Electric Cars And The Environment : Short Wave Electric cars can help reduce greenhouse gases and companies are taking note — racing to become the next Tesla. Today on the show, guest host Dan Charles talks with business reporter Camila Domonoske about how serious the country is about this big switch from gas to electric cars. Plus, what could get drivers to ditch the gas guzzlers?

For more of Camila's reporting on electric cars, check out "The age of gas cars could be ending" and "2 little-known automotive startups are leading the race to become the next Tesla"

You can email the show at ShortWave@NPR.org.

The Electric Car Race! Vroom, Vroom!

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

DAN CHARLES, HOST:

Hello, SHORT WAVErs. It's Dan Charles here with NPR's car and energy reporter, Camila Domonoske.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Dan.

CHARLES: Camila, you're here to talk about electric cars. And I have a true confession - I bought one this year.

DOMONOSKE: Hey, what'd you get?

CHARLES: A zippy little Chevy Bolt. And I bought it really for climate reasons. Because if people shift from burning gas in their cars to, you know, running on electricity, it means fewer greenhouse gases going into the air, warming the climate.

DOMONOSKE: Right, exactly. And I have to ask, what do you think of the Bolt?

CHARLES: I love it. I love driving by gas stations, thinking...

DOMONOSKE: (Laughing) I hear that a lot.

CHARLES: ...I do not have to go in there. I do not have to, you know, like, put gas in this car and have the stuff coming out of the exhaust. You know, the conversation around electric cars has shifted in recent years. It seems like more people are thinking that they are a real option.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. I mean, they're still a very small percentage of the market, but I'm hearing more and more people who drive a gas-powered car today who completely assume that they'll buy an electric vehicle in the future. And that didn't always used to be the case, right? If you want electric vehicles to play a meaningful role in reducing emissions, you really need pretty much everyone to switch from a gas-powered car to an electric car. It can't just be a small slice of the driving public, right?

CHARLES: And there are laws that are pushing this, right?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. It's gone from being a pretty fringe idea - the idea that we would have a wholesale switch from electric vehicles to gas-powered cars - to now it's something where you've actually got governments in Europe, individual states in the United States and automakers who are saying, no, we fully expect or we're mandating a switch to electric within the next couple decades. This really was an idea that was laughed at a few years ago. Electric vehicles were seen as something that a few people would buy and love, but most people wouldn't drive. And now it's increasingly a mainstream proposal to say that we could switch over completely.

CHARLES: But will these proposals become reality? Today on the show, how serious are we about this big switch from gas to electric cars? What could get drivers to ditch the gas-burners?

DOMONOSKE: And I take a ride in a couple of the newest and most deluxe electric vehicles coming to market.

CHARLES: I'm Dan Charles, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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CHARLES: OK. Camila, how important are electric cars and trucks if we're talking about fighting climate change?

DOMONOSKE: You know, they're really important. Transportation is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions here in the U.S., so replacing them is a huge deal.

CHARLES: But to get the full climate benefit, you'd have to charge those vehicles with low carbon electricity - right? - like from, you know, hydro dams or solar or nuclear.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. No, totally. And it would also help if we drove less overall, if there were more investments in public transit and if that public transit was green, too. You know, a lot of things have to happen, which is why most people, when they talk about this, talk about an energy transition across the board where all these things shift together.

And when it comes to vehicles, we just have so many of them that are on the road right now. They stay there for years and years and years. You have to imagine every single one of those being replaced by an electric vehicle. And right now in the U.S., electric vehicles make up 2-, 3-, maybe 4% of new car sales. We're definitely not on track for a wholesale conversion of our fleet anytime soon.

CHARLES: What is happening now, though - I mean, to affect these decisions that, you know, millions of private citizens have to make? Everybody's got their own preferences, right?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. We're seeing different approaches in different parts of the world, whether it's China, Europe or the U.S. But big picture, it's carrots and it's sticks, right? So on the carrot side, you have maybe financial incentives for buying electric vehicles. You invest in charging infrastructure to make it easier to own them. And then on the stick side, you have things like really strict fuel economy standards that push automakers to make more electric vehicles.

Here in the U.S., there's an executive order on the federal level that would phase out gas-powered vehicles within the federal government. So that would be a big investment in buying them for the government. And then there are these laws that we talked about earlier, the idea of just mandating an end to gas-powered cars and saying that all new car sales starting at some point in the future have to be zero-emission. And we've seen that in California, Massachusetts and New York. It's being discussed in some other states. And kind of remarkably, where this has passed, it hasn't even been particularly controversial.

CHARLES: That is amazing to me, that it's not controversial. Why is that - because it seems way off in the future?

DOMONOSKE: It is true. These mandates tend to be set 2035 - right? - which isn't that far away, big picture. But it feels far away - right? - like, as somebody who's shopping for a car today. But if we actually want to hit these targets, if states actually want to realize them, changes to industry and infrastructure need to happen, like, right away because the scale of transformation here, again, it's massive.

