What Will Make Car Buyers Care About the Environment?

In the ongoing drama of climate change, the automobile and its internal combustion engine always play the villains. There was a time when the role was well-earned as big, clumsy powertrains sucked down fossil fuels without a conscience and poured out unwelcome carbon monoxide into our planet’s rare mix of oxygen and nitrogen.

In 2018, however, cars and the humans who build them are reformed characters. Offering a mix of highly efficient traditional engines, hybrids and electric vehicles, automakers and the companies supporting them are getting out ahead of the pollution problem and envisioning a future without a piston engine. The problem now is most consumers don’t seem to care and are slow to adapt to this cleaner view of transportation. As a summer marked by record global temperatures approaches autumn and the arrival of the 2019 model year, car companies are still stymied with the challenge of getting consumers to buy more hybrids and electrics. 

In 2017, a report from New York-based research and consulting firm AlixPartners reported only 2 percent of new cars purchased in the previous 12 months were hybrids—more than a full percentage point lower than just four years prior. There are market forces in play here as hybrid and electric cars are consistently more expensive than their traditional twins, and the emergence of the U.S. petroleum industry kept the average cost of gasoline under $3 per gallon consistency since 2014. 

It becomes a matter of economy over ecology as the vast majority of automotive consumers are more than willing to rank the stability of the environment well behind saving money in the showroom and at the gas pump. Moe Durand, Senior Manager of Lexus International Strategic Communications, is quick to point out that the automakers work hard to evolve their vehicles and clean up their performance, whether out of conscience or by force. “I would challenge the assumption that cars are still mostly gas guzzlers (defined as an average of sub-20 mpg) and that they are still horrible for the environment,” Durand says. "Beyond the rapidly declining amount of tailpipe emissions, there are a lot of consumers who are not aware that their cars actually clean the air now. I am also not sure that the public is aware of the advances in exhaust catalysts that make tailpipe fumes so clean they are almost tasty.”

Unlike smog, which you can see and directly feel its effects, it is much more difficult to perceive the slowly accumulating impacts of global warming and climate change.

While some automakers go out of their way to advertise such environmental consciousness, few admit governmental factors often force this evolution. Large population states such as California and New York require automakers to design, build and sell a regulated number of hybrids and electric cars or else face fines and possible bans. Of course, if consumers don’t buy the electrified machines despite any number of refunds and tax incentives, dealerships end up swamped with high-tech machines no one wants. “There are tremendous regulatory forces at work here,” Durand says. "Yes, automakers also realize the value of being good citizens, but the advances in technology have been propelled into the market place primarily by lawmakers’ realities and the automaker response to their challenges.”

Honda got out ahead of the hybrid craze in the 1970s with the Civic CVCC and took a detour from the battery technology other automakers rely on with the hydrogen-powered Honda Clarity. According to Assistant Vice President of Environmental and Energy Strategy Robert Bienenfeld, Honda is working on alternative energy options while acknowledging the willful reluctance of would-be buyers. “Unlike smog, which you can see and directly feel its effects, it is much more difficult to perceive the slowly accumulating impacts of global warming and climate change.” Bienenfeld explains. “We are confident most automobiles will be electrified. Electrified vehicles have performance advantages as well as significant environmental benefits, although—in the near term—there are significant cost challenges to overcome.”

“Individual consumers are driven by cost, design and practicality, even though they might support environmental issues socially. The ‘environment’ has never been a big driver for personal vehicle purchases.” Despite these dollars and cents realities, the automakers will keep rolling electrified machines off assembly lines. Data from pro-environmental think tank Electrify America indicates more than 300 fully electric vehicles across all international automakers are en route with 46 EV models arriving in 2018, 70 in 2020 and 258 in 2025.

