Caution: Coronavirus Hazardous to EV Health

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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As I write this, New York City is a virtual ghost town in the humbling wake of the coronavirus. One of the world’s most bustling cities has lost its bustle, along with much of its economy.

A 2020 Mini Cooper SE is parked near my Brooklyn apartment, sipping juice from a public ChargePoint station. Soon, I’ll point this new electric runabout across the Brooklyn Bridge and toward an Appalachian Trail crossing, precisely 51.1 miles north of here. I need to know that distance, because with just 110 miles of EPA-rated driving range, the electric Mini demands careful planning. If I keep my accelerator foot light, I’m confident I can make it there and back, with a forest hike in between to clear my head and cleanse my quarantined lungs. At least Manhattan traffic will be on my side, because there isn’t any. Across America, rush-hour crawls have been replaced with wide open spaces. But for EVs themselves, the trip ahead looks bumpy in a dramatically different, post-virus world.

Mini Cooper SE on a juice break at Whole Foods in Brooklyn. (Photo: Mini)

A (temporary) respite from pollution

If you’re looking for any bright side to the outbreak — not easy, I know — here’s one: Greenhouse gas emissions are tumbling, as airlines cancel flights, commuters lock themselves indoors, and businesses shut off the lights. Climate scientists predict that coronavirus shutdowns will make global emissions drop for the first time since the Great Recession in 2009, according to the Los Angeles Times. Satellites and researchers are recording major drops in air pollution over cities such as New York and Los Angeles, along with China and Italy.

First, the silver lining of a pollution dip is illusory, as environmentalists acknowledge, because it’s the result of a perfect storm that is swamping economic activity, rather than any lasting change. Philosophical sorts tell us the coronavirus will make people step back and reassess what’s important, in some back-to-basics way. In practical terms, companies may allow employees to work from home when this is all done, once they realize it doesn’t spell doom for productivity. Some will forego gratuitous air travel in favor of teleconferencing.

But virus or no virus, Americans aren’t about to trade their SUVs for Amish buggies. History shows that emissions soar once a crisis has ended, as they did after the 2008 global financial crisis. With this current crisis, unlike any predecessor, people have been forced into virtual house arrest, emptying the streets of people, cars, trucks and Ubers. Once freed from our First World prisons — and with a return of consumer confidence — we’ll take to the roads and skies again with unique fervor. A vacation getaway will seem a must, with extra sunscreen and sanitizer. Many Americans will treat themselves to a new car, the way they always do when the good times return, and that will be good for the industry and economy at large.

Those consumers may be looking for reassurance, not revolution. With oil prices plummeting, that new car may more likely be a familiar, relatively thirsty SUV or pickup truck. Since EVs still cost at least $7,000 more than comparable gasoline models, ultra-affordable gasoline will make EVs less attractive in a dollars-and-cents comparison. Even households with the jobs and wherewithal to jump back into the market may choose a reliable used car over a new one with leading-edge battery tech.

Will Americans be more likely to plug in after the crisis, or less? (Photo: Ford)

Virus could provide ammo for fight against climate change

Crises can certainly galvanize societal efforts to do better. Regarding climate change, a chastened populace might connect the viral dots to realize the need for a collective, far-sighted response to stave off an even-larger global meltdown. Yet economic catastrophe also brings calls to put the environment on the backburner; like music and art in schools, it suddenly seems a luxury no one can afford. It’s not true, but investing in the environment — including, say, a sorely lacking EV charging infrastructure — is reliably demonized as a drag on business and GDP.

Incredibly, America’s retreat from environmental action has already begun. Even as the Trump administration was consumed with dealing with the coranavirus, it was also working to complete its gutting of President Obama’s historic fuel-economy standards. Instead of automakers being forced to lift fuel mileage by five percent a year, to about 54 mpg, they’re almost completely off the hook, with piddling 1.5-percent annual increases to reach 40 mpg by 2025. It’s such an easy climb that even many automakers lobbied Trump to make it harder on them, which has to be a first in automotive history. The White House, bless their coal-blackened, industry-sponsored hearts, also found time to rollback rules on emissions of mercury and other toxic substances from coal- and oil-fired power plants across the nation, again despite bipartisan objections and industry pushback. 

Airline companies that only recently were touting carbon-neutral policies are pushing for delays on stricter emissions policies, even as they demand financial bailouts. The prime minister of the Czech Republic urged the European Union to dump a landmark law that seeks net zero carbon emissions, and focus on battling the coronavirus outbreak. Rob Jackson, chairman of the Global Carbon Project and an environmental scientist at Stanford University, told the Los Angeles Times that economic slumps can stir both impulses: Some companies and governments get serious about conservation. Others focus on boosting business.

The energy crises of the 1970s “drove everything from fuel efficiency gains to Alaskan oil production. It transformed our economy,” Jackson said. “But the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s, and the housing crisis of 2008, pushed us the other way. Housing and banks were in trouble. So companies spent less on the environment.”

Newbies like Rivian may be especially vulnerable to an industry crash. (Photo: Rivian)

Watch out for green backsliding

Care to guess which side America will be on? My money’s on, well, the money. A desperate desire to kick-start the economy will likely overrule the environment once we put this mess behind us. And once Detroit automakers have done their part to support manufacturing during the crisis — and the media spotlight turns elsewhere — expect them to pull out the dog-eared playbook: They’ll oppose any effort to reimpose those Obama-era CAFE fuel-economy standards, with scare tactics over lost jobs and shuttered factories. Wait, aren’t these companies all investing in electric cars? Yes, but that won’t prevent bids to protect the real franchise players — the hulking pickup trucks that best defend company profits. In the current climate, the political will to resist caving to the demands of automakers — or any major industry — may be hard to come by.

Automakers that are ramping up the biggest invasion of EVs the world has seen — Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, and underdogs like Rivian or Lucid — also just got a 10-ton monkey wrench tossed into those plans. I’d expect delayed arrivals for some, if not all, of the new EVs that automakers have been touting, including the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Volkswagen ID.4 that were slated to reach showrooms by year-end. (Emphasis on the “were”). Car companies will focus on getting factories rolling, employees back to work, and sales back to some semblance of normal. Some electric start-ups may be finished instead, losing the money and momentum to bring their dreams to market.

Any semblance of “normal” seems out the window for months to come. But when it gets here, let’s hope we can learn valuable lessons from the crisis, and not use it as a cynical excuse for business as usual. That goes for the car business as well.


About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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