We know they’re good for the environment, good for automakers hoping to turn a healthy profit, and good for consumers looking to save money...but where are they? If electric vehicles are so promising...how come there isn’t one in every driveway?
That’s what we’re taking on today on Business Casual with Wall Street Journal autos reporter Ben Foldy. We’ll parse through the many literal and figurative speedbumps to widespread electric vehicle adoption, from infrastructure concerns to misaligned government incentive programs.
If our last episode was an optimistic nod to the future of transportation with General Motors CEO Mary Barra...this episode is the realistic accounting of when and how that future pans out.
Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:14] Hey, everybody, I am Kinsey Grant, and this is Business Casual. Let's get into it. [sound of a ding]
Kinsey [00:00:21] It's not easy to tell the future. In fact, 2020 has served anyone who is trying to gaze into their crystal ball a big old serving of humble pie. But, last episode, we actually did get a little bit of a glimpse into the future. General Motors CEO Mary Barra explained to all of us why the future of transportation seems fully electric. Jokes aside, this shift to electric vehicles seems incredibly necessary. If you ask Mary and her cohort of Motor City CEOs, it's inevitable.
Kinsey [00:00:48] But if you take a look around, we're nowhere near an electric car in every driveway. So where are all of the electric vehicles? What's holding up this all-electric future, and the fantastic promise Mary has suggested that it holds? Why has widespread adoption been so hard for us here in the United States? And what role should the government play in policymaking that might precipitate this EV future?
Kinsey [00:01:11] That is what we will be considering today—the best, most effective means of paving the way for an all-electric transportation future. And to help us do just that, I'm excited to welcome to Business Casual Ben Foldy, the autos reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Ben, welcome to Business Casual.
Ben Foldy, autos reporter at The Wall Street Journal [00:01:26] Thank you for having me.
Kinsey [00:01:27] Excited to speak with you today. You cover a lot of really cool stuff that's super-important [chuckles] and pertinent for this conversation—auto policy and trade in emerging technologies in the auto space and all that good stuff. So certainly the right person to be talking to when we try to figure out what comes next for EV. So thank you for taking the time.
Ben [00:01:44] Thanks for having me.
Kinsey [00:01:45] So, Ben, I want to start here by establishing a little bit of context from your point of view instead of the point of view of a CEO of one of these big legacy automakers I've been talking about here and why electric vehicles are so necessary. Why this shift is something that needs to happen. I have a feeling you might have maybe a little bit different [chuckles] perspective than Mary Barra might. So with that said, why do you think that this needs to happen—this all-electric future that we're constantly told about and that we constantly read about? Why is it necessary?
Ben [00:02:15] If you take as a given, which I think a lot of people do at this point, that climate change is real, and that transportation emissions are a huge contributor of greenhouse gases, and so on and so forth. I mean, the only way to do that is to get rid of those emissions. And the only way to do that is to have emission-free transit, either electric or hydrogen-powered or some form of fuel that is not kind of a carbon-based future.
Ben [00:02:39] And I think that all of the automakers are basically coming around to that. If they're not coming around to it, governments are going to make them come around to it. So that's kind of where everything's at right now.
Kinsey [00:02:50] Governments will make them come around to it. That is exactly what we want to talk about today, Ben. But before we get into why the government even needs to play a role in widespread EV adoption, I just want to drive home this climate change aspect, which is hugely important, if not the most important part of the conversation. In the U.S., transportation emits the most planet-warming gases of any sector.
Kinsey [00:03:12] Twenty-eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 were from transportation, which is a huge amount. And I think it really illustrates the fact that this absolutely is a change that we need to consider making and to start making now. But with all this said, consumer adoption has been really, really slow, even with the knowledge that climate change is a serious threat. I think one of the reasons for that really slow adoption is pricing. EVs are simply too expensive for most people to buy.
Kinsey [00:03:38] But the sticker price that we see on an electric vehicle has actually decreased from last year. It's about $55,000, which is down 13 or so percent from a year ago. But that's still 50% or so more expensive than a traditional internal combustion engine, or ICE, car would be. So do you think that pricing is prohibitive when we think about consumer adoption?
