On March 4, 1921, President-elect Warren G. Harding did something extraordinary. In a departure from any of his predecessors, a charismatic Harding opted to forgo the traditional horse and carriage procession on Inauguration Day in favor of an automobile ride to the Capitol in an iconic Packard Twin 6. Emblematic of the shift toward the motor car in popular culture and society, Harding’s enthusiastic adoption of the automobile cemented the car as the official and ceremonial method of presidential travel.
In just two decades following the manufacture of the first mass-produced American motor vehicle in 1901, public perception of the technology had shifted from skepticism and demur to eager acceptance and awe. Such began America’s love affair with the car.
Decades of population growth, war, social change, and technological innovation would be overshadowed by the firm grip of the automotive industry over the American economy, cultural landscape, and political sphere. Gradually, the car became a ubiquitous symbol of the American desire for convenience, personal freedom, and self-reliance, mirroring the ethos of a growing car-reliant populace looking to actualize the mid-century suburban American Dream. Inextricably linked to both the cultural mindset and tangible construction of the United States, the car solidified itself as an adamantine part of the American ideology.
America’s affinity for the motor vehicle is also at the heart of its climate catastrophe. The 280 million vehicles on the road in the United States today have made the transportation sector the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In 2020 alone, U.S. motor fuel consumption resulted in the emission of 948 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s a 23 percent increase in carbon emissions since 1990.
The environmental impact of the gas car highlights the pressing need for climate-focused transportation reform. But how can the American dependency on cars be reconciled with the urgency of decarbonization in the transportation sector? While imperfect, the electrification of the U.S. vehicle fleet should be part of the solution.
Exactly a century after Harding’s decision to embrace the gas-powered car in a political context, President Joe Biden made a bold statement in May by test driving an electric Ford F150 at a media event in Dearborn, Michigan. Like Harding (the first qualified and licensed driver to be elected president), Biden considers himself to be a passionate “car guy.” “This sucker’s quick,” Biden remarked as he approached reporters in the truck. “The future of the auto industry is electric. There’s no turning back.”
Biden appeared at the event in the wake of the unveiling of his administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package in March, dubbed the American Jobs Plan. The proposal called for a $174 billion investment in the electrification of the U.S. vehicle fleet, in addition to a more traditional overhaul of roads, bridges, transit centers, and the electric grid. The aim was to foster clean energy jobs, combat climate change, and invest in failing infrastructure systems.
Presently, less than two percent of American vehicles are electric. Through initiatives such as tax credits for electric vehicle (EV) use, the construction of a wider network of charging stations, an electric conversion of federal agency cars (such as those used by the U.S. Postal Service), and the funding of electric school and transit buses, the Biden administration plans to confront the dominance of gas-powered vehicles.
Especially as electricity generation becomes cleaner with the advent of renewable technologies, the carbon footprint of the transportation industry could drop 80 percent. If all new cars sold in the United States are electric by the end of the decade, the critical warming cap of 1.5 degrees Celsius established by the Paris Agreement is within the realm of feasibility.
Yet the infrastructure plan was not readily embraced by many members of Congress. Critics of the deal disparaged the plan for being too fast, too aggressive, and too tangential to traditional infrastructure. Some senators voiced concerns about the importance of preserving fossil fuel jobs in their home states, upholding free-market ideologies, and safeguarding the federal gas tax.
“The total amount of funding it would direct to roads, bridges, ports, waterways and airports combined adds up to less than what it would spend just on electric cars,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a press release. “The far left sees a strong family resemblance between these proposals and their socialist ‘Green New Deal.’”
That sort of inflammatory rhetoric from Republican leaders has the potential to weaponize the notion of the electric car into an instrument of political division and control. As it stands, 70 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats have a somewhat or very positive opinion of electric vehicles. But according to David Victor, a professor of public policy at the University of California, San Diego, incendiary politicization of the electric vehicle could create “the kind of almost culture wars around electric vehicles that we see on vaccines and that we see on voting rights and abortion.”
Such divisive political interpretations of EVs could be detrimental to securing bipartisan support from centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans. So how can the Biden administration avoid politicizing the electric vehicle and patch dissension between members of Congress?
The key likely resides in the private sector. Several Republicans have endorsed legislation that would provide incentives for private investments in electric and hydrogen vehicle fuel stations, including Senator Richard Burr (R-NC). Burr endorsed a plan entitled the Securing America’s Clean Fuels Infrastructure Act alongside Democratic senators in March, which sought to expand the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Refueling Property Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and incentivize private investments in clean vehicle refueling infrastructure.
