Over the last few months, electric car sales seem to have gone from hot to cold. Hertz is dumping 20% of its 100,000 Tesla fleet, and Ford is cutting production of its F-150 Lightning. Tesla has gone from raising prices to cutting them. In fact, Tesla is reducing prices so much that the CEO of Stellantis (a merger between Fiat and Peugeot) has expressed concern that if other automakers join Tesla CEO Elon Musk in implementing similar cuts, it will result in a bloodbath for the industry.
Are electric cars a fad, like beanie babies, pet rocks, or fidget spinners?
The short answer is no. The full answer comes with a lot of nuance.
Once you have driven an electric car and experienced the magic of instant acceleration, it is very hard to go back to driving an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle. The instant torque of an electric motor is magical. It is something you have to experience. Explaining the feeling of driving an EV to those who have not driven one is like explaining a rainbow to a blind man.
There are many other advantages:
Your house becomes your own “gas station.” You park the car in the garage, plug it in, and voila, it is fully charged in the morning. (I cannot tell you how much I don’t miss gas stations.) My Tesla charges at 45 miles per hour from a 220-volt outlet. That doesn’t sound like much, but most charging happens at night.
The car is very quiet. Electric motors don’t make any noise. In fact, government regulations require EVs to make a slight noise so that pedestrians can hear them.
Since EV motors sit on top of the axle and don’t have a transmission connecting the engine to the back wheels, there is no bulge in the middle of the car — so the cabin is roomier.
Finally, EVs are much cheaper to run. The cost of charging the car is significantly lower (by as much as half) than the gasoline for an ICE vehicle, and EVs have fewer moving parts (just a few dozen) compared to thousands for ICE competitors, thus requiring significantly less maintenance.
You’d think, with these advantages, that the rate of EV adoption would look like a hockey stick (much like it did from 2019 to 2021). Today, however, it looks like the adoption rate is likely to decelerate before it accelerates again.
The main obstacle is the charging process. It can be broken down into three factors: battery capacity, charging speed, and availability of charging stations.
Currently, the theoretical range for a regular EV is approximately 250-to-300 miles — emphasis on theoretical. That range requires ideal conditions, such as moderate weather (not too hot or too cold) and driving within a speed limit of 70 miles per hour. When it’s hot, the car not only cools the cabin but also the batteries to protect them. In colder temperatures, the batteries’ chemical reactions slow down, reducing efficiency. A recent story from Chicago, where sub-zero temperatures caused a large number of electric cars to become stranded, does not make a great infomercial for EVs in cold climates.
Today, Tesla has by far the best EV charging infrastructure. Other companies’ charging infrastructure is spotty and charging speeds are slower than Tesla’s. If you own a house, which two thirds of Americans do, you have a charging station in your garage. Thus, daily commutes come with zero charging anxiety. But if it’s a long-distance trip, it requires planning; and even with Tesla, it comes with some anxiety. Also, it takes between 20 minutes and an hour to charge a car at charging stations. If you live in states where EV adoption is very high, you may find yourself waiting in long lines to charge your car.
Early adopters — people with short and predictable commutes, households with multiple cars — are the market EV makers are addressing today, but that’s just a fraction of the total car market. My family represents the average consumer who owns an electric car — affluent (these cars are usually more expensive, though government subsidies more or less put them on par with ICE vehicles), owns a house (for apartment dwellers, owning an EV makes little sense unless your building has charging), and only one family car is an EV (the second is an ICE vehicle for long-distance commuting).
If battery technology and charging infrastructure remain where they are today, the share of EVs in the total car market is unlikely to grow significantly. (One caveat is oil prices — if they skyrocket, the greater savings from driving EVs will increase their adoption.)
But battery technology and infrastructure will not remain stagnant. Car companies from Hyundai to Toyota are announcing new battery breakthroughs and introducing solid-state batteries (batteries based on new chemistry), which have higher energy density and double or triple the capacity of current batteries, with faster charging and greater safety technology. Toyota is planning to produce a battery with double or triple the current range, capable of fully charging in just 10 minutes. Researchers at Harvard University have filed patents for a fast-charging solid state battery that lasts thousands of charging cycles.
It is evident that battery technology has reached its limits with current chemistry (the one that powers our laptops and current EVs). The new chemistry will change the auto industry. I am an optimist, because I believe in free markets, human ingenuity, and the hunger for self-actualization — and yes, unadulterated greed. Money will drive new breakthroughs — the carrot for coming up with new, step-changing battery technology has never been higher.