Ben [00:04:00] Yeah, price is definitely prohibitive. I think one thing, though, about that number is that when you think about how the automakers are approaching—have approached—electrification so far, I mean, they usually start at the higher end of the market and come down. So average is not necessarily the best. I mean, no mistake—electric drive trains are more expensive than ICE ones at the moment, and particularly because the automotive industry is a scale-driven manufacturing industry.
Ben [00:04:28] The more you make of something, the cheaper it is to make. If you're not making that many EVs, they're not going to be as cheap as the ICE engine cars that you're cranking out, you know, 4 or 5 million of, say. So that's part of that. And so to kind of ease that shift for the automakers, they've tended to focus on lower volume, higher cost models so far.
Ben [00:04:52] So you look at Volkswagen Group. Volkswagen has big plans for electrification, but the only pure electric Volkswagens that you can get, or the only pure electric Volkswagen Group car you can get in the U.S. right now, or the first was an Audi. Well, it's like an Audi luxury SUV that cost around $80,000. And then there was a Porsche. So those models are big-ticket models.
Ben [00:05:19] But that's also kind of just the way that the automakers have come into the space. Even GM, they announced the other day that they'd be bringing back the Hummer. It's not exactly like a mass market model. It's going to start in six figures. So the average price is there.
Ben [00:05:32] But there are companies that are coming closer and closer to kind of mass market models. The lower-end Teslas, the Model 3s and Model Ys at that kind of starting range, aren't that far off from the average cost of a new car today, especially after tax incentives, although Tesla doesn't get the federal tax incentive anymore. Volkswagen is also bringing out its first mass market EV, and that's really designed to kind of compete with a normally priced ICE car, especially with federal tax incentives.
Kinsey [00:06:02] So what brings to mind for me, though, is like, you know, good cars for the environment are only for rich people right now. Like, that's just the reality of the situation, which feels kind of, I don't know, not great.
Ben [00:06:14] No, there's definitely an equity issue. I was on call the other day where a BMW executive said something like sustainability and premium are inseparable. And I asked him, I was like, does that just mean that only rich people and only wealthy people will be able to afford kind of sustainable products? And he said no. But again, he pointed to the role of government in regulation and in terms of kind of driving adoption.
Kinsey [00:06:39] Interesting. Yeah. And we'll get to the government and regulation stuff in just a minute. But when you go beyond just the pricing as a sticking point, I think one of the other big ones for people is infrastructure. It's a huge question mark. I rode in a Tesla for the first time a few weeks ago and we went on a short road trip. Not that far. Hour and a half, 100-something miles. And the battery was a concern. You have to find a charging point.
Kinsey [00:07:02] And if you're going to a town like I was, that's in the middle of nowhere, you're not going to find a charging port everywhere. So that was something I hadn't really given a whole lot of thought to. You know, it's not like just popping into a gas station and filling up. These ports are not everywhere. So how big is that infrastructure problem in the United States?
Ben [00:07:19] Yeah. Infrastructure is huge. You know, with batteries in the state they are, let's say your average EV is probably getting between 250 - 300 miles of range. It's plenty for most daily drivers. But like you say, you take a trip, you have to kind of factor in not just where you're going to charge, but how long it's going to take you to charge there, what you're going to do. So, yeah, it's a huge issue.
Ben [00:07:44] It's getting a lot of attention in the U.S. Joe Biden basically said that building 500,000 public chargers is going to be part of his kind of infrastructure plan. And just to put that number in perspective, I haven't checked in the last couple of days, but I feel like there's about 90,000 public chargers in the U.S. right now. So if you think about kind of a six-fold, five-fold increase on that.
Kinsey [00:08:12] And of course, there are also charging stations in parking garages and outside of businesses, but that 500K goal is pretty eye-popping. It makes me wonder whose responsibility is it to install more of these charging stations and then to maintain them? Is it private companies or is it the government's responsibility?
Ben [00:08:29] Yeah. So it's a mix. It's a mix. I mean, there's companies that specifically do that. You know, there's ChargePoint, there's Electrify America, which was kind of spun off. It was funded a lot by VW as part of the dieselgate settlement. Some companies build their own networks, trying to kind of control that part of the automotive chain as well. Tesla, of note. But other companies are kind of pursuing similar strategies.
