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At the end of the EV rainbow, you’ll probably be riding a bus

Jan 14, 2024Jan 14, 2024

The electric vehicle is not a new idea, predating its gasoline-powered sibling by nearly 60 years. But it's always been a tough sell. That's because there has never been a battery with the energy density of gasoline or diesel fuel. When GM released the first modern electric car, badged EV1, it was rightly seen as a raw proof of concept that was unable to meet the needs of most customers. The same was true of Nissan's tepid, short-legged Leaf economy hatchback and a whole generation of "compliance cars" forced on bewildered dealers and customers by California about a decade ago.

Tesla's Model S changed all of that. It was fast, stylish, and cool — and it took the EV from "necessary evil" to "Veblen good" in a heartbeat. Today the market is loaded for bear with high-dollar, high-performance EVs from Mercedes, Audi, and even General Motors, the latter of which has just foisted a 9,200-pound, 19-foot-long "Hummer EV" on the public at the low price of just $110,295. You can "test-drive" it in the Call of Duty: Warzone video game, where it effortlessly overpowers traditional military vehicles.

In the next couple of years, you’ll see a lot of fascinating EVs reach the market: sports cars, pickup trucks, 9,000-pound SUVs. They’ll have a lot of party tricks, they’ll all be indecently fast, and they’ll offer futuristic tricks to shame Blade Runner. Don't get comfortable with all of that. It's unsustainable. Not according to "EV deniers" or "EV skeptics" but to the people who are in charge of future policy.

This EV rainbow, this much-ballyhooed rocket ride to the future, might start with you behind the wheel of a lightning-quick, leather-lined luxury car. But it ends with you riding a bus, right next to everyone else.

Resource constraints will demand that our EV future doesn't just look like a hushed, tailpipe-free version of our internal combustion present day. Globally, about 75 million cars and 65 million motorcycles are built and sold every year. It would not be feasible to shift even 10% of this volume to EVs. Yet many countries are steadfast in their plans to suspend anything but EV production and purchase in the next decade, long before any meaningful increases in lithium production or charging capacity can be realized. Think of the EV regulations as the proverbial immovable force and EV production capacity as the immovable object. What's gonna give?

Take a recent article in Wired as a clue about whether the promise of EVs is one that can be kept. Titled "Dear Electric Vehicle Owners: You Don't Need That Giant Battery," it ridicules the naivete of people who think their new EVs can offer the same range and capability as their old gas-powered cars. It suggests replacing one new F-150 Lightning with three or four low-range Nissan Leafs. Almost nobody wants what the Nissan Leaf has to offer, something demonstrated across a decade's worth of underwhelming sales and consumer lawsuits. But hey, nobody wanted to wear a sweater when Jimmy Carter told us to, either.

For more than a decade now, the EV hypesters in the media have sold us a future in which EVs are better than internal-combustion cars. Quieter! Faster! Smoother! More luxurious and feature-filled! Turns out it was a massive bait-and-switch operation. High-function vehicles such as the Tesla Model S, F-150 Lightning, and GMC Hummer EV were used to ridicule concerns about EV ownership. But that's not what you’ll be allowed to have in the long run — because you don't "need" range, power, size, or capability that matches or exceeds that of traditional cars.

In fact, you might not even get to own one of these low-range, low-feature EVs yourself. The Wired article suggests that "there's much more that Americans could do to get more out of each EV battery, like sharing cars ... choosing a smaller battery is less of a big deal than swapping a truck for a car, or giving up car ownership entirely in favor of a bus or ebike — options that would get us to a decarbonized future much faster." Expect this "EV as a service" idea to be wildly popular with both the U.S. government, which every year does less to hide its absolute terror of citizen mobility, and the major corporations, which want you to pay a monthly fee for everything from streaming video to the right to have your refrigerator make ice cubes.

All of this would work perfectly well in cities, many of which have already doubled down on e-bikes, public transport, and fractional vehicle usage. Don't live in a city? You should plan on moving to one as soon as possible, because none of these ideas will work in any place where the population density is lower than that of Manhattan or possibly Chicago. Rural Iowans and whatnot should try making the switch to an e-bike, preferably one with snow-capable tires.

It's unpleasant to consider, much less discuss, but much of the world has long worked this way. There are almost 8 billion people on the planet, and most vehicles don't last even 20 years in regular service, so a global production of 150 million vehicles annually was never going to put everyone behind the wheel of a Lightning, a Leaf, or even a "kapchai" minibike like you see on the farm roads of Southeast Asia. The EV plan isn't meant to increase the availability of individual transportation. It is meant to reduce it. It's easiest to think of the considerable freedom and capability enjoyed by American car and truck owners as kind of a localized glitch in a global system. The "EV future" simply fixes that glitch and gets you on the same bus as your counterparts in Pakistan, Uruguay, or Zimbabwe.

If you approached the average American and told him he’d be trading in his F-150 for a bus pass next year, chances are you’d get results ranging from protest voting to small-arms fire. The only way to make it happen without substantial societal upheaval is one step at a time. The first step: Get people to give up their high-capacity, high-power gasoline and diesel vehicles in favor of similarly capable EVs. The next step: Once the alternatives are discontinued and/or illegal, reduce the capacity of the EVs available to them. Once everyone in America has managed to lower their expectations to the horrible little Nissan Leaf so beloved of the Wired crowd, you simply ratchet them down to a "decarbonized" future of mass transit and truly low-power vehicles like e-bikes.

The eggheads of the World Economic Forum might not understand anything about what people want, but they certainly understand that there isn't enough lithium available to make more than 10 million or 15 million new EVs a year. Increasing lithium supplies is a Hydra-headed environmental and human rights nightmare that destroys water supplies and puts millions, if not billions, of people at risk for everything from previously rare cancers to just plain being poisoned.

Lithium can be recycled, of course — but that is unlikely to account for more than 10% of future need, even when there are a lot more EVs in junkyards. Radical new battery technologies could help — if any of them worked or had even a promise of working, which they mostly do not.

If you look at the history of EVs in this country, the "compliance cars" of California in particular, it's obvious that our government was always perfectly comfortable with mandating low-range, low-capability vehicles. And why not? When the mandatory move to "decarbonized" transportation happens, it's a much shorter step from a 60-mile-range Leaf down to an e-bike than it would be from, say, an F-350 Limited or Cadillac Escalade.

Our obsession with high-speed, big-money EVs is just an unfortunate consumer-driven glitch in an otherwise smooth transition away from personal transportation. The government and media scream, "You need to buy an EV!" When the consumer buys a Tesla "Ludicrous" or a GM Hummer, they respond with, "But not like that!" Because the low capacity and useless range of a standard EV aren't problems in their eyes. They're virtues. Why? Well, citizens who are limited to a 60-mile range won't be using a lot of resources. They won't participate in trucker convoys or assaults on our democracy. They will mostly sit at home and do what they are told to do because they will not have any other choice — like the COVID-19 emergency but forever. A seamless transfer of power, electric and otherwise, from the citizens to the bureaucracy. No wonder the members of the latter are so charged up about it.

Jack Baruth was born in Brooklyn, New York, and lives in Ohio. He is a pro-am race car driver and a former columnist for Road and Track and Hagerty magazines who writes the Avoidable Contact Forever newsletter.