for an electric car with a heart-stopping 2019 sticker price starting at $81,000. The image of Tesla as a sweet car for the rich reinforces the widely shared view that electric cars are not for the poor and middle-class. Even the less costly Tesla Model 3, with long waiting lists, costs $35,000.
Nearly twenty years ago, General Motors destroyed electric cars en masse. This year, GM announced that it is aiming to have 20 electric-car models available by 2023. But Tesla’s success and its veneer of exclusivity have spawned a slew of misperceptions that constitute significant barriers to electric-car adoption.
Today, the cheapest sticker price for a new electric car is about $23,900. That’s the cost of the Smart EQ Fortwo, a two-seater. Even though an electric car would save on annual fuel costs, that $23,900 means car payments of about $500 a month, far beyond the reach of most working people, who seldom purchase new cars and make do with older, polluting vehicles.
In principle, the federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for purchase of a new electric vehicle dramatically lowers the purchase price. But nearly all working- and middle-class people owe nothing like $7,500 in federal income taxes. So that credit is mainly a subsidy for rich people. President Trump has attacked tax subsidies for purchase of electric cars, saying that he would like to see the entire program phased out.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York gave a sense of what a Green New Deal could look like with an October trial balloon. Schumer’s “Clean Cars for America” is designed to encourage middle- and low-income drivers to give up older, dirtier cars; to facilitate building a charging infrastructure accessible to underserved drivers regardless of where they live; and to establish a manufacturing sector to build vehicles and component parts. (The fate of autoworkers displaced in the EV revolution was a major point of contention in the recent GM strike.)
Envisioned as part of a broader climate package, the ten-year, $454 billion plan includes special rebates for low-income people and incentives for used-vehicle purchases. It would direct $45 billion to charging-infrastructure construction focusing on underserved neighborhoods, with a goal to install one charging station for every vehicle purchased using program incentives.
In the absence of programs such as Schumer’s, the federal disarray leaves the bulk of electric-car incentive programs for new and used cars to states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oregon, and Texas. Electric utilities in Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania also offer rebates and credits and other financial assistance.
California has a diverse slate of state, regional, and local rebates for low- and moderate-income people designed to encourage drivers to purchase or lease new and used battery-powered vehicles and hybrids. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District in metro San Francisco has linked environmental justice concerns to EV adoption, providing “Clean Cars for All” grants of up to $9,500 to low-income drivers in communities that have been disproportionally affected by air pollution to give up gasoline-powered cars for new or used hybrid or electric vehicles or a public-transit pass.
A hypothetical East San Jose resident in need of a new car living near the Reid-Hillview Airport (a major lead emissions polluter that residents want closed) in a two-person household with an annual household income of $65,900 could be eligible for a maximum Air District grant of $9,500 when she turns in her 1995 Ford Taurus for a $23,900 Smart EQ Fortwo Pure.
If Schumer’s Clean Cars for America program was in effect, she could receive another $3,000, bringing the cost down to $10,500. Since she doesn’t want to apply for a loan, and may not qualify for it, that’s still too much. But after a few searches, up pops a used 2016 Smart EQ Fortwo Pure with less than 10,000 miles on it available at a San Francisco car dealer for $12,980. The Air District grant would bring the cost down to a manageable $3,480 before taxes and other charges.
ACCORDING TO SCOTT WILSON, vice president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington, D.C., a regional club of electric-car enthusiasts, many prospective car buyers do not realize that the electric cars that have only become widely available in the past few years already come in a wide variety of price points. “A lot of what’s happening with electric cars is not Tesla,” says Wilson.
As prices fall, the lower maintenance costs make electric cars even more attractive to low- and middle-income consumers. Battery-powered cars do not have the number of moving parts that gasoline-powered cars do, and maintenance issues like oil changes are things of the past. Yet fears about outrageous electric bills plague electric cars.
Costs to fully charge an electric car will vary by make, model, and local kilowatt hour charges, but fueling costs are considerably cheaper than for gasoline-powered cars, According to Plug In America, a nonprofit EV advocacy group, an average U.S. cost of electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt hour means a person driving the average EV 15,000 miles annually will spend roughly, at current prices, $540 per year, or $45 per month, to charge the car—a savings of about $860 per year over gasoline-powered cars.
In many communities, however, few people know someone who owns an electric car, so electric-vehicle awareness is notoriously poor, despite potential saving in fuel costs and air quality—an issue for both rural and urban communities in states like California that are plagued by pollution.
The image of Tesla as a sweet car for the rich reinforces the widely shared view that electric cars are not for the poor and middle-class.
Electric cars are also hard to find. A new 2019 Sierra Club “Rev Up Electric Vehicles” report that studied shopping for electric vehicles across the country found that nearly 75 percent of car dealers do not have a single electric vehicle available on their lots. (The figure is closer to 80 percent in states that do not adhere to Zero Emission Vehicle [ZEV] standards that mandate that auto manufacturers sell a specific number of hybrid and battery electric vehicles based on the total number of all vehicles sold.)
Even in the 11 ZEV states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont—nearly 60 percent of car dealers did not have EVs available. The study also found that car salespeople are not up to speed on EV technology, nor are they able to provide basic information about the federal credit or local and state electric-car rebate programs and incentives, charging infrastructure, or battery ranges. These experiences are compounded for buyers of color who have traditionally been discriminated against by some car dealers.