Still, some Republican senators refuse to budge in their opposition to legislation centered around electric vehicle growth. “Henry Ford didn’t ask the government to build gas stations for him,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), echoing a sentiment expressed previously by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
Although Democrats and the EV industry will likely view this standpoint as falling short of the policy shifts necessary to facilitate the acceleration of electric car implementation, averting a culture war and immutable political friction early in the nation’s electrification is imperative. If the EV becomes widely politicized in the same vein as masks and vaccines, the margin of hope for a complete electric transformation further down the line narrows. Biden is on the precipice of real electric vehicle reform, but he cannot alienate his centrist colleagues through overly ambitious legislation — as much as the climate crisis necessitates decisive action.
A partial compromise was finally reached on June 24. Biden emerged after deliberation with a group of senators across party lines touting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment neutral enough to garner the minimum number of Republican votes to bypass the filibuster.
The plan proposes a $15 billion investment in electric vehicle infrastructure, a fraction of the original spending advocated for in the American Jobs Plan. Acknowledging the concessions made by Democrats in the climate realm, Biden said, “None of us got all that we wanted. I didn’t get all that I wanted. But this reminds me of the days we used to get an awful lot done up in the United States Congress.” A number of Democratic senators frustrated with the lackluster piece of legislation have pledged to support the deal only on the condition that more progressive climate policy is part of a larger reconciliation bill pushed through the Senate later this summer.
The turbid, tangled nature of this negotiative process — a process that ultimately resulted in only a small victory for the climate — gives credence to the notion that obtaining bipartisan support for sustainable infrastructure is a herculean challenge.
But the electric vehicle has the power to transcend partisan divides. As long as Americans continue to drive cars, there will be a market for automobiles. Several companies are already embracing the EV shift. Ford is manufacturing more electric Mustang Mach-Es than gas-powered Mustangs. Honda has pledged to stop producing gas-powered cars by 2040.
Bipartisan climate legislation has the power to expedite — not stifle — this irrevocable transformation. While the consensus may be murky for now, the wheels are beginning to turn in Congress. An increasing number of moderate and Republican politicians see the electric vehicle as a desirable alternative to the gas car — the challenge is agreeing upon a legislative framework to get there. Time will tell. But for now, the EV future is becoming reality, even without legislative intervention.
Even if the government is able to accomplish more intrepid EV reform down the line, the technology still has pitfalls. Although more environmentally sound than their gas counterparts, the rippling environmental repercussions of EV manufacturing, consumption, and disposal are worthy of attention. The mining process used to extract the lithium in EV batteries is environmentally taxing, and an increased demand for the mineral could affect market dynamics for years to come. Yet scientific reports suggest that the carbon footprint of an electric car fleet beats out gas cars in all scenarios.
Currently, the U.S. outsources most lithium and other raw materials for battery production from China, but concerns surrounding China’s growing economic edge over the United States have prompted some politicians to question any continued economic dependency. The infrastructure deal does emphasize a desire to amp up domestic battery production, but U.S. reliance on raw materials from foreign nations will be challenging to eschew.
The transition to electric cars will be far from a climate panacea. The crisis will continue to ravage communities and ecosystems, intensify natural disasters, and steadily warm the planet to calamitous levels. While meaningful electric car reform could make a sizable dent in our carbon footprint, we must dig deeper. As electric cars replace their gas-powered ancestors on the roads, we must also consider the underlying implications of an infrastructure system inherently predicated on the car.
Warren G. Harding’s symbolic ushering in of the motor age in 1921 signified the emergence of an inescapable American automobile addiction. The myriad of highways, interchanges, parking lots, garages, stoplights, street signs, driveways, and sprawling suburban neighborhoods characterize the car-centric infrastructure environment of the modern age. The ultimate pathway to climate resiliency will certainly include electrification, but tackling the dilemma at its core will simultaneously require an eventual reimagining of the deeply entrenched notion of car hegemony in American society.
Investments in city mobility through sidewalk repair, bike lane implementation, and public transportation improvement would be a good start. Rezoning efforts would reduce unnecessary commutes and encourage work closer to home.
The Covid-19 pandemic offered a momentary glimpse into the possibility of a future less dependent on the car. As Americans isolated themselves at home to prevent the spread of disease, roads remained largely empty. Companies were able to temporarily adopt a work-from-home philosophy, enabling a vision into a future where long commutes do not define the essence of the American workplace.
As the United States emerges from the worst of the pandemic, strategies to mitigate our cultural and economic dependency on the car now seem more within reach. The ideal would be to someday reach a point where electric cars supplement a reduced-car reality.
But until then, legislation in support of the electrification of America’s vehicle fleet would be a meaningful step in the right direction.