The EV Promise

Putting Automakers on Notice

Published Mar 2, 2021

Vehicles expert Dr. Dave Cooke explains how US automakers make big environmental promises while lobbying to pollute, and what we can do about it.

In this episode

Colleen and Dave discuss:

  • The Super Bowl Norway commercial and GM's promise
  • Why automakers say they are committed to EVs yet continue to manufacture and promote gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs
  • What incentives are needed to promote electric 
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:31)
Intro (0:31-2:21)
Interview part 1 (2:21-14:37)
Break (14:37-15:34)
Interview part 2 (15:34-22:42)
Throw (22:42-23:43)
Ending segment (23:43-27:48)
Outro (27:48-28:56)

Related content

The Accidental Vaccine: Dr. Rebecca Boehm
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Additional editing: Omari Spears
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: During the 2021 Super Bowl commercial break, automaker General Motors released a new star-studded ad. In case you haven’t seen it, actor Will Ferrell declares fake war on Norway for outselling the US in electric vehicles. He goes on an angry, antics-filled drive to Norway and, speaking for GM, he says that soon everyone in the US will be able to drive an EV so we can “crush those losers.” The ad closes with the declaration “We’re coming Norway. 30 new EVs by 2025.” While it’s great to see more mainstream excitement for electric vehicles, it’s also frustrating to hear this from an automaker that is a big reason why we have so few EVs in the US to begin with. Because GM spent decades actively opposing clean car standards, so while I want to believe that these ambitious new resolutions represent a change of heart, I hesitate to get my hopes up. Because just like my new year’s resolution, which was the same as last year’s, and the year before, things could always fall through. So what should we make of GM’s promises and where the broader auto industry is headed? To figure it out, I spoke to Dr. Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He’s an expert in fuel efficiency technologies such as EVs and has spent a lot of time calling out the hypocrisy of automakers, like GM, that run greenwashing ad campaigns while secretly using their political influence to keep polluting. We talk about why there are so few EVs in the US, how we can reduce transportation emissions without them, and what he’d say to people who aren't sure they would even want an EV. Colleen: Dave, welcome to the podcast.

Dave: Thanks for having me.

Colleen: Yeah. It's great to finally get you on the podcast. Did you watch the Super Bowl?

Dave: I did not. I did not actually. This is the first year.

Colleen: Well, I bet you still saw the GM Will Ferrell ad.

Dave: Absolutely. You can't escape it.

Colleen: Yeah. So, you know, that Norway commercial, I mean, it makes GM sound so cool and cutting edge. I mean, they're saying their plan is to only sell electric vehicles by 2035 and be carbon neutral by 2040. That sounds pretty great.

Dave: Yeah. It's cute. I guess GM doesn't even sell cars in Norway or anywhere else in Europe, so it's sort of funny. But, you know, GM also tried the big Super Bowl ad last year too. They hired LeBron James for the EV Hummer, you know, the real problem is that $100,000 electric vehicles are going to make a dent in emissions. And that certainly isn't helped when the company pushing them just spent four years weakening the standards that we have just because they make their profits on giant SUVs and pickup trucks. And when it comes to 2035 it's great that they "aspire" to sell an all-electric fleet by 2035. But aspirations are someone making the same new year's resolution five years running. If they were actually committed to sign an all electric fleet in 2035, you know, we wouldn't be seeing Super Bowl ads for $100,000 vehicles, we'd be seeing them push for regulations that get us to all electric sales by 2035.

Colleen: Yeah. I'm trying to imagine a Super Bowl commercial about regulations. That would be tough.

Dave: Hey, I mean, I'd have taken a Super Bowl ad for the Chevy Bolt. You know, they have a $40,000, you know, at least reasonably affordable EV and I can't tell you the last time I saw an advertisement for it.

Colleen: Is this a typical, you know, “promise” that all automakers make and then they just don't live up to them?

Dave: Yeah. I think it's not uncommon for automakers to talk big, but not follow through. We've seen plenty of announcements over the past five-plus years of companies that do recognize that the world recognizes the need to deal with climate change and that means when it comes to personal vehicles moving into an electric future. And so companies like Volvo and Volkswagen have you know put out dates by, you know, saying, "This is the last engine platform we're developing," you know, "This is the last date by when we will sell vehicles that are only powered by gasoline." But then at the same time, they work behind the scenes against the regulations that would actually hold them to those commitments.

Colleen: You've studied the history of how automakers have tried to undermine vehicle standards. How does that play into this? I mean, that's sort of what you're talking about, right?

Dave: Yeah. And that's, you know, we've seen six, now seven decades of it, whether it's seat belts, air bags, you name it. You know, you can look at smog for example. So first, they fought the evidence that said that automobile emissions were a problem, funding studies that put the blame on other industries. Then when California was putting in place the first ever standards, they said those standards were not possible and would bankrupt the industry. And then when suppliers came along and said, "Hey, we have the technology," it took smog being a problem in cities like Philadelphia and New York City and Boston before national action finally took hold because automakers, again, funded studies diminishing their role in the problem. The only direction the auto industry seems to know is reverse.