Ben [00:08:55] The other thing is charging is like everything else these days. There's always this question of data, right, and how you monetize that data. So that's kind of interest to a lot of people, is figuring out kind of how you manage the grid and what charger—if you know where people are charging, you know where people are going. And that data is worth money.
Ben [00:09:19] And you know when they're going and you know how they're going and you know when they stop and when they don't. And so there's a monetization of data element to it. Utilities are interested in the space. If you think about electric vehicles are going to be a huge user of [chuckles] electricity in the next however many decades. So it's really kind of a wide open space, and there's a lot of different parties kind of getting involved.
Kinsey [00:09:43] The data part is really compelling. I mean, like right now, is that being sold to interested parties?
Ben [00:09:50] I'm not sure about the third-party selling, but I know that there are startups right now whose pitch to the markets is not only do we make electric fleets, but we provide you electric fleet management and we help you manage—we have all this data that we can pull from that. I think cars in general have been kind of a great frontier of data that, you know, it's like a lot of things.
Ben [00:10:14] It's like everybody kind of knows it's coming. But actually figuring out how to turn that into, you know, monetizable, some sort of deliverable is a little more difficult. But if you think about a car, you would get data on what people listen to, data on where people go, data on when they go, data on how many people—you could even get data on how many people are in their car. You get data on—you know, and that's just on what a driver has direct influence over.
Ben [00:10:50] Then you factor in all of the computer data involved in what parts are you going to need? What's going to wear out first? There's huge data potential in cars, and companies have been getting ready to make the most of that for a while. But nobody's really quite made the most of it yet. But I mean, if you look at Google and Apple CarPlay, these are plays to get into that space where most Americans spend an hour or two a day, which in this economy is, you know, that's valuable, valuable time. [chuckles]
Kinsey [00:11:25] Yeah. It's so interesting because I think we often equate data privacy and online privacy with our phone or our computer, joking about the FBI agent on our computer, [laughs] you know, but in reality, this kind of thing is everywhere and it could be in our car.
Kinsey [00:11:39] And it's not necessarily a threat, but I think it's certainly a frontier of the data conversation I hadn't considered that's really interesting. When we were charging the Tesla this weekend, you can watch Netflix in the car. That's crazy. It's like a computer, but also something that gets you where you need to go.
Ben [00:11:58] Yeah, and as more autonomous features make their way into cars too, like it's a new attention space, right? People are going to be playing games or watching, you know, it's just another screen to suck everybody's [chuckles] time and money out of.
Kinsey [00:12:14] Seriously, I think that we've all kind of banked on the idea that we could be more productive in the car. We could, you know, on the way to work get ahead for a meeting that morning or something like that. But in reality, [laughs] a lot of us are probably just going to watch Netflix or listen to a podcast or do what we already do in our free time.
Kinsey [00:12:30] OK, so there's one more big hurdle to consumer adoption that I want to talk about. But before we do that, let's take a short break to hear from our sponsor. — And now back to the conversation with Ben Foldy. OK, so this is the last big hurdle to widespread EV adoption that I want to get your perspective on before we go directly into the policy stuff, Ben.
Kinsey [00:12:50] But what about public perception of electric vehicles? I saw an interesting stat a couple of years ago—42% of Americans still thought electric vehicles required gas to run, which is not true. So how big is the challenge in terms of educating people on electric vehicles and communicating why we need them, when we need them, how we get them, et cetera?
Ben [00:13:12] I think that is a massive project. If you think about how baked in gas stations and cars and I mean, again, less so in New York, but in most conventional American upbringings, right, like the car, you know, the car and the car culture is so baked in. One of my first memories is actually a mishap at a gas station and my mom squirting gas in my face when I was three.
Kinsey [00:13:39] [laughs] OK.
Ben [00:13:40] Or like, say you're a toddler, right, like, you think of the gas station and it's like, oh, that's where I get gum. And that's where my parents get me, like, candy. It's the bathroom on the road trip. It's everything. So I think there's a big shift in not necessarily in how consumers use their cars, but in how they think about they use their cars.
Ben [00:14:03] And that's really the kind of perception gap that needs to be overcome. And that's one of the things that you see companies struggling with [indistinct], is that auto companies, again, there's plenty of data that comes out of cars. I think the average driver does not drive their car more than 75 miles a day. So, logically, you should be able to sell a car that has 200 - 250 miles of range. No problem. Like for most drivers, most commuters, that's perfectly fine. You don't need more.
Ben [00:14:34] A lot of American households have more than one car anyway. So let's assume that if they want to take a longer trip, they have—or they could rent or whatever. But that's not how it works. Like, in people's minds and perceptions are like, no, I actually need to be able to drive 500 miles before I recharge. And most Americans don't need that on any kind of steady basis. So range anxiety is a big part of that perception issue.
Ben [00:15:01] I think another thing that automakers struggle with is that there is this upfront perception that they're costlier and they are, upfront, but that they—most automakers and analysts and Consumer Reports, kind of third-party people, have found that total cost of ownership over time is actually lower because you pay less for gas. Electricity is cheaper than gas in most places.
Ben [00:15:28] But also, and this is one thing that I should have mentioned earlier, but the general expectation is that electric cars are actually just kind of better than internal combustion engines. And in a number of ways they have way less parts. They require less maintenance. They have regenerative braking, so you need to change your brakes less—your brake pads less.
Ben [00:15:48] So that kind of move—also, you know, that's a perception issue, understanding that kind of rethinking about what your car actually costs is an issue. You might think about your payments, but you don't think about your gas with your payments and your maintenance costs. Like those are harder to factor into people's perception of how much their car costs. And I think that's another shift that's coming with EVs. There's one other thing I wanted to say, but I forgot what it was.
Kinsey [00:16:20] [laughs] It's all good. It's all good. Yeah. The cost part is compelling. When I was in college, I had this old, used, giant Land Rover that needed help all the time. [laughs] There was always an issue. Some light was always on. And it was a great car other than that, but I went to college in the middle of nowhere. I would have to take a trip to go to a dealership to go get my brake light checked or to get my whatever checked.
Kinsey [00:16:45] And that costs a lot. That was a lot of money and time that I think people often forget about or maybe don't consider when they look at the sticker price of a car that that should factor into.
Ben [00:16:58] And again, that's going to shift. That's the natural kind of process of how that goes. Oh, I remember what I was going to say, actually, is that, you know, if you listen to auto executives that do have electric models out, electric car owners like electric cars.
Ben [00:17:15] So it is a matter of, you know, once you're kind of exposed, once you kind of experience, you know, whether it's experiencing kind of the quick acceleration because electric motors have instant torque relative to ICE ones, whether it's the convenience of charging at home, whatever it is. It's like electric owners so far, and again, I mean, a lot of electric, early electric cars, let's call what we're up to now as like early electric cars, you know, they've had the types of things that new technologies have.
Ben [00:17:52] They have issues with various things not working right or catching fire or occasionally or whatever it may be. But overwhelmingly, most of the survey data I've either seen or heard executives talk about shows that 90% or more of electric car owners plan to stay electric for now.
Kinsey [00:18:12] Yeah, yeah. And the hard part isn't maximizing the lifetime value of people who opt in to an electric car. It's getting them to pick that electric car in the first place. It's more of a [indistinct] problem than it is an LTV problem. Once you buy it, you're probably going to like it, which I think is really interesting.
Kinsey [00:18:27] All right, Ben, we are going to take another quick break. And when we come back, we'll talk about how governments can incentivize people to adopt these EVs that we have been talking about. — And now back to the conversation with Ben Foldy. So we've been talking at length here, Ben, about what makes widespread EV adoption in the United States so tough.
Kinsey [00:18:46] And one of the most interesting parts of this conversation is how we incentivize people to make this shift to electric vehicles. It's tough to change minds, but the government has been known to do it successfully before, I would say. So what should the government's role be? And that's what I want to get at here. I think we should start, though, by understanding what the government's role currently is. How have regulators played a part in EV adoption here in the United States?
Ben [00:19:09] So I think, like a lot of things with both governments and markets, there's kind of a carrot and a stick, right? You have the government both wanting to kind of stimulate demand through tax incentives, through discounts, things like that. But then you also have the stick of regulation, and automakers being told that they need to hit certain targets for the overall emissions of their fleets.
Ben [00:19:39] Or in some cases, you have states saying you need to sell X amount of zero emission vehicles in order to be able to kind of keep selling. And it's super-complicated on the regulatory side. I mean, there's credits, there's complicated markets through which automakers can get credits for selling electric models, and then sell those credits to other automakers who don't have electric models so that they can hit their targets, and so there's costs.
Ben [00:20:09] But, I think on the broadest line, those are kind of the two main roles of government in this. And I guess the third would be—this is growing—is, you know, neither the demand of the cars nor the supply, but it kind of affects both, is the government's role in building up public infrastructure and charging and things like that.
Kinsey [00:20:31] And that just takes time. I mean, we can't expect these changes to happen overnight. Ben, I have to wonder what the Biden White House might mean for electric vehicles. What do you expect from this incoming administration?
Ben [00:20:44] I think the general sense is that it's better for electric vehicles than a Trump re-election would have been. A lot depends on the Senate, and that's TBD. But I think the other thing worth noting here is that the Trump administration wasn't particularly supportive of the EV market. Like I said, there were talks to kind of expand this tax credit at the end of 2019. And from the people I've talked to, the White House didn't want that.
Ben [00:21:14] The White House has proposed kind of getting rid of the existing tax credit altogether in the last two budgets. It didn't happen. The Trump White House has not been particularly supportive of EV. They haven't been against them, but they just haven't been helpful. All that said, the EV market has expanded and companies—GM is switching three EV plants over and they made all those announcements before the election.
Ben [00:21:39] They announced that they're building a battery factory. Like, this is a shift that is being driven regardless of who's in the White House. But Biden definitely has said on the campaign trail that he wants to kind of grease the skids.
Ben [00:21:51] And I think Biden sees that the chance for the new jobs, the chance for the kind of broader social transformation that we've been talking about, building 500,000 chargers as being also a chance to kind of reinvigorate American manufacturing—building battery plants, building a lot of new technologies that the U.S. has kind of neglected, for lack of a better word, over the past decade.
Ben [00:22:16] The battery market is totally dominated by Asian companies, the South Korean and Chinese companies mostly. And that wasn't always the case. You know, 10 years ago, it could have just as easily been the U.S. that built up that capacity and then kind of chose not to. So, I think Biden really does see an opportunity for the EV transformation to not just be an environmental play, but also kind of a real economic engine.
Ben [00:22:42] And that's going to be tough to do. And the other thing is that—this is in the background of all this—but if you think that the manufacturing footprint of a company like GM, around half of their factories, I think, build engines and transmissions. You're not going to have engines and transmissions anymore in the same way. And they're going to be smaller and they're going to be lighter and they're going to be easier to make. They're going to have less parts.
Ben [00:23:04] That's going to mean less jobs. So managing that transformation from the social side, you know, like, these are kind of opposing agendas, right? Like, you want a cleaner environment, but it's hard to sell people on a cleaner environment of like, you'll have a cleaner environment. You're also going to lose your job.
Ben [00:23:20] So navigating all of those kind of competing forces is tough. But I think the Biden administration's approach, in their ideal world, is going to be kind of tackling all those issues at once, like, using the transformation to create jobs.
Kinsey [00:23:35] Right.
Ben [00:23:36] But again, all that's going to be tied up in the Senate. So, who knows?
Kinsey [00:23:40] Yeah. Yeah. And I think it's important not to think about the auto industry in a silo. This isn't unique to the auto industry—that the skills that we need to be competitive members of the labor force are going to shift over time. That's an inevitability. And it always has been. And it sounds maybe a little coarse to say that right now, that people will lose their jobs, but it's not necessarily that jobs on the whole are going to be lost in the economy.
Kinsey [00:24:04] We can still create jobs. We just have to focus on retraining people, giving people the skills that they need to succeed in this next version of the economy and of the auto industry itself. And that's been reality for as long as [chuckles] there is an auto industry to write about.
Kinsey [00:24:19] So, Ben, what do you make of these big investments from legacy automakers into the electric space? And I want to ask this in two ways. One, creating their own fleets or making promises about an all-electric fleet by insert your number here, but also investments in smaller startups that exist purely to create and to disseminate electric vehicles or EV technology.
Ben [00:24:43] Yeah. So, what do I make of the legacy automakers making those investments?
Kinsey [00:24:47] Right.
Ben [00:24:49] I think. Two things. To the first point, making their own investments and spending tens of billions. I think the big part of that is that it shows that they're kind of actually serious this time. There's been a lot of talk for a lot of years about what the future of the auto industry is. But at this point, like we said earlier, pure battery electrics only account for a couple percentage points of the whole market, but are now accounting for huge chunks of the capital spend.
Ben [00:25:15] You only do that if you actually mean it. So I think that's kind of an indication that they're serious about this. And on the investments in the smaller startup side of things, I think that is both an indication that they're serious, but also an indication that they understand that the industry isn't necessarily going to look like what it did.
Kinsey [00:25:33] Right.
Ben [00:25:33] And that, you know, companies that have new ways of doing things, proprietary technology, are going to play a role both from the product side but also from the branding side. If you think about—part of the appeal of Tesla, is that for its buyers, is that you're not supporting—if you think that SUVs and pickup trucks are killing the world and you buy your Bolt, your GM Bolt, your Chevy Bolt, you're still giving your money to a company that you think, and the other part of your brain thinks, is killing the world by relying on pickup trucks and SUVs for its profits.
Ben [00:26:13] So if you're—and other companies have run into this problem with hybrids. It was like, the Prius did really well because it looked weird. And Honda had a perfectly acceptable Honda Civic hybrid that looked exactly like a normal Civic. And it didn't sell very well because people wanted to look like they're driving hybrids. So there's all these weird kind of questions on how you negotiate that.
Ben [00:26:33] So I think one thing that, say, Ford and Rivian or GM and Lordstown, less so with GM, but, you know, there can be kind of buying into a brand that is kind of a blank slate and doesn't have kind of the baggage of the SUV and pickup truck-dependent traditional legacy OEMs. And also doesn't have to, you know, I think for investors who look at those companies, they look at a startup and they don't see a company that has to account for billions and billions of legacy costs from a product that's not going to be worth anything in 20 years. It's kind of a clean slate.
Kinsey [00:27:10] Yeah. So when we think about in the United States, we have like our big three automakers, quote unquote. Do you think the Big Three automakers in 40, 50 years are going to be existing, what we consider today, legacy companies, or are they going to be these upstart-y, don't give your money to the company that makes the F-150 [laughs] kind of company?
Ben [00:27:30] Well, I think, I mean, I don't think they're going to look quite like they do right now. But I think that—GM is trying to thread that needle. Like GM is saying, all-electric future. We're going to be that company and it's going to be the same GM that your grandparents knew and drove. But it's going to be like an all-electric GM.
Ben [00:27:54] And so GM is kind of trying to take the whole company in that direction. Other companies have been slightly less kind of whole hog with it. I can't really make predictions, but I mean, do I think that Tesla is going away? Tesla is the most capitalized company in the industry now. I mean, they could go away, but it'd be pretty spectacular.
Kinsey [00:28:15] That's always a risk that you run with Elon at the reins, right? [laughs]
Ben [00:28:19] Yeah. I mean, who knows? But like, I think that Tesla's managed to do something to break into what had been a pretty kind of set industry. It's really, really difficult to start a car company. And I think that's the reality a lot of these startups are going to face. I don't think that it's going to be like an abundance of companies that have never built a car are going to lose out to companies that have built millions and millions of cars a year.
Ben [00:28:40] Like I don't think Toyota is going away. I don't think, you know, these companies have survived a long, long time. And manufacturing is really, really hard. I mean, cars are complicated. People don't like quality issues, and that's really hard. So I think it'll be a mix. I think some of the new companies will kind of have an escape velocity and escape orbit, and others won't. And then, same with the legacy companies. Some will be able to pivot and transition and manage a kind of a delicate balance of capital expenses and things like that. And others probably won't be so good.
Kinsey [00:29:16] Absolutely. All right. Well, I can't imagine a better way to come full circle in this conversation than the future will look different. And that's just the way that it is.
Kinsey [00:29:24] So, Ben, thank you so, so much for taking the time to come on Business Casual and to explain all of these intricacies about EVs and the way the government intervenes and how we are incentivized and how we perceive all of this in general. Been super-insightful. So thank you so much for your time.
Ben [00:29:40] Thanks for having me.
Kinsey [00:29:47] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. I want to get to know you better. If you want to give me some more information about yourself—why you listen to the show and what you want to get out of it—head to BusinessCasual.fm/survey to let me know. See you next time. [sound of a ding]