But, how long will it take for consumers to embrace these new cars and SUVs? Can they be persuaded or even forced to buy these non-fossil fuel options quickly enough to make an environmental difference? Author and historian Richard Rhodes fears it could take longer than the climate change trends will allow. He is the author of 26 books, including The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. The former Playboy science and technology writer, Rhodes also penned Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in History. He served as a visiting scholar at Harvard, MIT and Stanford and a host and correspondent for PBS documentaries. He has the kind of mind we might turn to for hope.

I almost despair that we’re not going to get ahead of the global warming problem. I worry that it will take a massive, tragic event to convince people.

“The electricity trend (in automotive) is a great way to move off of fossil fuels,” Rhodes says. “That energy supply is centralized with infrastructure in place. Electricity is green, centralized and can be cleaned up easier. You’d hope the natural world would educate [consumers]. There are heat waves all around the world. I almost despair that we’re not going to get ahead of the global warming problem. I worry that it will take a massive, tragic event to convince people. It’s hard to focus the population on a problem that develops so gradually as human perception is much more complicated and difficult.”

In his long-standing research, Rhodes unearthed slow moving trends in human development linked to energy use. Patterns repeat themselves, and Rhodes saw the current reluctance to adopt new options before in history. Before the widespread of coal for heating, human civilization relied on less efficient and more dangerous wood fires. As coal emerged onto the scene, local men of the cloth saw the black anthracite come up out of the ground and smelled its slightly sulfuric smoke. “The preachers decided it must be the devil’s shit,” Rhodes recalls. “They spoke from the pulpits against its use and slowed down the transition.”

“There are countless other examples. When Thomas Edison introduced the electric light bulb, customers wanted to keep their more dangerous and less efficient gas lights. Automotive pioneer Henry Ford was fond of saying, ‘If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.’” He goes on, “So, when I was looking at the development of the automobile, I learned that the Stanley Steamer (a steam-powered car) sold well at the turn of the century before the emergence of petroleum. Drivers could fuel their cars at any number of public water troughs used for horses and other livestock.”

“When an outbreak of Hoof and Mouth Disease made it necessary to do away with the troughs, those refueling sources disappeared and sales of the Steamer plummeted over night. It took a major disruption like that to change the marketplace.” Rhodes relays a theory that it takes 100 years for a new energy source to proceed from inception to dominance in society. Electric cars seem to be evolving faster than that century mark, but perhaps slower than environmental changes demand. “Primitive forms of electric cars existed since the Victorian era. Those electrics ran with about a 30 mile range. In 2018, new models average between 200 and 300 miles. So, we’re not that far along from the late 1800s today. That’s where we are in the electric car.”

Battery limitations are the problem, and Rhodes is sure there won’t be widespread electric vehicles until batteries improve. “We’re trying to pack a lot of energy into a compact space,” he says. “Physicists call that a bomb.” Even once the battery issues are resolved, the environmental health of electric vehicles depends greatly on where their electricity comes from en route to the cars’ plugs. The world’s cities might end up with electric cars, green buses and electromagnetic trains, but it would all be canceled out if their power comes from dirty generator plants.

Still, he insists electrics promise to be the best way to clean up the air supply. “Though today’s people think nuclear power is the new devil’s shit, it’s zero carbon and the safest mass energy source in the world.” Rhodes points to ongoing studies by the World Health Organization tracking Deaths per Trillion Kilowatt Hours of various energy sources. For example, global use of coal racks up 100,000 deaths per trillion kWh. Even with the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fujiyama, nuclear power accounts for 0.1 deaths on the same scale. “More people die building windmills or installing solar panels than nuclear power kills,” Rhodes insists. “France went to a 79 percent nuclear power supply and has the best air quality in Europe. Now, they’re waiting on the cars. The last piece of transitioning their country to nuclear and electric will be transportation. It’s going to take time and money in France and all around the world.”

The author believes media-fed fears of nuclear power and consumer reluctance to invest in electrified transportation must shift faster for the good of the environment. He’s not sure that century-long pattern of energy adoption can adjust fast enough. “If there’s anything that drives energy development, it’s economics. We’re seeing that now. Electric cars will be dominant with time, but will they be dominant in time?”

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