Infrastructure will also improve. The auto industry, without the government’s help, is transitioning to a single charging adapter (Tesla’s). Faster charging and the expansion and improvement of charging stations (which at some point will become a staple in grocery store parking lots, office buildings, etc.) will go a long way in reducing range anxiety.
Imagine a world where it takes only 10 minutes to charge an electric car with a range of 900 miles. Whether you live in an apartment building or under a bridge, owning an EV will become a no-brainer. This is not the world of today, but we are going to see this world, not in three years but probably in less than ten.
The next several years will be very difficult for automakers. Ironically, though traditional automakers will be bleeding money on EVs, they have cash flows from ICE cars to fall back on, while Tesla is a one-trick EV pony – though it’s one hell of a trick.
In 2019, I wrote a series of essays on Tesla, which I later edited into “Tesla, Elon Musk, and the EV Revolution.” The book is available in audio, paperback, and digital formats on Amazon. Amazon allows authors to make their books free for a few days each year. You can download the digital version for free from Friday (tomorrow) until Monday.
Additional thoughts on EVs
Some people buy EVs because they think they are “greener” than ICE cars. The absence of a tail pipe doesn’t automatically make them greener, because pollution production is shifted from the car to the electricity producer.
The “greenness” of your EV will depend on the fuel source of the electricity that charges your battery. If the source is solar, nuclear, or wind energy, your EV will be cleaner than ICE. However, if the electricity in your area is generated by a coal plant, then, unfortunately, you are essentially driving a coal-powered car.
Additionally, mining the minerals that go into EV batteries is a very energy-intensive process that also produces a lot of CO2. Making the battery is also very energy-intensive. Thus it takes more energy and CO2 pollution to produce an EV than an ICE car; so it takes a few years of driving for an EV to become a cleaner alternative than an ICE car (the exact number of years is unclear).
On one side, EVs give countries a choice in energy sources, whereas ICE cars can only be powered by gasoline, which is oil-based. Electricity can be generated from a variety of sources, including oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal. Of course, the US is the largest producer of oil in the world – giving us a measure of geopolitical independence. On the other hand, lithium and rare earth materials, which are currently components of EV batteries, create their own geopolitical and environmental dynamics. A lot of these materials come from China. (The US has reserves, but they are “too dirty” for us to mine them.)
Feel free to share your thoughts about this essay here.
Additional thoughts on my last essay about Israel, anti-Semitism, DEI, and socialism:
My long essay discussing Israel, antisemitism, DEI, and the decay of our universities took a week to write and a month to rewrite. It was a difficult and complex topic. My only regret is that I did not stress enough a very important point: Hamas is still holding over 100 Israeli civilians as hostages.
If you would like to get an Israeli perspective on what is going on in Israel, I highly recommend the podcast by the American Canadian columnist, writer, and political adviser Dan Senor. Dan has written several books about Israel, including his latest, The Genius of Israel, which is a very worthwhile read. It provides important insights into the uniqueness of this small but mighty country.
On his podcast, Dan interviews different Middle East experts, including Haviv Gur, a journalist for the Times of Israel. I find Haviv’s perspective on Israeli history and society to be compelling.
Tom Friedman of the Times wrote a very interesting essay after a recent visit to the Middle East. This excerpt really makes you think:
Once Sharon pulled Israel out of Gaza [in 2005], Palestinians were left, for the first time ever, with total control over a piece of land. Yes, it was an impoverished slice of sand and coastal seawater, with some agricultural areas. And it was not the ancestral home of most of its residents. But it was theirs to build anything they wanted.
Had Hamas embraced Oslo and chosen to build its own Dubai, not only would the world have lined up to aid and invest in it; it would have been the most powerful springboard conceivable for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, in the heart of the Palestinian ancestral homeland. Palestinians would have proved to themselves, to Israelis and to the world what they could do when they had their own territory.
But Hamas decided instead to make Gaza a springboard for destroying Israel. To put it another way, Hamas had a choice: to replicate Dubai in 2023 or replicate Hanoi in 1968. It chose to replicate Hanoi, whose Củ Chi tunnel network served as the launchpad for the ’68 Tet offensive. …
There is so much to criticize about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which I have consistently opposed. But please, spare me the Harvard Yard nonsense that this war is all about the innocent, colonized oppressed and the evil, colonizing oppressors; that Israel alone was responsible for the isolation of Gaza; and that the only choice Hamas had for years was to create an underground “skyline” of tunnels up to 230 feet deep (contra Dubai) and that its only choice on Oct. 7 was martyrdom.