We asked the experts

By Aric Jenkins
Updated: July 7, 2017 11:02 AM ET | Originally published: July 6, 2017

France this week announced a bold plan to ban the sale of all fully-gasoline and diesel fuel vehicles by 2040. Other countries, like India and Norway, have expressed interest in similar plans. But could, or should, the United States implement such a policy?

The answer, experts say, is complicated. One problem is the country’s mixed attitude towards climate change. Some early adopters of electric vehicles are buying the cars to be more eco-friendly. But that motivation wouldn’t drive the 52% of Americans who don’t believe human activity is changing the climate. And at the federal level, President Donald Trump, who recently decided to exit the Paris climate accords, has been cooler towards alternative energy solutions than past presidents.

“When I was serving on a committee studying the obstacles to adoption of electric vehicles at the National Academy of Sciences, we concluded that there was no possibility of even getting a carbon tax passed, and that was under the Obama administration, which had a much more pro-environment stance than our current administration,” said Melissa Schilling, a professor of management and organizations at New York University.

Another issue is the country’s sheer size and geographic diversity. Fully electric vehicles perform better in some environments than others. A study from Carnegie Mellon University published last year found that some electric cars can produce significantly more emissions than similar hybrid vehicles depending on factors like regional climate, local power generation methods and the amount of highway versus city driving being done. For example, the study found that while the entirely battery-powered Nissan LEAF has a smaller carbon footprint than the gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius in some areas, the Prius was more eco-friendly in others. (The overall cleanliness of electric cars can vary depending on how the electricity is generated in the first place, too.)

“It’s better to target an end goal like emissions reduction rather than the outright banning of a technology because there are certain gas and diesel vehicles that can do a lot towards limiting emissions, whereas electric cars can actually be more damaging,” said Jeremy Michalek, co-author of the study and a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, where he also serves as the director of the school’s Vehicle Electrification Group.

Some argue there are good economic reasons to go full speed ahead on electric cars. In May, independent think tank RethinkX published a report predicting a “disruption of transportation and the collapse of the internal combustion vehicle and oil industries” starting as soon as 2030. James Arbib, cofounder of the group, believes the U.S. should support that transition to reap the economic benefits of electric vehicles, which he expects will converge with the development of autonomous driving technology, spurring further growth.

“This is a huge boost of the economy,” Arbib told Fortune. “It will lead to more disposable income because people will spend far less on their cars. People will have time freed up which they can use to do productive things that they can’t when driving — billions of hours — and less need for parking throughout cities.” Arbib added that the federal government could leave a potential ban on gasoline cars up to the states, but that could prove unworkable for interstate road-trippers with gas-powered cars who may find themselves blocked at the border.

Mark Wakefield, managing director and global co-head of the automotive practice at consulting firm AlixPartners, argues that electric vehicles remain too expensive compared to their internal combustion counterparts. For example, the 2017 Nissan LEAF starts at $30,680 compared to $23,475 for a comparable Toyota Prius. That’s to say nothing of high-end Teslas, which can cost upwards of $100,000 (though Telsa’s lower-cost Model 3 is expected to begin rolling off the assembly line this week.)

Lawmakers worldwide have pushed for ways to bring down the costs of going electric. In the U.S., the federal government and some state agencies like California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) offer incentives that can considerably reduce the final price of electric vehicles. But Wakefield argues that hybrid vehicles can be an effective, affordable and eco-friendly stopgap solution without the high costs and other drawbacks of entirely electric cars, like the need to frequently recharge on long trips.

“As far as CARB pushed their policy, they have also showed a pragmatism that while they are pushing for this, they are also changing their methods to what’s most cost-effective,” he explained. “It’s certainly helping move their industry towards that, they were practical because they saw that hybrids are a much more economic answer.”

Wakefield and Michalek both said that electric vehicles will likely become more attractive to consumers as they become more affordable compared to gasoline cars. If and when that happens, Americans could find a ban on internal combustion vehicles could become more palatable. As electric vehicle technology continues to improve and automakers like Tesla and Volvo continue to invest in the field, costs may eventually come down. But for now, an outright ban on gasoline cars on American roads remains unlikely.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly quoted Mr. Wakefield. He was referring to California’s Air Resources Board, or CARB, not France.

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