Wrong Americans are buying electric cars

Wrong Americans are buying electric cars

The early adopter of the electric car has given way to the power user, or worse, the hoarder.

Keller Strother got his first Tesla, the Roadster, in 2011. He still owns it, though his garage now houses two more Teslas and an old Porsche 911 that was recently replaced with gas-burning battery and electric motors.

In a warming world where nearly a quarter of Americans are eager to buy an electric car, Strother has four of them.

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

Finally, the adoption of electric vehicles is starting to increase in the United States. What the fever line does not show, however, is that it is lumpy. A large share of battery-powered cars are purchased by households who already own an electric vehicle, or two or three for that matter. The early adopter of the electric vehicle has given way to the power user or, some might say, the hoarder. Despite their best intentions, these double-takes may inadvertently undercut the climate benefits their cars can offer.

“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 deliver an emissions advantage.”

In a recent Bloomberg survey of electric vehicle drivers, 14% of respondents said they own more than one battery-powered vehicle, and 6% of those surveyed had three or more. This double dynamic is evident in the sales data as well. About 26% of electric vehicle buyers in the second quarter either traded in their used electric vehicle for a new one or simply added another to their garage, according to Edmunds. Another 9% of electric vehicle buyers were already driving a hybrid vehicle. Scientists, politicians, and auto executives have advocated for electric cars to replace gas-powered vehicles, but often that doesn’t happen — at least not yet.

Repeat buying isn’t all bad. It’s a demonstration of technology, and it’s a clear pattern that, when aware of both options and given the choice, many prefer electric driving. It also notes that the typical reservations among the nosy car—namely, range anxiety and charging confusion—fail quickly with use.

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

But it presents a problematic paradox: An electric car is only a decarbonizer to the extent that it offsets both gas-powered driving and the emissions needed to achieve them, a process that leaves a much larger carbon footprint than that of a gas-powered car. The only way for a machine to cover its carbon, so to speak, is with miles. But, crucially, in homes with 2, 3, or 4 electric cars, each successive car tends to be less driving. If the car is going to sit idle in a garage, the gas combustion version is arguably a cleaner option than an EV, because of all the carbon that goes into making the latter.

Take Strother, 62, and three Teslas. Together with his wife, he only travels about 15,000 miles a year on his fleet; More than a decade later, his roadster only has 11,000 miles on its odometer. “I haven’t moved since 2000,” says Strother. “I sometimes drive more than 30 miles on a mission, but not often.” The couple charges their cars at least from home solar panels.

Davis, at Berkeley, discovered that in multi-vehicle homes, EVs tend to be the secondary or tertiary vehicle. About two-thirds of households with an electric vehicle also had a gas-powered vehicle driven more often. What’s more, this vehicle is often a relatively inefficient vehicle—a large truck or SUV.

“It sucks,” Davis says. “If electric vehicles are going to become an environmental solution, that depends on their widespread adoption beyond a product fit for the rich.”

Right now, of course, most Americans can’t afford even one new electric car. Production is likely to lag in demand for years as automakers rush to outfit new battery plants and assembly lines. Partly because supply was scarce, the average sticker price for an electric vehicle 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 do not need to sell their current vehicle to make the switch. And they often keep both: American households with an electric vehicle own 2.7 vehicles on average, compared to 2.1 for the country overall.

Another recent study of American driving patterns found that a household that swaps their second-generation gas car for an electric vehicle typically needs to own the vehicle for more than 10 years before it offsets the emissions associated with producing it.

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

It turns out that Americans are pretty bad at scrapping cars of any kind, and it only gets worse over time. Partly because vehicles are so reliable these days, so people are hanging on to them for much longer. There are now 272 million vehicles registered in the United States with 228 million drivers. We have closets full of stale computers, drawers of old iPhones and hallways and garages full of 5,000-pound fun.

According to Tom Libby, associate director of industry analysis at S&P Global Mobility, there is also a trend for drivers to replace one electric vehicle with another. In particular, 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 run by a political lightning rod.

While the US recently created point-of-sale tax credits for electric vehicle purchases, Nunes argues that governments should incentivize driving electric vehicles rather than just buying them. The electric car does give some perks when it comes to parking and accessing the fast lanes for carpools, but Nunes envisions stronger financial backing.

“There are questions about how well these compounds 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. It’s because a lot… depends on how it’s used.”

Right now, the most influential type of EV owner seems to be Jim and Maureen Holtan, who live in Oakland, California. The couple gave their son-in-law their old Nissan Cube in early 2020, bought a Chevrolet Bolt and promptly drove to Phoenix and back to see if the technology was ready for road trips. “This was the point where we realized there was no reason to pay anything else,” says Jim Holtan, 69.

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,” Holtan says, “and she said, ‘It better be another electric car.'” miles a year. Like the Strothers, they also charge it from home solar power.

There is evidence that agglomeration in the electric vehicle market may be smooth sailing. Not only is there a showcase of all-new electric options, but they’re also getting bigger and more capable. As they drive farther, carry more and even tow, battery cars and trucks make a strong case for serving as the family’s primary vehicle. And when prices drop, they’ll increasingly be a choice for single-car households and those who still drive older cars.

Meanwhile, Nunes offers simple advice for climate-conscious drivers: “If you want to buy an electric car, drive it to the ground.”

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