Brian C. Black: Transition to electric vehicles shifts into high gear

When President Joe Biden took Ford’s electric F-150 Lightning pickup for a test drive last month in Dearborn, Michigan, it was more than just a White House photo op. The Lightning’s introduction next spring heralds a new phase in an accelerating shift from gas-powered cars and trucks to electric vehicles, known as EVs.

In recent months, global auto manufacturers have released plans to electrify their entire fleets by 2030 or 2035, setting up a race to see who can most quickly shift from producing vehicles powered by gasoline.

Like Biden, a self-professed “car guy,” former President Donald Trump promised to create jobs in the auto industry. But Trump sought to do it by perpetuating a fossil-fueled system serving as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Automakers benefited from some Trump policies in the short term, including the rollback of fuel economy standards. But with Trump gone, they seem to be embracing the challenge of competing globally in a climate-constrained future.

As an environmental historian, I see this moment as pivotal.

Unlike EVs from manufacturers like Tesla, which also has a pickup in the works for the 2022 model year, the 2022 Lightning doesn’t rely solely on green consumer choice. It places the electric vehicle transition squarely in the hands of mass-market consumers who don’t choose cars based on environmental considerations and are buying far more light trucks than cars these days.

America’s 20th-century love affair with gas-powered cars was not inevitable. From 1890 through about 1915, vehicles powered by horses, coal, batteries and gasoline all jockeyed for position on U.S. streets.

Electric vehicles had some clear advantages in that competition as well. Many consumers feared gas-powered cars were prone to explode, and there was no nationwide fueling infrastructure for them.

But World War I combined with a moment of technological convergence that favored the internal combustion engine. Massive new petroleum discoveries in Texas, and later in the Middle East, produced a glut of oil just as electricity was replacing kerosene as the fuel of choice for lighting.

In 1919, Capt. Dwight D. Eisenhower joined a small convoy that crossed the U.S. in gas-powered military vehicles to test Army mobility. It took them 62 days — clear evidence that modern vehicles required modern roads.

By World War II, gasoline-powered personal transportation and road-building to support it had become planks of American economic growth. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower furthered that commitment with the construction of the most extensive system of highways the world had ever seen.

Americans’ particular contribution to 20th-century transportation patterns was making automobiles part of a competitive consumer marketplace.

Starting in the 1950s, a complex economy of easy financing and advertising drove consumers to buy new and buy often. Every aspect of a car was a potential marketing point, from chrome styling to hemi-powered hot rod engines and remote starting and rear-seat theaters.

Another uniquely American marketing achievement was framing trucks — utilitarian vehicles designed for work — as rides that could also serve consumers. Advertisers used themes of grit and power to sell trucks, depicted in the muddy expanses of western landscapes, to suburban drivers.

Federal fuel efficiency standards enacted in 1978 unintentionally reinforced the idea of trucks as a consumer product. These Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards classified pickups as “light trucks,” along with sport utility vehicles and minivans, and established less onerous fuel efficiency standards for them.

By 2000, pickup trucks were U.S. automakers’ most profitable models, and manufacturers were looking for ways to make these vehicles more powerful and luxurious. Ford’s F-150 became the best-selling vehicle in the nation in 1982 and held that spot for the next four decades.

Modern hybrid and electric vehicles began emerging in the 1990s, driven largely by Japanese innovation.

Early versions — the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, and later the Nissan Leaf — allowed consumers to choose automobiles that burned much less gasoline — or none in the case of the Leaf. Options like these had not been available during the gas crises of the 1970s.

As the first mass-produced hybrid electric, the Prius will likely be remembered as transformational in the electric transition.

But Tesla was the first manufacturer to take the possibility of an alternative vehicle and combine it with style and prestige. The upstart carmaker brought bling and sex appeal to EVs that had originally functioned more like their golf-cart cousins.

Today’s hybrids and EVs aren’t just little sedans. Manufacturers like Honda, Toyota and Ford are offering popular hybrid SUVs, and all-electric versions are beginning to enter the market as well.

But the new all-electric F-150 breaks new ground — one Tesla’s Cybertruck can’t match. It’s targeting corporate customers, particularly construction and mining companies that purchase trucks in volume, as well as individual consumers.

These fleet buyers are the traditional auto industry’s bread and butter. To satisfy their needs, the Lightning has a standard battery with a 200-mile range and optional battery with a 300-mile range — 480 kilometers.

With two motors, one for each axle, the Lightning provides faster acceleration than gas-powered F-150s. And those motors produce enough torque to tow 10,000 pounds — five tons.

In a unique feature, the truck’s battery pack can be configured to produce 9.6 kilowatts of power — enough to run an average home for three days during an outage. The Lightning also features 11 outlets, enabling it to double as a worksite power station for the charging of tools and gear.

The Edmunds car-buying guide suggests thinking of the electric F-150 as “a battery you can drive.”

The base model has a sticker price of just under $40,000, and it qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax break for electric vehicle purchases — something the Trump administration tried to kill. That makes it cheaper than its gas-powered sibling.

Ford’s 1908 Model T may look like ancient history by comparison, but experts chose it as the car of the 20th century because it put gas-powered cars within reach for mass consumers.

Judging from early consumer buzz, the electric F-150 could play a similar role for EVs today. Ford received 100,000 pre-orders in three weeks, even though the truck isn’t scheduled to begin rolling off the assembly line until next spring.

As one analyst put it, “If this truck is successful, it means you can sell an electric version of any vehicle. It could be the domino that tumbles over the rest of the market for EVs.”

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at Used with permission.



Don Dix

At present, roads, bridges, freeways and other vehicle infrastructure are financed by gas taxes (at least the tax was designed for that purpose).

Gas powered vehicles, private and commercial, 'supposedly' pay their way for new construction and road improvement through a gas tax added to the cost of fuel.

Considering how our government is on a never-ending quest for more funding, the EVs will be cheaper than gas powered up until the government realizes no gas sold, no gas tax collected. And that $7500 tax break will also disappear when D.C. changes the goalposts.