Dan Rodricks

With climate warnings, no time for a retreat on electric cars

A friend who just bought a Chevrolet Bolt — that’s the impressive all-electric, subcompact hatchback that you’ve probably never seen advertised on national television — says he paid $29,000 for it, after federal and state tax credits. The starting price was close to $40,000. “But, if you want one, you’d better hurry up,” my all-electric friend says. “They’re phasing out the federal tax credit.”

He’s right. The federal part of the tax credit — up to $7,500 per vehicle — starts to go away when a manufacturer sells 200,000 electric vehicles (including plug-in hybrids). The credit drops by half and, within a year, to zero. It’s nuts: A nation of more than 200 million drivers, the vast majority of us driving vehicles that burn gasoline, and we’re going to phase out an incentive for manufacturers to produce EVs and motorists to buy them? Makes no sense.


According to the website InsideEVs, Tesla has already reached 200,000 in sales. As of October, General Motors was close to that mark. So, unless Congress acts, the phase-outs for those companies will start in the coming year. Some sort of phase-out might be necessary, but considering the need for alternatives to gasoline power, 200,000 per manufacturer represents a tiny drop in a very large bucket.

We should be totally bullish about this. Getting more people into all-electric vehicles and retraining the workforce to build and service them ought to be national priorities. Instead, we have start-and-stop development and, it seems, a sense of urgency only when gas prices hit $3 a gallon.


Add to this GM’s decision to phase out the plug-in Chevrolet Volt by shutting down a plant in Ohio — part of the company’s plan to stop production at five factories in North America and to cut about 14,000 jobs, including in Maryland — and you have to wonder if we’ll ever get serious about one of the biggest challenges before us: finding a way to get from here to there without further contributing to climate change.

Our gasoline-fueled personal vehicles are a major cause of global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that cars and trucks account for nearly 20 percent of all heat-trapping emissions — around 24 pounds of global-warming gases for every gallon of gasoline.

So, with a gathering storm of disturbing news about climate change, polls indicate that growing numbers of Americans want something done about it. You would think getting to electric vehicles would be a priority. But consumers need a better sales pitch than they’ve received, and they need leadership that says going electric as soon as possible is the right thing to do. We have neither at the moment.

The current president thinks human-caused climate change is a hoax. His administration wants to retreat from the tougher vehicle emissions standards that his predecessor put in place. It’s hard to imagine a pro-oil administration extending the phase-out period for the EV credits, or doing anything green, for that matter.

But the problem is not restricted to Washington. One of the facts in the news about GM is this: Two-thirds of all new vehicles sold last year were gas-burning trucks and SUVs. That probably doesn’t surprise you. Drive through any parking lot, and you’ll see that reality. And next time you’re on the road during rush hour, note how many SUVs and trucks have more than one passenger. Not many.

The price of gasoline has not scared more Americans into the EV marketplace for cars like the Bolt, and that seems to be what it takes. That’s an indication that, while we have had plenty of warnings about the need to change our habits, we’re still stuck in the old ways when it comes to travel. Given the truck-and-SUV reality — and the reluctance of politicians to increase fuel taxes to pay for more investment in public transportation, or to promote EV technology — it’s hard to see real concern about climate change or a mass desire for more modest, holistic lifestyle choices that would be good for the planet.

Millions of Americans chose to live in areas that require them to drive long distances to work, and they like pickups and SUVs. Whether the GM restructuring leads to deep investment in EVs, and to sales on the scale the company claims could be reached, remains to be seen. For now, mark me skeptical.

I hope I’m wrong. But it seems we still go from energy crisis to energy crisis and only think about alternatives when the price of gasoline climbs. We’ve done that for decades, confident that the crisis would pass. We’re in a different place now, when it comes to the environment; we’re in a state of permanent crisis. We should demand more and better alternatives to how we get from here to there. It starts with us.