Colleen: And I think you said something interesting that we have the technology available to do a lot of these things yet they're still resisting. That makes no sense to me.

Dave: Well, when it comes to electrification, battery costs have come down 89% I think over the past decade. At the same time they are still more expensive to produce today and auto companies are businesses, they look at their bottom line. And right now the cheapest way for them to make a buck is to sell high profit margin SUVs and pickups, and to sell consumers on the idea that they need a $50,000 pickup, that they, you know, that they need a $70,000 SUV. They have increasingly been marketing new vehicles towards richer, whiter audiences, and the unfortunate thing is that the vast majority of vehicle sales are on the secondary market. And what we've seen is that the auto companies are selling to a narrower slice of the public and those decisions impact the rest of us for years to come.

Colleen: So how many EVs are currently on the road compared to gas cars?

Dave: Over the last decade, EVs on the road in the U.S. have grown from virtually none to we're now at1.5 million EVs on the road. That is pretty good. We've seen a steady increase in sales and we sell about 250,000 to 300,000 EVs a year right now. Unfortunately, automakers sell 15 to 17 million vehicles total. So, you know, 250,000 to 300,000 is a very small share of that. And worst of all, automakers have focused those sales of electric vehicles in areas like California that require sales of electric vehicles. So for example, California, which has the most number of electric vehicle choices for consumers, EVs represent about 8% of the new vehicle market. But if you take a city in the middle of the country like Indianapolis or St. Louis, consumers have less than one-third the number and types of electric vehicles offered and that translates to less than a 1% market share because automakers really aren't even trying to sell EVs.

Colleen: That really surprises me, Dave. I think maybe in part because I live on the east coast in the Boston area and I see a lot of EVs on the road, and I've noticed in the past few years I've been seeing more and more. So I'm really surprised that the numbers are so low for EV sales across the country. I think I'm living in a bubble here.

Dave: I mean, that's exactly right. You're living in one of the areas of the country that has adopted requirements for electrification, a sales requirement on the automakers. And so like California, Oregon, you know, Massachusetts, New York, those are states that have requirements that automakers sell them. And hey, lo and behold, there's a whole lot more choice for consumers in those areas.

Colleen: So what can we do about this? How do we turn things around?

Dave: One of the things I think that the Biden administration can do is, I like to break this down between the carrot and the stick. So on the carrot side we need to focus on deploying charging infrastructure. We have a vision for an all electric future and we need to build towards that. And that means making sure that no matter where you are in the country that you have a robust network of public options to charge your vehicle. Not everyone owns their home or has a garage, and so we need to make sure that driving an electric vehicle is convenient to everyone across the country, and that's gonna take a serious investment. And importantly as we make that investment, we need to prioritize the communities most at risk from transportation pollution and ensure that these vehicles are accessible and affordable in those communities. At the same time, you have to balance all of that investment with the stick, which is they need to hold manufacturers accountable. Manufacturers are comfortable selling gas guzzling SUVs because that's the cheapest way to make a buck, and strong regulations need to be aligned with our climate trajectories. If GM says it can hit zero emissions by 2035, that sounds to me like the Biden administration should be holding them to it with binding emission standards that get us there.

Colleen: So you're talking about infrastructure that we need a lot more infrastructure, and I know that that's a question that a lot of people are concerned about when they think about whether they would want an electric vehicle. So what would you say to folks that are concerned about infrastructure and that have range anxiety?

Dave: What we've seen is that the important thing for folks is that they need to, one, be able to get their butt in the seat of an EV, to understand what it's like to drive them, to have a better sense of what it actually means, what the difference is between a plug-in hybrid, or a battery electric vehicle. A lot of folks still don't have that experience. We are in, a very low information stage for most people and it's in part why we see the EV market as small as it is. This is a common problem with new technologies where early adopters are wealthier, they are more educated, they are better connected, they can spend more time investigating how does this technology fit into my life. The vast majority of us benefit from that knowledge because eventually it diffuses and the market slowly grows, and we start to move towards, majority adoption. What we need is to make the experience of moving to an electric vehicle more relatable so that people can see how it fits into their lifestyle and that means that those choices need to be there where it isn't in so many parts of the country. But it also means that for folks who rent their home or don't have a garage where they can install an electric charger or whatever, that they understand that there's a robust infrastructure. So when I need to charge my electric vehicle, I know that I can just go to the charging station, I know what that's going to be like. For most trips a 300 mile, 250 to 200 mile battery is way more than enough. You know, commutes are the biggest part of most people's travel day and you're not driving... Hopefully, you don't have a 150 mile commute each way. That sounds like a nightmare. In terms of daily experiences, EVs can slot into most people's lives. But people then, you know, think about those trips to grandma, and that's where the low frequency, but visible aspects of our life we think about and so we're like, "We wanna make sure that the vehicle fits in that." So the more that people are exposed to electric vehicles, the more that people see charging stations on the road in the neighborhoods that they're driving, the more that that translates into an option that they can see how it fits in with their lifestyle.


