President Joe Biden wants Americans to go big on electric cars — ousting the internal combustion engine from its centurylong reign over the nation’s roads.
Crucially, consumers may be ready to follow.
People analyzing the small but growing market for electric cars and trucks say changing tastes among U.S. motorists are smoothing the way for Biden’s efforts to speed up the switch to battery-powered vehicles. Several automakers are pushing their own big shift to electric vehicles — a trend that the Environmental Protection Agency could accelerate with a new auto-pollution rule expected as soon as Wednesday.
Republican lawmakers are predicting a consumer backlash to the latest mandate from Washington. But industry analysts say car buyers are showing a growing appetite for vehicles that can be refueled with an electric cord rather than a gas pump.
“Honestly, the vehicles being delivered by automakers are a lot better — people are willing to sit on waiting lists for two or three years,” said Chris Harto, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. “There’s a huge amount of pent-up demand for EVs right now, and automakers aren’t delivering.”
Just two years ago, Biden said he wanted electric vehicles to make up half of new car and truck sales by the end of the decade. The EPA proposal could push electric vehicles even further.
Electric vehicles made up about 5.6 percent of cars and trucks sold in 2022 — not nearly enough to achieve the large emissions reductions that scientists say are needed to avoid debilitating impacts of climate change. That was up from 1.8 percent in 2020 and 3.1 percent in 2021, according to data from S&P Global Mobility.
The EPA rules will only reinforce automakers’ move toward electric vehicles, said Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst at the consultancy Gartner. “These rules would really just take away any sort of safety net or ability to turn back,” he said, adding that automakers will likely also press EPA for loopholes “to give wriggle room to the market.”
The upcoming regulations come as the federal government is pouring billions of dollars into the construction of charging stations along highways and incentives for people who buy EVs. But they also come as the Biden administration is potentially raising the cost of electric cars by requiring manufacturers to make the vehicles in the U.S., while using battery minerals from the United States or its closest trading partners — not China.
So far, the popularity of EVs is on the rise, and that could increase if the EPA rules lead to more models, some advocates said.
“Every single state in the union continued to see steady growth in electric vehicle sales in the last decade,” said Lisa Frank, who heads the Washington, D.C., legislative office at Environment America.
On the other hand, it’s unknown if automakers will be able to produce EVs for the mass market while also overcoming the tremendous expense of bringing a new kind of vehicle to scale. For that reason, today’s EVs carry a higher price tag than traditional models. (Prices for the cheapest model from Tesla, the nation’s top electric carmaker, start at just under $42,000.)
“The challenge is that as of now, the vehicles aren’t affordable enough that there’ll be a big enough buying base for them to be bought in these numbers,” said John Gartner, who leads EV and charging infrastructure research at the Center for Sustainable Energy, a California nonprofit.
When contacted by POLITICO’s E&E News, no automakers wanted to comment on the forthcoming rule. Some pointed to a statement put out last week by an industry lobbying group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.
“The question isn’t whether it can be done, it’s how fast it can be done,” the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said of the transition to electric vehicles, adding that it “will depend almost exclusively on having the right policies and market conditions.”
The rules come as state officials, and Congress, race ahead with their own efforts to transition away from gasoline-powered transportation.
California approved a rule that would require all new vehicles sold in the state to be emissions-free by 2035, including plug-in hybrids.
Congress included billions of dollars to build public EV charging stations in the 2021 infrastructure law. Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act dedicated billions more to tax credits and other incentives for people who buy the cars and a broad array of carmakers and parts suppliers.
The rules have been shaped in part by EPA tests of cars and components at the agency’s lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., and also by technical research and input from carmakers.
“As they consider all of those things, they think, what is the maximum they can push the industry?” said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The proposed rule will cover greenhouse gas emissions for cars built in 2027 and future model years. Current EPA regulations, which cover cars built through 2026, are expected to push EV adoption to 17 percent of new car sales by the time they expire.
Bloomberg first reported that the rules could exceed Biden’s goal of making half of all new cars carbon-free by 2030. The New York Times reported separately that EPA’s tailpipe rule could push EVs to as much as 67 percent of new cars sales.
Separately, EPA is also planning to roll out greenhouse gas limits on heavy-duty trucks starting in model year 2027, following up on its rules that were finalized last year to limit soot and smog-forming pollution like nitrogen oxides from the trucking industry.
Historically, EPA hasn’t told carmakers what kinds of vehicles to produce when it sets greenhouse gas standards. Instead, it has set a limit — a certain number of grams of carbon dioxide per mile driven — that each company has to meet over the entire fleet of vehicles it sells each year.
Companies that exceed the goal can build up credits to use in future years and can trade credits among themselves.
Major carmakers including General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Corp. have already set their own goals to produce more electric vehicles. The EPA proposal “is kind of saying, ‘All right, put your money where your mouth is,’” said Simon Mui, director of clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The rules are already attracting scrutiny. Environmental advocacy and consumer groups have argued that EPA should push for even more emissions reductions, particularly given the demand for electric cars and trucks.
Lawmakers are also beginning to push back by criticizing the regulations as a threat to blue-collar Americans.
“The EPA needs to explain to the constituents in my district that they should be driving some puny electric car instead of their pickup trucks,” Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) said Monday on Twitter, linking to a photo of an electric-powered Smart car from Europe.
Beyond the rhetoric, conservatives in Congress may have a chance to block the latest emissions rules. Republicans in the Senate and House, for instance, have introduced a proposal under the Congressional Review Act to roll back the EPA rules on soot and smog from heavy-duty trucks.
Timothy Cama contributed to this report.
A version of this report first ran in E&E News’ Climatewire. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the energy transition, natural resources, climate change and more in E&E News.