I get why the Biden administration is pushing electric vehicles so hard. To stop the planet from overheating, we’ll eventually need motor vehicles to produce zero greenhouse gas emissions, and only fully electric vehicles can do that. Hybrids, which have combustion engines along with electric motors, will always puff some carbon dioxide (and other bad stuff) out of their tailpipes.
Right now, though, there’s a good argument to be made that the government, and automakers, are leaning too hard into all-electric and neglecting the virtues of hybrid technology. When I first heard this counterintuitive argument from Toyota, I dismissed it as heel-dragging by a company that lags in electrics, but I’ve come around to the idea that hybrids — at least for now — do have a lot of advantages over all-electric vehicles.
Imagine some wheelbarrows filled with rocks. The rocks contain lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, graphite and other materials for lithium-ion batteries. By Toyota’s calculation, the amount of rocks needed for one long-range electric vehicle would be enough for either six plug-in hybrids or 90 of the type of hybrid that can’t be plugged in for a recharge. (Namely, the type whose batteries are recharged from the engine or from braking.)
“The overall carbon reduction of those 90 hybrids over their lifetimes is 37 times as much as a single battery electric vehicle,” Toyota argues. That’s a stunning statistic if true.
“People involved in the auto industry are largely a silent majority,” Toyota’s then chief executive, Akio Toyoda, told reporters on a trip to Thailand in December, according to The Wall Street Journal. “That silent majority is wondering whether E.V.s are really OK to have as a single option. But they think it’s the trend so they can’t speak out loudly.”
Lobbying against an all-electric approach is what you might expect from an automaker that bet heavily on hydrogen fuel cells and hybrids and has only a sliver of the market in E.V.s that run on batteries. I have no doubt that Toyota is motivated at least in part by self-interest. But some people I spoke with who aren’t connected with the company had similar views.
“Toyota’s claim is accurate. We’ve crunched the numbers on this,” Ashley Nunes told me. He is a senior research associate at Harvard Law School and the director for federal policy, climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank. He testified on the topic in April before the House Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials.
I’ll speed through his points. Electric vehicles consume huge quantities of lithium and other materials because they have huge batteries. And they have huge batteries because customers suffer from “range anxiety” and won’t buy an E.V. unless it can go for hundreds of miles without charging — even though the vast majority of trips are short. The Nissan Leaf gets 149 miles with its standard battery, which seems like enough for most purposes, yet Nissan sold just 12,026 Leafs (Leaves?) last year.
Partly because of ever-bigger batteries, E.V.s are getting more expensive on average, not cheaper as was predicted. They are out of many buyers’ price range. Some people will keep driving old ICE-mobiles (cars with internal combustion engines) because they can’t afford an E.V. And those ICE-mobiles will continue to be major emitters of greenhouse gases.
The production of electric vehicles produces more greenhouse gases than the production of cars with combustion engines. So E.V.s have to travel between 28,000 and 68,000 miles before they have an emissions advantage over similarly sized and equipped ICE-mobiles, according to Nunes. That may take 10 years or more if the E.V. isn’t driven much.
Then there’s the problem of where to get all the minerals. Domestic production, even combined with extensive recycling, can’t meet the need for cobalt, graphite, lithium and manganese, Nunes wrote in his prepared House testimony. Allies could help, but they’re also ramping up consumption. “There is, to put it bluntly, only so much mineral supply to go around,” he wrote. Lithium iron phosphate is a promising alternative battery chemistry, but its energy density is lower, so batteries would have to be even bigger to give the same range. (Sodium-ion batteries and solid-state lithium-ion batteries are other options.)
The Biden administration clearly doesn’t trust electric vehicles to win over the buying public purely on their merits. That’s why in April the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules to ensure that two-thirds of new passenger cars and a quarter of new heavy trucks sold in the United States are all-electric by 2032.
That would be a wrenching change. It sometimes seems like E.V.s are everywhere, but in reality they accounted for just 5.8 percent of new cars sold in the United States last year, The Times reported. All-electric trucks accounted for less than 2 percent of new heavy trucks.
Of course, drivers could be bribed into buying E.V.s if enough money were thrust in their faces. But Nunes said that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced far more cost-effectively through subsidies of clean power generation, particularly wind turbines.
For another perspective, I exchanged emails with Nafisa Lohawala, a Ph.D. economist who is a fellow at Resources for the Future, a think tank. She focused on the benefits of plug-in hybrids, which use less metal than all-electric E.V.s but more than non-pluggable hybrids. “From consumers’ perspective,” she wrote, “having a gasoline backup helps alleviate range anxiety, allowing them to adopt plug-in hybrids even when the charging network around them is sparse. Moreover, given their lower price, middle- and low-income communities would also find adopting them easier than battery electric vehicles.”
Lohawala wrote that if drivers recharge their plug-in hybrids frequently, they’ll be able to run on battery power almost all the time and emissions will be almost as low as with an all-electric E.V. That will tend to happen as more charging stations with faster chargers are installed. “As long as the battery ranges of plug-in hybrids are reasonably long and the electricity prices are low, consumers would voluntarily charge them rather than relying on gasoline,” she wrote.
Again, I get that climate change is an existential crisis. (Take it from my Opinion colleague, David Wallace-Wells.) I also get that hybrids aren’t as clean as all-electric E.V.s. “The fact is: A hybrid today is not green technology,” Katherine García, the director of the Clean Transportation for All Campaign, wrote last year. “The Prius hybrid runs on a pollution-emitting combustion engine found in any gas-powered car.”
However, getting to the destination of all-electric for all will take more minerals, better battery chemistry and more and better chargers, among other things. That’s a big project. For now, hybrids seem like a valuable part of the vehicle mix.
The Readers Write
Amazon is in a world of hurt. They entered an established category (groceries) with entrenched competitors, including Walmart. I like to compare the position Amazon is in to that of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French thought they had a superior army. The Viet Minh placed their focus on having a superior strategy. The French forces had to surrender.
I don’t know, Peter. Aren’t the predictive powers of HANK basically just common sense? Maybe economists need to get out a little more.
Quote of the Day
“Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”
— Milan Kundera, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1979)
Peter Coy has covered business for more than 40 years. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter. @petercoy
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