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The wrong Americans are buying electric cars

Kyle Stock, Bloomberg News on

Published in Automotive News

Davis, at Berkeley, found that in multi-vehicle households, an EV tends to be the secondary or tertiary car. Some two thirds of households with an EV also had a gas-powered car that was driven more often. What’s more, that vehicle is more often than not a relatively inefficient one — namely a large truck or SUV.

“That’s bad,” Davis says. “If EVs are going to be an environmental solution, it hinges on them being widely adopted beyond what’s a niche product for rich people.”

At the moment, of course, most Americans can’t afford even one new EV. Production is likely to lag demand for years as carmakers rush to spool up new battery plants and assembly lines. In part because supply is so scarce, the average sticker price for an EV in October was almost $59,000, nearly one quarter more than the industry at-large, according to Edmunds.

Many Americans willing and able to pay those prices don’t need to sell their current car to make the switch. And they often just keep both: U.S. households with an EV have an average of 2.7 vehicles, compared with 2.1 vehicles for the country overall.

Another recent study on American driving patterns found that a household that replaces its secondary gas vehicle with an EV typically needs to own the car for more than 10 years before it offsets the emissions associated with its production.

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

Americans, it turns out, are pretty bad at scrapping cars of any kind, and getting worse at it over time. In part because vehicles are so reliable these days, people are hanging on to them for longer. There are now 272 million registered vehicles in the U.S. for 228 million drivers. We have closets full of stale computers, drawers of dated iPhones and driveways and garages full of 5,000-pound frivolities.

There’s also a trend of drivers swapping one electric vehicle for another, according to Tom Libby, associate director of industry analysis at S&P Global Mobility. Most notably, Libby says a lot of drivers are ditching their Teslas for models from Lucid, Polestar and Rivian. Those brands are newer and more unique, and none of them are run by a political lightning rod.


While the U.S. recently established point-of-sale tax credits for EV purchases, Nunes argues that governments should incentivize driving EVs rather than just buying them. An electric car affords some privileges when it comes to parking and access to carpool express lanes, but Nunes envisions stronger financial subsidies.

“There are questions about the extent to which these vehicles can deliver on their green promises,” he says. “It’s not because the technology isn’t good enough; it’s not because the grid won’t get cleaner; it’s because so much … depends on how they’re used.”

At the moment, the most impactful kind of EV ownership looks like that of Jim and Maureen Holtan, who live in Oakland, California. The couple gave their old Nissan Cube to their son-in-law in early 2020, bought a Chevrolet Bolt and promptly drove it to Phoenix and back to see if the technology was road-trip ready. “That was the point when we realized there’s no reason to drive 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.’” In both cases, their EVs entirely replaced a gas-burning vehicle and they also drive quite a bit — collectively around 30,000 miles a year. Like the Strothers, they also charge them from home solar.

There’s evidence that the lumpiness in the EV market may smooth. Not only is there a parade of all-new electric options, they are getting larger and more capable. As they drive farther, carry more and even tow, battery-powered cars and trucks are making a strong case for serving as a family’s primary vehicle. And when prices come down, they will increasingly be an option for single-car households and those still piloting clunkers.

In the meantime, Nunes has simple advice for climate-conscious drivers: “If you want to buy an EV, drive it into the ground.”

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