The World is Burning — So Buy a New Car?

By Alec Dubro

I just got back from the Pacific Northwest and California and the warning is clear: The American West is burning up and running dry. It may become uninhabitable in less time than we imagine. Mere survival in areas like this will take concerted and prolonged effort, political will and a huge expenditure of resources. And mass evacuation of the West no longer seems like an alarmist vision, but one that’s already being considered.

So, what are concerned people doing? Buying new electric cars. I saw more Teslas in the Bay Area than I had seen anywhere else. People were proudly showing me — or just telling me about — their new EVs. But why wasn’t I smiling?

Take the latest entrant in the electric car sweepstakes: The Ford F-150. This ubiquitous pickup is probably the most popular vehicle of all time. In 2018, Ford sold one every 30 seconds around the world. And Ford pickups averaged a sale price of $47,000 that year, grabbing Ford about $10,000 profit on each one.

But everybody — except those who deny it — knows that burning gas is bad. So, ease your conscience and buy the new Ford F-150 Lightning for an average base sticker price of about $52,000 and show those Bolt and Tesla driving snowflakes who’s really boss.

Except. Except that the Lightning weighs 1500 pounds more than the gas model — thanks to the immense batteries and the two sets of motors (front and rear) — and has a curb weight of 6500 pounds. Now, no matter where you’re getting your power from, physics says that it takes a lot of energy to move that much poundage along on the massive $2500 tires.

But the issue really isn’t that the Lightning is an outlier: All electric cars weigh considerably more than gas models. The problem is that while electric cars provide tangible evidence that you care about the planet, their contribution reversing the effects of climate change are negligible or even negative considering the time we have left to avert true catastrophe.

The issue is that EVs perpetuate and breathe new life into the idea that the car system is sustainable. The truth is that two billion vehicles worldwide — which is what we have now — are the major part of the most polluting sector — transportation. How that will change is anyone’s guess, but simply swapping out gas-powered vehicles for electric will not make enough of a dent in either the greenhouse effect or the overuse of resources and the concomitant pollution.

But cars are simply the worst component. In reality, cars basically move cars, not people — two tons of car for 200-pound people. In 2016, 76.3 percent of commuters traveled alone in their cars, making 115 million vehicles transporting exactly one person each. In other words, two tons of car (more for electrics) for one person and maybe a bag of groceries on the way home.

A snapshot of 2016 tells us that the vast majority of Americans continue to drive to work alone in their cars. Over three-quarters chose to commute this way, with nearly identical numbers for both men and women. That translates into nearly 115 million vehicles transporting exactly one person each — and sometimes a bag or two of groceries. That percentage since the pandemic has only increased as people have abandoned public transportation.

According to pro-electric car site, EVAdoption: “US sales of electric vehicles are expected to increase significantly this decade, however, by the end of 2030 EVs will still comprise only a tiny percentage of vehicles in operation (VIO) and the number of internal combustion engine vehicles (ICE) will actually increase by 20 million.” And they added, “… it means that a high percentage of gas-powered vehicles purchased in 2021 will still be on the road in 2033.”

Now, perhaps they’re being pessimistic, but when looked at as a worldwide phenomenon, adoption of electric vehicles — and the buildout of needed charging stations — the US projected rate seems if anything very optimistic. Moreover, aside from personal vehicles, there are large trucks, and so far, no one is predicting when or even if they might become Battery-Electric Vehicles (BEV).

Of course, on some level the change from internal combustion engines to electric makes sense. But overall, that assumes that the power source will be fossil fuel free. And into the near future — which is when we must act — there is simply no way for renewables to power all our automobiles.

In addition, there’s the enormous infrastructure that personal vehicles require. Even if we instantly transitioned to EVs, we’d still need to maintain the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and energy distribution. That means steel, concrete, asphalt and plastics. Just concrete production alone generates as much as 10 percent of all greenhouse gas… The production of asphalt — a petroleum product — also creates carbon. As does the production of motor oil, tires, and on and on. It’s about an automobile ecosystem, not a specific kind of vehicle.

In order to meet the looming environmental catastrophe head on, we simply need to abandon the idea that we can replicate the current car ecosystem with a new drive train. Cars must be phased out — and quickly. It may cause immense personal and social upheaval, and no one wants to face that; but the alternative is an unstoppable increase in fires, floods, sea level rise and the disappearance of habitats and farmland. Is it worth it?

The problem isn’t of course technical: It’s our ingrained thinking. Car purchase is a funny thing and is only tangentially related to transportation. So much of it is connected to self-image: I once read that “You don’t own a car — you wear a car.” I also remember when Hummers were a thing, a man explained his purchase solely in emotional terms: “When I drive it, I feel patriotic, and that’s enough for me.” I know a fair number of people who’ve bought electrics who can psychologically identify with the Hummer owner, even if they come from a different politics. Their EVs make them feel better and believe that they’re showing tangible evidence that they’re doing their part.

They’re not — at least in any meaningful way. If we could take that $50,000 and add it to our real efforts to transition out of the car culture, we’d be making a much greater contribution to fighting climate change. I admit, it’s not as much fun or as immediately satisfying as buying an electric F-150 or Tesla, but this is not really about how we feel. The world is burning; buying a new car is a distraction.