It’s been nearly a century since any automaker was in a more enviable position than Tesla. Technology and design of zero-emission vehicles has improved dramatically in recent years. Yet, to catch up with Tesla innovation and marketability and be competitive in the fast-moving EV segment, legacy automakers need to switch to forward thinking, major investments, and extreme dedication. It’s just not happening. They aren’t true competitors to Tesla. Instead, legacy automakers continue to do the bare minimum to promote EVs at a time when it’s crucial to move to a transportation framework of the future that mitigates carbon emissions. The auto industry is in a stagnant state of EV denial.
For legacy automakers, the EV denial process began decades ago. Not an invention of the contemporary era, the electric car has a long and storied history. Indeed, by the turn of the 20th century, EVs were are all the rage in the US, accounting for around 1/3 of all vehicles on the road.
All you have to do is visit the Elliott Museum in Stuart, Florida, and you’ll see an exhibit of the earliest autos to hit the roads. Alongside the 1903 Stanley Steamer Runabout, the 1903 Cadillac Model A Runabout, and the 1912 Ford Model T Speedster is a 1914 Detroit Electric. At that point, neither internal combustion engine (ICE) or electric was seen as across-the-board preferable to the other, and, in fact, the cleanliness and ease of use of electric cars made it seem to many as if electric would surpass other transportation technologies. Famously, Henry Ford’s wife drove an electric car.
All too soon, though, mass automobile production, better roads, and the discovery of cheap Texas crude oil helped to contribute to the decline in EVs. And, ironically, the electric starter for gasoline-powered vehicles.
Fast forward to 2020 and the palpable tension between electrons and petroleum for transportation has been turned upside down, with a crash in oil prices in April. Fuel pump prices plunged to 20-year lows with no signs of rising, making the cost of ICE vehicles even more attractive to buyers — and automakers.
The 5 Stages of EV Denial
The legacy auto industry practices double-speak that suggests it desperately wants to innovate but is still doing the things it does best, argues David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the Clean Vehicles program with the Union of Concerned Scientists. That means not innovating quickly and jumping into the electric future with full effort and passion. When we take a step back and scrutinize closely, we can see that most fossil-based automakers engage in the 5 stages of EV denial.
Stage 1: Deny the problem exists. The first modern plug-based vehicles came to market only in the early 2010s, when, most notably, Tesla’s Model S made driving an electric car cool and trendy. General Motors and Ford, which are the two biggest US automakers at the moment, expect to produce more than 5 million SUVs and pickup trucks in 2026, but only about 320,000 of them are intended to be EVs, according to information provided by Reuters. Automakers blame the consumer, whom they say isn’t ready to drive an EV and prefers SUVs. Many media channels provide messaging that affirms legacy automakers’ entrenched point of view that gasoline cars are still “state of the art” and that “an EV future is decades away.”
Stage 2: Deny responsibility. The launch of the original Tesla Model S shifted the EV conversation, as the sedan pushed above 200 miles per charge and then leapt to more than 300 miles per charge with an optional, long-range battery pack. Automakers drool when they see Tesla’s capacity for range and power but don’t act — they only preen with public commitment to EVs. For example, General Motors and Ford Motor Company claim to be invested in an electric future but are leaving it to dealers to pay for upgrades that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Charging stations, specialized tools and training for repair people, and empowerment strategies for an EV sales force are necessary. According to the responses to a 2019 survey, dealerships have to take on a lot of responsibility to sell and service a vehicle whose battery and design are entirely distinct from the gas/diesel vehicles they’ve known for a century, and automakers are not shouldering enough of that responsibility.
Stage 3: Downplay the threat. While sales of battery-based vehicles are on the rise, they still constitute a minuscule fraction of the US, European, and Asian markets. (Though, that has been changing quickly in Europe this year and China had a strong trend toward EVs before the coronavirus pandemic hit.) Automakers are not looking to depart from their winning profitability formula, a formula which is definitely not good for the environment. Trump’s White House has followed through on its plan to roll back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. The Obama administration had predicted that doubling average car and truck fuel efficiency from 2011 to 2025 would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion tons. The Trump fuel efficiency reversal is part of a pattern of environmental deregulation that shatters important climate and consumer protections that would make cars more fuel efficient, less polluting, and cheaper to drive. Gasoline/diesel auto manufacturers are smiling at recent US executive office and oil events while transportation emissions comprise 29% of US emissions by sector.
Stage 4: Attack the solutions as too costly. In 2017, Daimler warned that electric Mercedes models would initially be just half as profitable as conventional alternatives. That meant that Daimler would have to reduce costs by outsourcing more component manufacturing — threatening German jobs. Yet the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy says that plug-in EVs can save consumers money, with much lower fuel costs on average than conventional gasoline vehicles. As CleanTechnica has shown many times, there are countless scenarios in which total cost of ownership of an electric vehicle is considerably better than that of a competing gasoline-powered vehicle. Nonetheless, a constant refrain from the auto industry is that the difference in purchase price between a gasoline and electric vehicle is too much for the average consumer.
Stage 5: It’s too late. Even though the unveiling last fall of Ford’s Mustang-inspired and Mustang-branded Mach-E electric crossover was a big hit, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to cause carmakers to revisit their manufacturing strategies as consumers eat up savings and probably shift near-term automotive spending to used cars. A corporate slow-walk to EVs is compounded by generally weak federal and state EV tax credits. Meanwhile, there’s also a sprint to develop self-driving vehicles, which would be much more helpful for deliveries in a pandemic, and legacy automakers seem to be behind the curve on that as well, especially if you consider that a high-efficiency, long-range electric powertrain is fundamentally much better equipped for high-mileage autonomous vehicles.
Tesla has been able to zoom ahead of fossil-fueled automakers due to its dedication to creating a sustainable transportation network. With the backdrop of COVID-19 alongside the climate crisis, a new melange of courage, caution, and chance is warranted, and Tesla is seeing renewed confidence from investors. It’s time for legacy automakers to step back from EV denial.
Let’s send a shout-out to Yale Climate Connections, which published “Coronavirus doubters follow climate denial playbook” — the inspiration for this article.
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