Photo by Carolyn Fortuna/ CleanTechnica

What Would US Transportation Look Like If Internal Combustion Engines Prevail?

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Hollywood is usually the harbinger of worst case scenarios. Terrorist attacks on urban centers. Zombies that wreak havoc. Your enemy is your biological father. Recently, though, the most popular films seem to have forgotten the climate crisis, ignoring the hottest temperatures ever recorded, more severe storms, drought, wildfires, biodiversity loss, and climate migrants. Instead, murder in mundane towns seems to prevail.

When the proposed solutions to the existential climate crisis are depicted in Hollywood films, they’re fleeting — yeah, there are a few solar panels on roofs, a couple of quick heat pumps, maybe an occasional electric vehicle (EV). If art reflects life, and politics drives policy, shouldn’t we be worried about decarbonization? Is Hollywood’s disinterest in our actual crisis telling us something about what’s to come?

Take personal transportation. What if internal combustion engines (ICEs) don’t fall to the wayside after all? Could they actually prevail?

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What a Difference a US President Makes

Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy explains that communities can transform rapidly, driven by inventive breakthroughs, global developments, and societies’ evolving needs. Since public policy sits at the intersection of these changes, it has the capacity to steer the course of advancement.

The policies of the most recent two US presidents couldn’t be more different. The partisan divide over EVs has accelerated as Republicans accuse Democrats of trying to take away their god-given right to ICE-powered vehicles and Democrats turn their focus to climate pollution.

President Joe Biden has made the transition to EVs a central tenet of his administration. As S&P Global noted in a January report, the EV and battery industries got a big boost from two pieces of Democratic-led legislation that passed under Biden: the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Each of these provided billions of dollars in clean energy investments, including funding so states could significantly expand their EV charging infrastructure, expanded tax credits for consumer new or used EV purchases, and federal loans and subsidies to transform automotive manufacturing plants and retrain workers.

Former President Donald Trump sounds determined to undo many of Biden’s EV policies and repatriate the dominance of ICE-powered vehicles in the US. Over a dinner of chopped steak at his Mar-a-Lago resort last month, Trump broadcast to oil and gas industry attendees that, if they were to donate $1 billion to his campaign, his policies would reinvigorate their industries. Importantly, Trump reportedly promised to end President Biden’s emissions’ rules aimed at promoting EVs.

As of May 9, 2024, President Biden had signed 138 executive orders, 174 presidential memoranda, 608 proclamations, and 124 notices. Biden has issued an average of 41 executive orders per year in office, the third-lowest average among the 7 presidents who have held office since 1981. Trump’s average is highest within this timeframe, at 55 executive orders. Trump has vowed to reverse dozens of the Biden administration’s environmental rules in addition to dismantling major climate policies and rolling back many more rules governing clean air, water, wildlife, and toxic chemicals.

Already EV sales show a partisan trend. Attacking EVs is part-and-parcel of this year’s noisy, emotional language on the campaign trail. If Trump wins reelection, he may look to curb the IRA and other clean energy laws and change or eliminate federal funding for the EV industry. Yahoo! finance predicts that the auto industry could undergo another makeover if Trump wins a second term to the White House.

The 2024 S&P report noted:

“A reversal or reduction of federal subsidies could cause OEMs, suppliers, and battery companies to rethink their product and investment strategy, particularly as it relates to North American sourcing.”

A Trump White House could sabotage the upward momentum that EVs are incrementally experiencing.

If the Trump Transportation Vision Does Prevail

Imagine your city in 4 years. How will transportation be powered?

Language in headlines and social media posts would continually reinforce the place and power of the fossil fuel industry, helping to keep it from becoming little more than stranded assets and from being held accountable for the climate crisis.

Even though the EV sector was the only one of 42 indicators on track to reach an agreed-upon 2030 target for climate emissions, fear-mongering about EVs and charging infrastructure would prevail and dominate conversations in dealer showrooms, erasing EV re-imaginings of hard held truths about the damage to climate and human health that the fossil fuel industry has knowingly imparted.

If Trump wins, immediately the perceived higher cost of EVs at time of purchase would be exaggerated while basic ICE-powered vehicles would be foregrounded. US auto manufacturers would have fewer financial incentives to transform their manufacturing facilities to battery electric vehicles. The already too-slow build of EV charging networks would stall. Autonomy would be an unusual add-on. The streets would continue to be filled with oversized, overpriced ICE-powered trucks and SUVs that spew out damaging fumes. Heavily polluting public vehicles would continue with ICE power rather than go electric.

If you doubt this trajectory, you need to look no further than the narrative out of the American Enterprise Institute, which charges the Biden administration with “fiddling with its failed EV policies” and a “conspicuous fiasco of its electric vehicle policies.” They offer several interesting comments about the future state of EVs, including “many people would be reluctant to pay more for a vehicle likely to totally stop functioning in common use,” hybrid vehicles are “more reliable and just as green,” and EVs can’t succeed without “drastically cutting total auto production.” The real hit comes in the article’s conclusion:

“Then, whoever wins, there will come something you might provocatively call a bloodbath. For an industry with large capital needs and long lead times, or for environmentalists determined to phase out vehicles that most consumers prefer and can afford — maybe for both.”

Meanwhile, countries around the globe would continue to develop their lines of EVs, and the US wouldn’t pretend to keep competitive.

Foreign EV imports would gain momentum. Trump has blasted China, but — being the attention-seeking megalomaniac he is — Trump would likely be mesmerized by Xi’s allure. China, the world’s largest EV maker, would ease its way into the US after all. With his attention issues, Trump would likely forget his once strong words about protecting the US auto industry. If nothing else, China would take its global leadership of the EV market and leave the US and Europe way behind.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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