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Ashley Nunes is the director of competition policy at the R Street Institute and a research fellow at Harvard Law School. In this post, he argues that the rush to adopt electric vehicles could potentially exacerbate existing inequalities in American society.
“We have no more time” was Joe Biden’s shouted last week, while urging climate action after visiting hurricane-ravaged New Jersey. The storm landed in Louisiana before raging on the east coast. Along the way, it unleashed floods, rapid tornadoes and rapid winds that evacuated thousands of people and caused more than 50 deaths.
Biden’s response? An increase in public spending, he says, will better protect Americans. The president’s $ 1.2 tonne infrastructure deal and a $ 3.5 tonne spending package – working through Congress – are chock-full of green goods such as power lines that can provide more renewable energy, improved insulation for homes and especially subsidies for electric cars .
Making American cars greener is an important – and understandable – part of Biden’s climate agenda. Petrol-powered cars play an important role in climate change. Electric cars, less so. Almost all accounts are that prior gasoline is better for the environment. Suppose people do it naturally. The problem is that they do not. Consumers’ acceptance of electric cars remains lukewarm at best. In addition, drivers who have their own cars treat these vehicles as supplements, not as substitutes; second cars for short trips and maybe an occasional dose of green virtue at the golf club.
Automation should make EVs more attractive. Americans spend annually more than 70 billion hours behind the wheel. This not only means billions of dollars in lost productivity, but also a considerable folly in the environment. Human drivers accelerate, brake and accelerate too much, all of which collectively increase vehicle emissions. Automation does not, which displaces inefficient driving into obscurity. Consequently, coupling electrification with automation is (or rather should be) a win-win, a silver bullet that delivers both higher productivity and lower emissions.
Except that it’s not true either. A recent study by me and my colleagues ramings that the use of driverless electric vehicles will increase but not reduce emissions. The reason? Driverless electric cars are almost too attractive compared to their manual selves. More people like it and want to use it. This may well bode well for investors who have flocked billion dollars in technology; but it is less than wonderful for those who want to go green. More rides means more emissions, no matter how environmentally friendly your car really is.
Fortunately, there is a solution when it comes to limiting emissions. It does not rely on electrification, automation or any other technological knowledge, but it has teeth. This is called ride sharing. Our work shows that if the public were to leave separate journeys in favor of communal journeys, emissions would fall and fall rapidly.
The idea is not new. During World War II, the U.S. government asked Americans to accept ride-sharing in an effort to save money resources such as petrol and rubber. A similar demand was made during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution in 1978 when a rise in oil prices caused a shortage of the pump and caused consumers to falter. President Carter then went so far as to offer tax subsidies to Americans who were willing to share rides.
We must follow Carter’s guidance. Instead of spending taxpayers’ money only on the development of green technology, incentives that also drive participation are needed. Innovations such as more efficient power lines, better insulation and electric motors can help reduce emissions, but it is possible will not gets us across the finish line. Reducing global warming emissions requires more than high technology; it requires joint public action.
It can make trams, trains and buses cheaper, cleaner and more reliable dive our love affair with auto ownership, and consequently reducing emissions. But automatic ownership, while being a climate killer, also offers the safest way to improve economic mobility. Public policy should reflect this reality and provide incentives to those who are willing to share rides, whether the rides are public or private.
Technical stalwarts may not like the idea. They would argue that this is too simple a solution to a problem as complex as climate change. They will say that when it comes to reducing emissions, sophistication is the name of the game. Perhaps. What, then, is more sophisticated than taking the simplest option?