The US Refuses to Fall in Love With Electric Cars

The Environmental Protection Agency’s revised greenhouse gas emission rules for passenger vehicles, finalized in December 2021, simply returned the standards to what they were under the Obama administration in the mid-2010s. This contrasts sharply with China and Europe, which have aggressively pursued carbon-reduction policies that incentivize the production of EVs.

Besides the politics, there’s a simpler reason that US adoption has stalled while EVs in other countries have taken off. “Historically, there simply haven’t been enough charge points,” says Alyssa Altman, head of transportation and mobility at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, consulting company Publicis Sapient. “Potential EV customers are concerned with keeping their vehicle juiced up for long trips, and for some journeys in the US, the lack of charging stations makes this impossible.” Publicis Sapient figures indicate that remains an issue, with the distribution of the US’ 113,600 charging stations unevenly concentrated in areas where uptake of EVs is already comparatively high, like California. “To me, the main bottleneck is infrastructure,” says Coco Zhang, an environmental, social, and governance analyst at ING. “Consumer perception changes slowly due to the current lack of EV infrastructure.”

It’s not that American consumers don’t want to use EVs. When VW opened up preorders for its ID.4 EV in September 2020, the demand from customers made the website crash. It’s that they’re worried about getting stranded in their expensive electric cars. “While the figures look bleak at the moment, there is progress, and more imaginative solutions are emerging in the US that will work for the American lifestyle, such as providing charging stations at fast food outlets and grocery stores,” says Altman. The ability to grab a Taco Bell while charging your car may be a lure for many Americans. Affordability is also a major issue, says Chintagunta, whose research finds that EV sales go up significantly if adopting them becomes less expensive.

China faces some of the same geographical issues that the US does, including range anxiety, but it has successfully adopted EVs through what Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, Germany, calls a “leapfrogging effect”: Its automotive industry didn’t have much experience in building combustion engines, therefore it could easily drop them when an alternative came round. That puts Chinese manufacturers in an oddly enviable position. Because it is not shackled by a century of business experience to a soon-to-be outmoded model of powering a vehicle, the market can adapt more quickly.

The gulf in approaches to EVs can be seen through a single company that operates in both the US and China: General Motors. Through a joint venture with SAIC Motor Corporation and Guangxi Automobile Group, two Chinese state-owned companies, GM produces the Hongguang Mini, an ugly entry-level EV that Chinese citizens compare to a breadbox on wheels, which retails at around $4,500.

Sales of that single model in China reached 138,790 in the last three months of 2021. The total number of EV models sold by GM in the United States in the same time period was 26. (GM declined to comment for this story.)

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