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(A trick question at an exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, MI. Across the street from the museum, Ford is building a factory for its new electric vehicles.)
It’s the start of 2022, and the biggest hype for electric vehicles right now is happening.... in the outer suburbs of Dallas.
Yes, Texas is the epicenter of the oil and gas industry. But something else is happening: an national marketing push for an electric version of something that feels very familiar for drivers there: America’s most popular truck.
Ford says they are planning to double production in the next year on the F-150 Lightning, the electric version of its best-selling truck, in part because of strong implied demand through the company’s reservation system. While the auto company has had other plug-in and hybrid trucks and SUVs, the marketing roll out for the Lightning has been more extensive and in far more “mainstream” venues than ever before - including NFL game broadcasts.
It turns out electric trucks are popular in places where trucks were already popular. That’s what Dan Gearino of Inside Climate News found out when he called around dealerships in Texas to see if the company’s hype for their electric truck matched interest in the place that, just last year, bought 85,654 of Ford’s F-series trucks, more than double than the next closest state. But who will be buying electric trucks in Texas still depends on where they are, the dealers told Gearino. Take McKinney, a “far-flung” suburb of Dallas:
McKinney is the kind of place where the truck has strong appeal, allowing customers to make their daily commutes, which are often 50 to 60 miles roundtrip, and do nearly all of their charging at home. Drivers no longer need to buy gasoline and they have few fears about battery life, since the model has a range of about 230 miles.
…compared with Winnsboro, 90 miles further east:
“There aren’t a bunch of people standing in line for an electric vehicle with a range of 230 miles,” said Larry Brown, general manager of Texas Country Ford in Winnsboro. A common drive, like a roundtrip to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, would use up all the battery range.
Putting aside my confusion about why an airport trip is “common,” these differing reactions show that perceptions of electric vehicles can be more tied with daily routines rather than geographic identity. Or more accurately, daily routines are tied to extremely specific geographic identity.
With the Big Three finally putting in real effort behind their electric vehicle fleets, it actually looks like we’re on the edge of the EV tipping point.
Swapping the entire gas car market for EVs for gas cars means big greenhouse gas emissions reductions and less air pollution in general. But it also means ignoring or putting off harder decisions about land use, transit, how and where we build homes, and who gets to live in which communities. These all have climate impacts too.
Remaking the primary car market and switching from gas stations to chargers will be a huge and important undertaking, but in some ways, its a procrastinators’ decision. Before the Model T, around 1900, a third of all cars on the road were electric. In the mid-1990s, GM made a 100-mile range EV, but only allowed residents in specific cities to lease, but not buy, the vehicles. Then they destroyed almost all the cars that were sent back. Exxon knew the global warming ramifications of continuing to sell oil as early as the late 1970s, and instead of becoming a different kind of energy business over a period of decades, now faces political pressure and divestment campaigns.
Now the clock and the carbon budget is ticking, and making a quick transportation transition increasingly looks like just replacing what Americans are most familiar with: a truck.
It’s an whole-market version of skeuomorphism, a concept I didn’t have a name for until I read an essay by Clive Thompson about why EV chargers don’t necessarily have to replicate the gas pump system. A skeuomorph is any design concept or system that is designed to look like what its replacing. Skeuomorphs drove designers of the original iPhone insane, Thompson writes, in part because Steve Jobs insisted on extremely-specific ones for some of the apps:
“Apparently many of these design specs came straight from Steve Jobs, who insisted on the casino-felt approach [for the game center] — and was so enamored of the leather stitching on his private jet that he personally demanded Apple’s apps be crafted from digital cowhide.”
The skeuomorph is less a problem because it relies on quickly aging references, Thompson writes, but that it actually constrains the ability to design something better. When you’re locked into fitting the application around the old metaphor, you miss unique possibilities of the new format, even for something as simple as a calculator.
Traditionally, calculator apps are thoroughly skeuomorphic. They look exactly like a pocket calculator floating on your screen. In contrast, Soulver and Numbr utilize the digital nature of computers to evolve the way a calculator works: You type the things you’re calculating, using a mix of plain English and numbers, and you can drag results around to use them as values on a different line.
Replicating the existing car market in EVs does little for the people most in need of reliable transportation and does nothing about how deadly today’s SUVs and trucks are to pedestrians.
So what does a different understanding of transportation actually look like? It could be more and more-electrified public transit, it could be more car-sharing, it could be battery swapping, it could be organizing cities and towns where cars are something you use to leave it to go other places, not to drive within it. But the timelines on the more imaginative alternatives are longer than we have when it comes to emissions reductions. But like all procrastinators, we may succeed, at the cost of believing procrastination was crucial to our success.
Or you could use a different skeuomorph, as far removed from Steve Jobs’ private jet as possible: raiteros.
This immensely quotable Los Angeles Times story is about how a mayor of a small town set up an all-EV rideshare program — without Uber or Lyft. Green Raiteros riffs off the informal raitero system that California farmworkers have used for decades, coordinating rides in areas where few can afford to own a car and public transit is non-existent. Mayor Rey León built the program after returning to his hometown of Huron, in the Central Valley, to find transportation options no better than when he was a child.
Green Raiteros now has nine EVs and residents use a reservation system to book free rides around the county — many of them to get to medical appointments. Huron, a town of less than 7,000, now has 30 public chargers. The program has gotten a lot of attention from policy and advocacy groups who have struggled to figure out how to bring EVs to lower-income communities, but León says he was just trying to solve a persistent problem in a way that made sense to locals.
Even after he was elected Huron mayor five years ago, León’s lobbying for reliable bus routes to Fresno, Visalia and Coalinga got nowhere with regional planners, who chafed at the cost. “It’s always about who do you value and what do you value,” León said. “Farmworker communities have never been valued.”
.... León’s vision for turning this out-of-the-way city with a median household income of $25,000 into a showcase of electric vehicle innovation is built around the area’s needs and financial constraints. It is a turnabout from most electric vehicle programs, whose incentives focus on car ownership — accessible only to drivers who can afford a Tesla or Bolt and have a garage to equip with a charging station.
Does Green Raiteros make sense elsewhere? Possibly, and building a similar system elsewhere is “not so much a question of dollars,” reporter Evan Halper writes, between state climate action funds, the recently-passed infrastructure bill and dropping EV costs.
“The bigger question is whether there are enough Rey Leóns.”
Carrot/stick: Colorado lawmakers try again to reduce traffic emissions with a ‘clean commute’ bill that favors incentives over penalties.
The opaque structure of rural co-ops in Virginia is hindering the clean energy transition, and a group of organizations wants to change that.
“We Can’t Just Talk About It Anymore”: Here’s what Hawaii’s legislature could do this year on climate policy.
Who is on the hook for Arizona’s transition away from coal?
After setting up the nation’s first local green bank in 2015, Montgomery County is set to give it a major funding boost.