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Electric vehicles losing the race to SUVs and trucks

Ford Motor Company

Next time you're at the mall or grocery store, look around. You won't see many, if any at all, electric vehicles. Maybe a few hybrids.

But you'll see lots of pickup trucks and big SUVs, which by comparison still merit the derogatory phrase, gas guzzlers.

Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the U.S., and 60% of those emissions come from sedans, crossovers, SUVs, and pickups – the vehicles most of us drive every day.

So cleaning up those vehicles is an important task for the auto industry. Automakers say, they're on it.

The push to electrify passenger vehicles is on

In 2017, pickup and full size SUVs accounted for about 47% of U.S. sales. Electric vehicle sales? Just a tad over two percent. That's about double EV sales in 2016, but still.

The auto industry is, in fact, spending huge sums on electrifying vehicles. Globally, about $90 billion in the next few years, according to Reuters. 

Mike Abelson is GM's vice president of EV charging and infrastructure. 

He says GM, Ford, and other automakers will be introducing dozens of new electric vehicles in just a few years.

"Customers will have a lot more choice in the next few years amongst electric vehicles," says Abelson, "and obviously we and others are working very hard to make sure the infrastructure is in place so people are comfortable buying electric vehicles."

Abelson acknowledges having enough places to plug in isn't the only barrier. EVs are pricier than comparable gas-powered cars.

But he says technology advances and economies of scale will drive that cost down.

"So I think the conversation as I see it is more, when will electric vehicles be the same cost as gas engine vehicles, not if they will be," he says.

Not the rosy picture it appears to be, say critics

John DeCicco says the reality is something quite different. 

"What's happening in the North American auto market, and actually most markets around the world, is a shift to heavier, more powerful vehicles," says DeCicco, a researcher at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. 

And consumers want these powerful vehicles. Gas prices remain low.  In 2017, fuel economy and CO2 emissions improved by only a tiny amount for SUVs, and for pickups, not at all.  More and more, people are buying pickup trucks as status symbols rather than for their utility. Pickup trucks and large SUVs are also highly profitable for automakers.

DeCicco says on top of this, days after Donald Trump was elected, an auto industry trade group sent a letter to the new president, asking his administration to relax vehicle emission standards.   

(The administration went much further, proposing to freeze the standards after 2020.)

"I don't see any evidence that (automakers) have really as corporations, or as the leadership and boards of those corporations, embraced the seriousness of the climate problem," says DeCicco.  

DeCicco says he's pleased to see that California and Colorado have struck voluntary deals with some automakers to improve fuel economy through 2026, and boost sales of EVs, in lieu of federal action.

But even so, it will likely be a very long time before every vehicle on the road is electric.

What else can we do?

So DeCicco says it's crucial we do other things besides reduce vehicle emissions: Invest in public transportation. Make cities more walkable and bikable. Basically, get people out of cars as much as possible.

"Making it more convenient for people to get around without having to use motor vehicles as much," he says. "And we have to offset the CO2 that comes when fuel gets burned."

And the best way to offset the CO2 right now could come straight from our friends the trees. 

A recent report from the Nature Conservancy says a massive reforestation effort in the U.S. could double the amount of carbon that trees now take out of the air.

DeCicco says it's a fairly inexpensive strategy to reduce emissions, and would create jobs in rural areas that are hungry for them.

He wonders why we're not demanding that the oil industry – which also lobbied to relax fuel economy standards – offset the harm its products are doing, and pay to plant all those trees.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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