Legacy Automakers Downplay The Value Of EVs While They Play Catch-Up

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Zero emission electric vehicles (EVs) play a central role in radically cutting carbon dioxide emissions. As the dominance of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles wanes, legacy automakers are negotiating an existential transition. After all, they’ve been entrenched in decades of ICE production, and they need to pivot — quickly. Their adaptability is crucial, yet many automakers continue to publicly express suspicion about the move to all-electric transportation. Their questions haunt and persuade many ICE holdouts.

Such a narrative of EV denial fails to acknowledge 2 essential points.

  • ICE vehicles must become an artifact of the past if we are to salvage the environment through zero emissions power.
  • EVs are more sophisticated and technologically advanced than ICE-powered vehicles. That means when automakers iron out issues like software glitches, driving an EV will be more of a luxury and less a sense of sacrificing pleasure in favor of penance.

The primary goal of any business is an efficient allocation of resources. To retain competitiveness, organizations embrace a culture of continuous innovation, constantly generating fresh sources of advantage to counterbalance rival benefits. In the 2010’s, however, most legacy automakers must have been out to a martini lunch when this basic business management premise was discussed at long range planning sessions. Their failure to pay close attention to Tesla’s all-electric entry into their world has cost them dearly.

A 2023 paper by Rasesh Totlani in Innovative Research Thoughts describes how, “in the annals of the automotive industry, Tesla’s trajectory was met with skepticism by many, who dismissed it as a company grappling with execution challenges and destined for failure.” Along with the automotive industry-wide poo-pooing of the Tesla brand came rejection of the industry’s inevitable transition to EVs for personal transportation. Totlani describes the Tesla Model 3 as “a paradigm-shifting manifestation of speed and innovation.” The result was that the Model 3 catapulted in sales, and “the automotive landscape reverberated with the urgency to respond to Tesla’s meteoric rise.”

With the Model 3’s success, it seemed that the next step would be for legacy automakers, who possessed decades and decades of experience and scale, to enter and eventually dominate the battery electric marketplace. That deduction has proven to be false.

It took a decade for the revolutionary alteration in powertrains for automakers to implement sweeping changes in their infrastructure and operations. Too late, established carmakers across the globe are undergoing demanding examinations of their business models, recognizing all too keenly that the era is imminent in which electrons will replace gasoline and diesel to power engines.

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Despite the benefits of EVs and the increasing variety of EV models now available, the vast majority of automobiles on the road are ICE-powered. We noted at CleanTechnica as early as 2018 that automaker executives were fond of saying that not very many consumers want EVs, going so far as to say that they could produce many more electric cars, but customers were not asking for them. Interestingly, legacy automakers historically had a formula for the imbalance of supply and demand—not by reducing supply, but by increasing demand.

We reached out to one of our trusted experts, Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. He confirmed with CleanTechnica that legacy automakers have it in their best interests to demonize EVs.

“Supporters of internal combustion engine vehicles have a lot of incentive to confuse the public about EVs because EVs use one-fourth the energy and cost one-fourth the money to drive the same distance, resulting in $20,000-$30,000 savings in fuel costs over a 15 year vehicle lifetime.”

Moreover, a new report by Environmental Defense Fund and WSP USA found continued strong growth for EV and battery manufacturing. In the last 9 years manufacturers have announced $188 billion in investments in EV and EV battery manufacturing in the US alongside 195,000 direct EV-related US jobs. Most of those disclosures have occurred in the last 18 months since passage of the Investment Reduction Act. In fact, recent EV manufacturing investments in the US are outpacing every other region, showing that private investments in the US since 2021 are higher than every other region of the world and are more than 3 times higher than US investments from 2016 to 2020.

Instead of touting innovation and progress toward transportation electrification, though, auto manufacturers and media outlets have made ominous claims about the threat of skyrocketing car prices, shipping jobs to less union-friendly places, and economic ruin.

Melanson and Kyriazis argue in Canada’s National Observer, “If the purpose of journalism is to help people better understand their world so we can all make better decisions, the industry could stand to do better.” In actuality, automakers’ difficulties in switching to EVs are the product of both their own quest for profits and public policy that allows the most polluting cars to drive on the nation’s streets.

Legacy Automakers — A Subset of Climate Denial

For automakers, fossil fuel companies, and their subsidiaries, sowing misinformation about all kinds of clean energy initiatives, including EVs, has been part of a decade-long drive. Climate deniers have quietly cultivated ties with local activists, equipping them with talking points, legal muscle, model ordinances, and other tools to try to subvert renewable energy adoption. Canary Media calls this “a chorus of disinformation, much of it tied to, or even circulated directly by, fossil-fuel-backed groups waging an existential fight to preserve the status quo.”

Climate denial consists of attempts to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change based on rhetorical arguments. The goal is to undermine confidence in solutions to climate change. An existing taxonomy of climate denialist claims sorts them into 5 broad categories.

  • Global warming is not happening.
  • Human-generated greenhouse gasses are not causing global warming.
  • The impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless.
  • Climate solutions won’t work.
  • Climate science and the climate movement are unreliable.

The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow is part of a huge and scary climate denial machine. It’s been devised with funding from fossil fuel interests like ExxonMobil, the Charles Koch Foundation, and dark-money groups like DonorsTrust. They continue to make the climate denials stick — just this week, Shell Oil revealed that it will reduce its carbon emissions targets set for 2030. Shocking.

Often the approach is to attack the messenger. Earlier this month, Greenpeace Italy revealed that the Italian multinational energy company Eni is threatening a libel suit against it over scathing reports Greenpeace published about oil and gas companies. Greenpeace said the potential lawsuit is related to data about temperature-related premature deaths that may be caused by emissions from oil and gas companies like Eni and a report on the concept of “climate homicide.”

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