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Ashley Nunes is the Director of Competition Policy at the R Street Institute and a Research Fellow at Harvard Law School. In this post, he argues that the rush to adopt electric vehicles may end up widening existing inequities in American society.
“We don’t have any more time” was Joe Biden’s outcry last week as he urged climate action after visiting hurricane-wracked New Jersey. The storm made landfall in Louisiana before roaring up the East Coast. Along the way, it unleashed flash floods, fast-moving tornadoes, and high speed winds that prompted the evacuation of thousands and caused over 50 deaths.
Biden’s response? A public spending hike he says will better protect Americans. The president’s $1.2tn infrastructure deal and a $3.5tn spending package — which are working their way through Congress — is stuffed with green goodies like power lines that can carry more renewable energy, upgraded insulation for homes and, most notably, subsidies for electric autos.
Making American cars greener is a key — and understandable — part of Biden’s climate agenda. Gasoline powered autos are a significant contributor to climate change. Electric cars, less so. By almost all accounts, foregoing gasoline is better for the environment. Assuming people do so of course. The problem is they don’t. Consumer acceptance of EVs remains tepid at best. Moreover, drivers who do own EVs treat these vehicles as complements, not substitutes; second cars for short trips and perhaps, the occasional dose of green virtue signalling at the golf club.
Automation should make EVs more appealing. Americans spend upwards of 70bn hours behind the wheel annually. Not only does that mean trillions of dollars in lost productivity but also considerable environmental folly. Human drivers speed, brake, and reaccelerate excessively, all of which collectively raises vehicle emissions. Automation does no such thing, relegating inefficient driving to obscurity. Consequently, pairing electrification with automation is (or rather, should be) a win-win, a silver bullet that delivers both higher productivity and lower emissions.
Except that’s not true either. A recent study by my colleagues and I estimates that using driverless, electric vehicles will increase, not decrease, emissions. The reason? Driverless electric cars are almost too appealing compared to their manual selves. More people like them and want to use them. That may bode well for investors who have poured billions of dollars into the technology; but it’s less than stellar for those keen to go green. More trips means more emissions, no matter how eco-friendly your car actually is.
Luckily, when it comes to curbing emissions, there’s a solution. It doesn’t rely on electrification, automation, or any other technological knowhow, but it’s got teeth. It’s called ride-sharing. Our work shows that were the public to forego individual trips in favour of communal ones, emissions would fall and fall fast.
The idea isn’t new. During World War II, the U.S government asked Americans to embrace ride-sharing in a bid to conserve precious resources like gasoline and rubber. A similar ask was made during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution in 1978 when a spike in oil prices caused shortages at the pump and left consumers reeling. President Carter subsequently went as far as to offer tax subsidies to Americans willing to share rides.
We should follow Carter’s lead. Rather than funnelling taxpayer cash solely towards developing green technology, what’s needed are incentives that also encourage ride-sharing. Innovations like more efficient power lines, better insulation and electric autos may help cut emissions, but they won’t get us across the finish line. Drawing down planet-warming emissions needs more than high tech prowess; it requires concerted public action.
Making trams, trains and buses cheaper, cleaner and more reliable could dent our love affair with auto ownership, and by consequence, cut emissions. But auto ownership, while a climate killer, also offers the surest way of improving economic mobility. Public policy should reflect this reality, offering incentives to those willing to share rides, regardless of whether those rides are public or private.
Tech stalwarts may not like the idea. They will argue that it is too simple a solution for a problem as complex as climate change. They will say that when it comes to cutting emissions, sophistication is the name of the game. Perhaps. Then again, what’s more sophisticated than taking the simplest option?