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Biden’s dream of an electric future faces an uphill battle. Here’s why

As part of his administration's broader climate change strategy, President Joe Biden has made investing in electric vehicles a major focus of his infrastructure proposal. And this week, he's promoted the importance of technological innovation at a global climate summit. But as William Brangham reports, there are still many barriers to those vehicles becoming widespread.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As part of his administration's broader climate change strategy, President Biden has made investing in electric vehicles a major focus of his $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal.

    And this week, he's promoted the importance of technological innovation at a climate summit.

    But, as William Brangham reports, there are still many barriers to those vehicles becoming widespread.

    Our story is part of an international journalism effort called Covering Climate Now.

  • William Brangham:

    There's a reason a lot of environmentalists focus on the future of electric cars, because today's cars emit a lot of planet-warming gases.

    As a category, transportation is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., even higher than electricity. And within transportation, light duty vehicles like cars and trucks are the largest source of those emissions.

    So, now a president who adores his dad's gas-guzzling Corvette…

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    I didn't get a chance to fly shift into second. I was afraid I would go through those guys.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    … wants to see electric cars rule the road.

    But getting electric vehicles, or E.V.s for short, into widespread use has obstacles. First among them, according to environmental economist Joshua Linn, is consumer demand.

  • Joshua Linn:

    So, right now, electric cars account for about 2 or 3 percent of the market, meaning 2 or 3 percent of new vehicles sold each year are electric cars.

  • William Brangham:

    Tiny, tiny fraction.

  • Joshua Linn:

    So, it's tiny. It's been growing. It was at zero 10 years ago.

  • William Brangham:

    According to a "Consumer Reports" survey, Americans cite a few reasons for their reluctance, worries about how far E.V.s can travel on one battery charge, concern over the higher up-front cost of E.V.s, though studies show consumers save more money over time because they never buy gas, and concern over having enough places to charge an E.V.'s battery.

  • Joshua Linn:

    Many consumers are just not familiar with the technology, and haven't ridden in one, don't know anybody who has, and also haven't really thought through how much their life changed if they had an electric car.

  • William Brangham:

    Ronald Kaltenbaugh is something of an E.V. evangelist. He's president of a Washington, D.C., group that promotes them. He told me about the first time he test-drove a Tesla Model S, a car famous for its lightning quick acceleration and $70,000 price tag.

  • Ronald Kaltenbaugh:

    The sales guy, its co-pilot, and we're at a stoplight. And he says: "Go ahead and gun it off the line."

    And the only thing I can compare it to is, if you're on a roller coaster that accelerates really fast, it's kind of like that.

  • William Brangham:

    I think that's one of the great misconceptions is people think you're going to get an electric car, it is going to only go as fast as a golf cart, it's only going to go five miles before it needs to get plugged in, and then it's going to take three days to charge up the battery like an old cell phone.

  • Ronald Kaltenbaugh:

    That is a big misconception. Once you get people in the car driving or seeing it, then they're like, oh, my gosh.

  • William Brangham:

    To help the country feel that same enthusiasm, President Biden's American Jobs Plan includes a heavy emphasis on electric vehicles.

    It calls for $174 billion of investment, including rebates for people who purchase E.V.s, money into research into better battery technology, encouraging the government's vast fleet of cars and buses to become electric, and money to build half-a-million public charging stations across the country for anyone to use.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    We're going to provide tax incentives and point-of-sale rebates to help all American families afford clean vehicles of the future.

  • William Brangham:

    Some states like California have already established mandates to require that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the state emit zero pollution. And now 12 governors, all Democrats, have sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to — quote — "ensure that all new passenger cars and light-duty trucks sold are zero emission no later than 2035."

  • Will Ferrell:

    Let's go, America.

  • William Brangham:

    Adding to this momentum, several big automakers have announced they're already moving away from gas power.

  • Will Ferrell:

    Did you know that Norway sells way more electric cars per capita than the U.S.? Norway.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    General Motors, one of the biggest automakers in the world, said, in just four years, it will have over 30 electric models for sale and that it wants to phase out tailpipe emissions totally for cars, trucks and SUVs by 2035.

    Dane Parker is the company's chief sustainability officer.

  • Dane Parker:

    Now, the current data that we have says more than 80 percent of charging happens at home. And there's a large number of current consumers who are able to charge at home. And, for them, this will be seamless, because the range of these electric vehicles is going to be sufficient for the vast majority of use cases.

  • William Brangham:

    But even as automakers introduce more electric vehicles, one estimate shows that, even by 2050, when electrics could be a majority of the new car sales, most cars on the road will still be burning gas.

  • Man:

    And we end up with the Chevy Volt.

  • William Brangham:

    For the true believers like Ron Kaltenbaugh, who has driven his electric car hundreds of miles to Vermont and to Detroit, he says there are so many reasons to go electric that they ought to appeal to everyone.

  • Ronald Kaltenbaugh:

    You can be an early adopter and like tech. You can be a car enthusiast and like fast cars. You can be an environmentalist and be concerned about climate change.

    You can be a foreign policy, national security person and worry about nasty governments then and oil funding terrorism. Anybody in the political spectrum, you can find a reason why they should love E.V.s and want to move to them as quick as possible.

  • William Brangham:

    President Biden's infrastructure plan still has another main hurdle, passage by a divided Congress.

    Until that happens, the president's aspirations for a more electric future are still on hold.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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