Colleen: You make a really good point about feeling comfortable, trying something new. Do you have an electric vehicle?

Dave: I no longer have a car at all.

Colleen: Good for you. But you've driven electric vehicles?

Dave: Yes.

Colleen: So what are they like? How is it different when you sit in an electric vehicle for the first time?

Dave: The first electric vehicle I drove, I think one of the things that astounds you is how quiet it is. You have to sort of do like a quadruple check that like, "Is this thing on?" Because there's no audible engine noise. The next thing that you notice, maybe not when you're reversing out of the driveway or getting on the road, but at that first stoplight probably is the light goes green and there is a serious amount of torque even in a Nissan Leaf or a Kia Soul electric. I'm not talking to Tesla Model S here, even the basic EV is, because of the electric motor it's actually really fun to drive. It accelerates, especially off the line, really fast. And the other thing that I enjoy because I'm a tech nerd, I like to geek out on the stuff, is regenerative braking which... people talk about one pedal driving. And what that means is that... with an EV rather than wasting energy to mechanical brake which then, causes heat with the brake pads, as you take your foot off the gas, you can basically recuperate that energy and it's like the battery works in reverse and it actually, the braking energy charges the battery back up. The driving experience changes to the extent that depending on how much regenerative braking there is, you can basically, just drive with the gas pedal and not really have to, slam on the brakes at all or worry about that because... And the more that you do that, the more energy you're recuperating and it's like a gamification to make you drive more efficiently. It's kind of fun. It's more like... It's like a go kart, but in the best possible way.

Colleen: So you worked on the lawsuits when the previous administration tried to roll back standards. So what is the status of that?

Dave: Yeah. We filed lawsuits. One, protecting California's right to set emissions standards, and two, pushing back on the bad science that the previous administration tried to use to justify rolling back standards that were saving money. And in terms of the lawsuit protecting California's right to set emissions standards, you know, auto companies made a big deal out of the fact that they were supporting it, but then now we're not, once the Biden administration went in. So they stopped supporting it and the Biden administration has put that lawsuit on hold. And that's obviously political maneuver by the auto companies telling the current administration that, we're willing to recognize that California's historical leadership on emissions demands that the state be involved in the next round of federal standards. So that's shaping up, everyone is on board with California setting strong emission standards in theory. But on the second lawsuit when it comes to rolling back standards that are working to save consumers money, automakers including GM and Toyota are actually still supporting the rollback in litigation. They have sided with the previous administration as the lawsuit moves forward and, you know, that is still making its way through court.

Colleen: So UCS has done surveys of GM and Toyota customers on their actions around vehicle standards and lawsuits. So what did you learn and what does that say about where the car buying public is compared to the automakers?

Dave: Yeah. Well, I think what we learned when it came to Toyota's customers, right? I am sure we have a number of Prius-owning listeners and, you know, they were sort of shocked to find that Toyota was involved in supporting the rollback of emissions standards. And we saw then that if those companies were to change their tune, they saw a huge improvement in the approval from their consumers. So we know that these sort of signals that the auto companies are sending can be dangerous to their bottom line, you know, if they don't make a change, the survey showed that a number of customers of GM and Toyota were now going to factor that into their next vehicle purchase. And on the other hand, when it comes to where the car buying public is on electric vehicles, which is what we are trying to drive these companies towards, consumers love more choice and EVs look really good to them. So we've done surveys in the past of, "Are you interested in purchasing an EV?" And they look at lower maintenance cost, lower fueling cost, and obviously lower emissions and they're like, "Yeah, that sounds great." Folks in much of the country don't have a direct experience with the vehicles. So they don't have someone trusted to answer questions about how this fits in with their lifestyle and the automakers don't really care. They're only selling as many EVs now as they have to.

Colleen: So Dave, do you have any recommendations for our listeners for what the average person can do?

Dave: Sure. I think, you know, the obvious is drive less, walk and bike more. But even beyond that, support higher density housing and transit. Going electric is simply not enough to deal with emissions from transportation. We need to actually be rethinking our land use policies and the transportation system overall, focusing on making it sustainable, accessible, and affordable. We've invested decades of infrastructure spending into racist policies that shift the cost of our transportation system onto the poor communities of color and it can't take decades to right that wrong. So, we need to get moving now on supporting policies that address the totality of our transportation issues.

Colleen: So I like the way you've described that it's really the whole transportation system. It's not just simply buying an electric vehicle, but it's a much bigger, more holistic problem to solve.

Dave: Yeah. We need a “both, and” approach.

Colleen: Great. Well, thanks, Dave, for joining me on the podcast. It's been great talking to you.

Dave: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

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