What The People Who Switch Back To Gas Can Teach Us About Sustainability

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“Once you go electric, you never go back!” I’ve heard many an EV enthusiast say. With all of the cost and convenience advantages to an EV, most enthusiasts assume that this must obviously be the case. The problem is that it’s only about 80% true in reality, because 20% of EV buyers switch back to gas. I kept seeing this figure, and wondered why it happens, and what I learned can teach us a lot about sustainability.

A Look At Someone In That 20%

Once I was sitting in El Paso at a Nissan dealer’s Level 2 charger. I had my Surface tablet out working on an article for CleanTechnica while my LEAF charged up. This doesn’t happen very often in El Paso, but as I was writing another LEAF pulled up and the salesmen helped the owner, a young woman, snake another cord out to the parking lot so she could get a charge, too. We got to talking and she said her name was Knenah Baumgartner, and she really liked her car.

After talking to her for a minute, she told me she was having a bad day. She loved her electric car, and her husband Joseph loved it, too. Her husband was stationed at Fort Bliss, and he just got orders to move to Alaska. They hoped to take the LEAF along as the military would move it there for them, with no need for a nearly-impossible road trip. The more they looked into it, the more they found out it wasn’t going to work.

Their biggest concern was that the Nissan dealer in Fairbanks didn’t have any EV technicians, and nobody else in the city could work on the car if something went wrong with it. In my experience, Nissan dealers without an EV technician won’t even touch a LEAF, even for things that aren’t related to batteries or motors, so their concern was very justified here. Even worse, it was a first generation LEAF with very little range to begin with, and the cold was going to cut their range in half. All of this added up to them needing to switch to something else during their time in the far north.

“We both were, and are still upset about it. We loved driving electric.” She told me in a recent text message. “And now with gas prices climbing, we really wish we were able to keep the Leaf.”

She doesn’t feel defeated, though. “We do plan to get another EV, when we move back down to the lower 48.”

The reason I bring this up is that I see a “no true Scotsman” thing often come up when EV enthusiasts come across a story that someone switched back to gas. Sometimes they try to categorically exclude the former EV owners, saying they didn’t really believe in EVs, or were insufficiently committed to them, and thus shouldn’t count. As you can see from the Baumgartners’ story, it’s not really a fair way to look at the 20% of people who buy a gas vehicle.

Why People Switch Back To Gas

Business Insider took a detailed look at the 20% of people who switched back to gas to see why they did it, and the results show that the couple above aren’t alone. The reasons for switching back to gas weren’t that they didn’t like electric vehicles, but that there were practical problems that made it almost impossible to keep one.

70% of people who switched back cited charging problems, usually that they didn’t have Level 2 charging at home. When they found out they could only add 30-40 miles per night from a regular wall outlet, it became a problem on days where they drove more than expected. They also found that 2/3 of people who switched back never used DC fast charging, but weren’t able to explain why.

Sustainability Needs To Be Looked At More Broadly

What I’m seeing here is that for some drivers, an electric vehicle didn’t prove to be sustainable. Sure, the vehicle is more environmentally sustainable than its gas-burning equivalents, but it wasn’t something the owners could sustain for various reasons, even when they liked the vehicle.

When we look more broadly at different types of sustainability, electric vehicles obviously need a lot more help to get there. For sustained ownership, EVs are only proving to be about 80% sustainable at present because there is a lack of infrastructure, support facilities, and other owner needs.

When we look at the growth of new EV sales, it’s exciting to see it spike. Global EV sales were just over 1% in 2017, 2.5% in 2019, and then almost doubled again in 2020 (4.6%). If we look at that 4.6% as a sustainability figure, it’s pretty bad, though. That means over 90% of buyers globally either couldn’t get one or didn’t think it would work for them. Those can become barriers to sustained growth if left unaddressed.

Environmental Policies Need To Be Sustainable Beyond Environmentalism

A sustainable environmental policy or business has to be economically, politically, socially, and mentally sustainable if it’s going to have any real-world impact. The smart people in the industry know that a “take your medicine” approach to EV adoption will work with a small percentage of the population, but that wider sales require that you get people to want an EV and see it as the best option.

Tesla is a great example of this. In 2013-2017, it offered vehicles people thought were fun, fast, and (perhaps most importantly) cool. Driving a Nissan LEAF with 50 miles of range makes you look cool to your green friends, and can even be fun to own, but I’ve never seen anyone put a LEAF in the same category as sports cars. Tesla not only got its cars sitting at the cool kids’ table, but they also had enough range to be a practical car for a much broader part of the public.

There are great mathematical arguments that show a low-range car like the LEAF with a 24, 30, or 40 kWh pack is more environmentally sustainable than a Model S with an 85-100 kWh battery pack, but what difference does it make if nobody wants the LEAF, or those who want one can’t keep it for practical reasons? Ultimately, environmental sustainability isn’t really sustainable without practical, economic, and social sustainability.

Beyond EVs, things like carbon taxes (which could be regressive when implemented improperly), emissions rules, and anything else needs to operate by the same principle. A policy that isn’t perfect, but that can actually work in the real world is better than the perfect policy that fails.

Featured image: Giving my 2018 Nissan LEAF a jumpstart with my 2017 VW Jetta. 

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1886 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba