This article is part of MACo’s Deep Dive series, where expert analysts explore and explain the top county issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Deep Dives.
Climate change is universally recognized as one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century. The use of fossil fuels has led to tremendous advances in human civilization, but their use has also significantly deteriorated our environment. One of the most purported tools to combat climate change has been the advent of electric vehicles (EVs). However, while federal, state, and county policymakers have invested billions into the EV transition, two significant hurdles slow these efforts.
From 1942 to 1945, the United States did not produce a single car, commercial truck, or auto part. In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation shifted to a wartime footing, with civilians and industry rallying to fight the Axis powers. During these three years, Americans produced “297,000 aircraft, 193,000 artillery pieces, 86,000 tanks, and two million army trucks.” Today, climate change is the modern Axis powers, and American industry is again the key to victory.
Instead of aircraft, artillery, and tanks, one of the most critical munitions to winning this war is the electric vehicle (EV). Lead for bullets is replaced with lithium for batteries. Unfortunately, the mass production of affordable EVs is lagging. To make matters worse, the Sherman tank of our era, the Chevy Bolt, has been taken out of production in favor of higher-grossing electric trucks and SUVs. In February 2023, the average cost of a new EV was $58,385 – a price point out of range for the average buyer.
General Motors (the producer of Chevy Bolt) is not alone in leaning into higher-grossing electric vehicle production; the industry is broadly shifting towards a greater emphasis on trucks and SUVs. Affordability should be a significant concern for Maryland as policymakers aim to have all new passenger cars and trucks sold to be zero emissions by 2035. One of the most crucial selling points of EVs is their low fuel and maintenance costs, although it is still being determined if this is enough to justify the price tag. To ensure mass adoption of EVs, car companies would need to stand up production of more affordable models within the next few years – something currently out of step with recent announcements.
Besides producing an affordable EV, the other greatest challenge to their adoption is the rollout of EV-specific infrastructure. For a good reason, charging has received the most significant attention from policymakers and advocates. In December 2022, Maryland ranked 9th nationally in EV charging stations per 100,000 residents – and more investment is expected from the federal government to expand this number even further. In the same year, the average range of a new EV was 291 miles, with projections showing that soon batteries will be able to hold over 300 miles of charge. For context, the distance between Ocean City, MD, and Oakland, MD, is 323 miles – meaning that in a few years, you may be able to travel from one end of the state to the other on a single charge. Suffice it to say that at the current pace of development, roadblocks around charging and battery life are on target to being removed.
Though other significant concerns remain unanswered, transportation funding and road strain are the most prominent. Maryland’s counties fund most of their transportation infrastructure through the local share of state highway user revenues (HURs), the largest portion of which is the gasoline tax. HURs do not currently account for EVs, meaning one of the reasons charging is cheaper than gas is that it is not taxed. If HURs are not expanded to include charging, it is not inconceivable to soon see a world where more economically strained segments of society are subsidizing the road usage of wealthier families. This would be a massive blow for counties that have never recovered from the HUR cuts of the Great Recession and are now bearing the brunt of a heavier school funding burden.
Exacerbating this even further is the fact that EVs weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds more than their internal combustion engine counterparts. According to Axios,
“…the 2023 GMC Hummer EV, a full-size pickup, weighs more than 9,000 pounds, sporting a 2,900-pound battery. In comparison, the 2023 GMC Sierra, also a full-size pickup, weighs less than 6,000 pounds…”
The focus by producers on larger, heavier vehicles means roads will wear down quicker, parking garages may not be able to manage the extra weight, and traffic safety now has an extra layer of complexity.
What does this mean?
The transition to EVs is a vital part of a larger strategy to combat climate change. While not a cure-all, EVs represent a significant way to reduce emissions and put our society on a more sustainable path. However, the transition faces considerable speed bumps. Primarily, there is a substantial lag in the production of affordable EVs. If industry trends continue to favor more expensive SUVs and trucks, it is hard to see a future where average Marylanders can afford these vehicles anytime soon.
Infrastructure also remains a significant concern. While charging and battery life are on a positive trajectory, questions around funding and increased strain remain unanswered. Local governments maintain five of every six road miles in Maryland, meaning counties have a genuine stake in getting this right. Unfortunately, the Great Recession HUR cuts, coupled with new obligations toward school funding, leave little room for additional investment in roads, not to mention many jurisdictions are preparing for an uncertain economic future with a looming debt default and talk of recession.
Closer coordination is needed both between the public and private sectors and between all levels of government if the transition to EVs is to be successful. While the challenges mentioned above are not insurmountable, they do need tending to for any EV effort to achieve victory.