In this environment, consumer education is a word-of-mouth phenomenon that means meeting potential buyers where they are. In California, Sanchez of the Greenlining Institute works with partners to bring customized low-rider electric cars to events like Day of the Dead festivals. Groups like Maryland EV attend local Diwali, Caribbean Food and Wine Festival, and Festival Latino de Maryland gatherings. EVHybridNoire, a national group that recently visited historically black colleges and universities like Morehouse in Atlanta, links diverse drivers, especially in underserved areas, with EV resources and forums to exchange ideas on issues from charging-location strategies to confronting misperceptions about minority EV owners.
While fuel and maintenance cost savings resonate with low-income consumers, once they know about them, other charges like the high registration fees may be difficult to overcome. Every driver pays federal and state gas taxes at the pump; drivers don’t budget for them, they just pay up. But some states like Ohio and Arkansas have imposed exorbitant $200 annual EV registration fees that far exceed what owners of gasoline-powered cars pay—and can’t simply be ascribed to the need to replace declining gas taxes. A 2019 Consumer Reports EV fee analysis found that by 2025, 18 states will charge higher EV fees than drivers of new gasoline-powered cars pay in gas taxes.
“If we make electric vehicle owners pay taxes in these lump sums that internal combustion vehicle owners pay when they buy gas, that could create another barrier,” says Asha Weinstein Agrawal, director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Finance Center at San José State University.
Yet a 2019 Union of Concerned Scientists-Consumer Reports survey found that 42 percent of people of color are more likely to consider buying a plug-in electric vehicle for their next car—implying that cost considerations may be at work. Not every consumer will necessarily buy a car, however; some poor rural areas like Huron in central California have already turned to ridesharing as an alternative to ownership, while car-sharing rentals may find a place in urban settings like apartment buildings and condo developments. In fact, clean-energy entrepreneur Tony Seba, an instructor at Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program, argues that EVs, ride-hailing, and autonomous vehicles will drastically cut transportation costs and render individual car ownership and government subsidies obsolete—thereby revolutionizing mobility for the working poor, elderly, disabled, and everyone else.
Early adopters typically live in single-family homes where they can plug an electric car in overnight. But people who live in apartments or other multifamily units are at a disadvantage —unless the system provides more chargers.
THE AVAILABILITY OF charging infrastructure presents another equity challenge. Early electric-vehicle adopters typically live in single-family homes where they can plug the car into a 120-volt outlet overnight or install faster chargers. But people who live in apartment buildings or other multifamily units are at a distinct disadvantage.
Drivers of color who lack home charging must rely on mapping out charging stations using mobile apps to circumnavigate charging deserts—minority neighborhoods in and around many major cities as well as rural areas where no charging facilities exist. Some municipalities like Seattle have mandated that developers of new commercial and residential buildings incorporate EVs into their plans, but resistance continues from groups like the National Association of Home Builders that do not support building codes that would facilitate wiring new homes and rental units for charging, arguing that doing so would increase housing prices.
Living in charging deserts amplifies “range anxiety,” how far a car runs before needing a charge. Supermarkets like Whole Foods or big-box stores like Walmart that often have charging stations aren’t usually found in most communities of color—unless they are gentrifying. Despite these barriers, the Union of Concerned Scientists survey found that nearly 60 percent of prospective buyers who are people of color considering a plug-in electric vehicle would consider it “highly convenient” to use a fast charging station nearby for 10 minutes twice a week.
Rural areas also lack reliable charging infrastructure, and long-distance treks must be mapped out well in advance, as Wilson of the EVADC club did on a recent trip to Vermont: He had to modify his route once he crossed the Green Mountain State border. The lack of public chargers combined with absence of light trucks from the EV model roster has produced a cohort of city-dwelling EV drivers. But the rural driving landscape may be disrupted when Tesla unveils its first-ever electric pickup truck in mid-November, with Ford and General Motors expected to follow suit.
As part of its multibillion-dollar federally imposed penalties for falsifying diesel emissions data, Volkswagen established Electrify America, a $2 billion nationwide charging project. Roughly 3,000 new chargers will be available by the end of 2019. Charging prices vary based on minutes at the charger and other factors. (Other private companies are in the charging infrastructure mix along with Tesla, which has deployed charging stations only available to Tesla owners.)
During this transition period, municipalities and electric utility companies must work on deploying a public charging infrastructure that eradicates charging deserts and avoids the mistakes of the digital revolution. “When we talk about the EV divide, that’s the risk,” says Tracey Woods, vice president of operations for the American Association of Blacks in Energy. “We have two or three rounds [of development] and, you know what, we’ve left this community out! By then we’ve moved on: We’ve seen that in other technology breakthroughs and paradigm shifts that occur such as 5G—we don’t have fiber everywhere.”
Meanwhile, Trump is firmly yoked to the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and oil industry groups like the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Western States Petroleum Association that are fighting charging, ZEV mandates, and utility charging plans in Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, and Massachusetts. ALEC, another Koch-funded enterprise, is behind the spate of astronomical EV fee increases.
Big Oil, however, may have met its match in Big Electric, which is mostly happy to countenance a transition (its distaste for solar notwithstanding) that gives it newfound relevance in the clean-energy revolution and reels in environmental and public-sector allies in this particular fight against fossil fuels. Yet federalism means that 50 states each get to go their own way. Trying to beat powerful adversaries in a fight with global ramifications demands much more than a Green New Deal and Democratic control of the White House and Congress.
With roughly one million cars on the road, electric cars are now a permanent fixture in the mobility firmament. Some minds have indeed shifted, and car-crushing exercises are unlikely to reoccur. The question that few can answer at this juncture is whether electric cars are a niche phenomenon coveted by a few as a cheaper means of commuting and traveling or whether the U.S. moves decisively to include low- and moderate-income people of all races in the next phase of the clean-energy revolution that is vital to the survival of every species.
This article is a part of our ongoing series on sustainable mobility, transportation, and climate.