Other Countries Are Giving Up Gas-Powered Cars—Will the U.S. Ever Hop Aboard?

How inevitable is the advent of the electric vehicle in America? We asked an anthropologist.

Tesla has received around half a million reservations since its Model 3 was unveiled in April.

Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Great Britain has become the latest nation to announce plans for phasing out the sale of new diesel- and gasoline-powered cars in the not-too-distant future. Like France, Britain chose 2040 as its deadline for hitting the brakes. India and Norway also say they will bid farewell to gas-burning vehicles by 2030 and 2025, respectively.

Something’s clearly going on, even if it’s still too early to determine what that “something” is. In the case of Great Britain, weaning consumers off the pump seems related to mounting concern over air pollution, which is starting to get out of hand on the scepter’d isle. France’s decision, according to its environment minister, is a response to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord: a public doubling-down on the country’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Norway’s case may have something to do with easing the cognitive dissonance that comes from trying to maintain an environmentally progressive reputation while simultaneously being one of the world’s largest oil and gas exporters outside of the Middle East.

Suffice it to say that the current American president hasn’t followed suit. The White House has yet to make any kind of statement revealing its general feelings toward gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles—or their future in this country, for that matter—aside from rolling back fuel-efficiency standards and releasing of several photographs of President Trump playing in a truck. (He looks like he’s having fun! Guess big rigs are safe for now, at least.)

But it’s worth asking: Why aren’t we following suit? Is our climate-denying, truck-infatuated president really to blame here? Or are other factors—cultural, political, economic, technological, infrastructural—keeping our country, specifically, from making a pledge to take our foot off the gas and switch to electric vehicles?

For some answers, I called Thomas Turrentine, a research anthropologist and the director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center UC-Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies. (Given the relative uncommonness of our shared surname, the professor and I are most likely distant cousins, but neither of us can verify this with any certainty.)

Our phone conversation boiled down to the exploration of a single question. Will America ever make a bold commitment to give up the gas tank, as these other countries have?

Turrentine notes certain inescapable factors standing in the way of such a transition, at least for the time being. One of them is the way that we tax fuel. “Oil-producing nations like Venezuela, Russia, and the U.S. tend to have very low fuel taxes, almost to the point where it can feel like a subsidy,” he says. (Norway, he points out, is a notable exception to this rule.) On top of that, Americans—in keeping with all the hegemonic stereotypes—care much more about size and power than do vehicle owners in other countries. Between our low fuel prices, low fuel taxes, and seemingly inborn cultural affinity for SUVs, we simply don’t experience the same positive tropism toward electric vehicles, which may cost far less to operate but which don’t necessarily flatter their drivers in quite the same way.

Then there are the issues of coordination and infrastructure development. Turrentine says that while countries like Britain, France, and Norway are not tiny, they’re nevertheless small and centralized enough that “they can probably set a goal like this and then figure out a way to get there.” Successfully transitioning from a gas-powered fleet to an electric one requires developing an ambitious, nationwide infrastructure system for fueling: a collaboration between carmakers, battery developers, utilities, and governments, all of whom are trying to balance their desire for cooperation with their desire to make (or save) money.

One big question that remains wherever electric cars are making inroads: Where are people charging them, and how might that affect infrastructure development? Turrentine’s team at UC-Davis is currently monitoring the habits and behaviors of 200 electric-car households in California as part of a long-term empirical study. He and his colleagues have noticed that the prospect of free electricity for electric cars at workplaces has, proportionally and logically, diminished the marketplace for home-charging stations. “The Tesla customers in our study aren’t even buying the charging equipment at home, because why should they? They can charge at work for free.”

Data like that that doesn’t, in and of itself, constitute a bad omen. What it does get at are the highly complicated economics that need to be ironed out before we can move to the next level.

So, what positive signs does he see? One is that batteries are becoming cheaper, stronger, and longer-lived. (“It’s all about the battery,” he told me more than once during our conversation.) Another is that recent trends toward automation in car manufacturing augur well for the ascent of electric vehicles, which lend themselves to automated production far more than gas-powered vehicles do. Turrentine explains:

There’s just sort of a natural fit between electrics and automation. Vehicles are increasingly becoming computers—connected to the internet, connected to each other. If you can imagine an assembly plant where you’re building a V6 engine, all of those different parts, making an electric car is just so much simpler. If computers are running the motor, you want to power them with electricity. You don’t want to do it with combustion.

So he’s hopeful, then, that the electric-vehicle revolution is nigh? Even here in the United States?

“I actually do think that we may have turned a corner,” Turrentine told me. “We’re not at profitability yet. But there are a lot of people in the car companies who think that profitability is about to arrive.” And that kind of optimism, he says, is the stuff that sparks investment and development, and that ultimately leads to paradigm shifts.

“Electric-vehicle divisions who had 30 guys working on them a while back may now have 300, or even 3,000 people,” he said in conclusion. “And those folks are getting raises and bigger budgets. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the factory, where they’re still making diesel, those guys are thinking about what they’re going to be doing for their next job.”

So, Great Britain, France, Norway, and India … carry on. We’ll catch up with you later.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

Related Stories