Right now, gas and diesel vehicles are almost all new car sales. Electric vehicles are a tiny slice of the market. And if that changes, we would need huge changes to a bunch of other things, including our electric grid to support a massive charging infrastructure. All the car factories have to convert to making electric vehicles. We need battery supply chains. And individual shoppers all over the country have to choose electric vehicles.

CHARLES: So big, big changes ahead, you know, if this works out. One thing I'm really curious about, though - obviously for this to happen, electric cars have to be affordable, right? They have to be cheap enough for people to buy.

But there is another side to this. You know, cars are part of the culture. People buy them because they're excited about them. For some people, what kind of car they drive is part of their identity. So what's that part of this shift to electric cars going to look like? What might people decide, hey, I want that car?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. This was one area where Tesla really had a transformative impact, right? And from the start, it was like, these vehicles are going to be cool. They're going to be fast. They're going to be desirable. And that really changed how people perceive electric vehicles. And so right now, Tesla totally dominates electric vehicle sales.

And interestingly, there are some new startups that are coming on that are trying to recreate this same magic and make cars that are drool worthy, but to attract a different segment of audience. I drove in a couple of these new ones - a Rivian and a Lucid, which listeners who follow the stock market have almost certainly heard about. They've each only made a few hundred vehicles, but they have gotten a lot of attention.

CHARLES: OK. This is great. Let's listen to your story and ride along with you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The light turns green. Yep, you can punch a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Camila's got a lead foot.

DOMONOSKE: Both these electric vehicle startups have hit a huge milestone. They're actually producing and selling their vehicles today. That's why I could zoom around D.C. in that truck. Both companies also have a ton of cash in the bank and big plans to scale up. So who are these companies? Let's start with Rivian.

JAMES CHEN: So if you think of Tesla as the Brooks Brothers suit, we're the Patagonia.

DOMONOSKE: That's James Chen, who leads Rivian's policy work in D.C. He's a lawyer and a ski patroller, which kind of sums up Rivian's whole vibe.

CHEN: OK, so you wouldn't wear the Brooks Brothers suit to go camping or adventuring or the ski hill, but you would wear your Patagonia.

DOMONOSKE: This pickup truck is designed for off-roading and adventure. But it's also a $70,000 luxury truck, so you're not exactly roughing it. Ryan Luaces with the Rivian corporate fleet starts to demonstrate some features.

RYAN LUACES: If you're out camping and you want to listen to music outside the car, full speaker - Bluetooth speaker comes out.

DOMONOSKE: An electric vehicle doesn't need an engine, which freed up space for a frunk - that's front trunk - that doubles as a cooler. There's an option to add a camp kitchen with an induction stovetop. Now, remember how there are two companies in this story? If Tesla is a nice suit and Rivian is a pricey Patagonia jacket, Lucid would be a clothing brand so posh, I've never heard of it.

PETER RAWLINSON: Yeah, well, unashamedly, this is a high-end product. It's an awesome machine. It's true luxury electric car.

DOMONOSKE: That's CEO Peter Rawlinson. He took me for a drive back before Lucid went public. The sleek sedan is whisper quiet and smooth. It also has 500 miles of range and claims record-setting charge times.

RAWLINSON: We're able to charge nearly 300 miles of range in just 20 minutes. No one else is even close to that.

DOMONOSKE: Lucid says its closest competition is the Mercedes S-Class, the famously luxurious sedan. In the Tysons Corner mall at a new Lucid storefront across from a Michael Kors, people keep stopping to gawk at the car. One woman says it makes Tesla look basic. Ryan Baxter is helping launch this location, and he points to the details of the finishes.

RYAN BAXTER: A Napa full-grain leather, Alcantara suede, a naturally colored alpaca wool.

DOMONOSKE: This particular model costs 170 grand, and it's sold out. Both of these new electric automakers now face huge challenges. They need to scale up from a few hundred vehicles to tens of thousands. And they need to outcompete all the big automakers who are planning to make much cheaper electric vehicles. But investors seem to be betting that startups can innovate more easily than incumbents can change. And that's why Rivian and Lucid, these two new names, are now some of the most valuable automakers on Earth.

CHARLES: Camila, I had to kind of laugh listening to that. These are not cars that I would ever have considered.

(LAUGHTER)

CHARLES: But these other more affordable, you know, cars like my Chevy Bolt, what's happening to those?

DOMONOSKE: More affordable electric cars are going to be incredibly important if there's going to be a transition away from gas to electric vehicles, right? And even companies like Rivian and Lucid, they are planning in the future to bring out cheaper vehicles, the same way that Tesla started with a six-figure sports car and then made the Model 3, right? They kind of want to recreate that path.

And then you've also got the big automakers like GM, which made your Chevy. We've also got Ford and Dodge Ram. All of these companies are planning to bring out more vehicles and cheaper electric vehicles in the coming years. One huge challenge, though, is that battery costs have to keep coming down because right now the cost of the battery for an electric vehicle just makes up a huge percentage of that upfront sticker price.

CHARLES: Yeah, back to the costs again. I'm curious, are there places that are really making this transition happen that are kind of showing how it could be done?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. The example of Europe is really pretty remarkable here.

SANDRA WAPPELHORST: Iceland, United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Denmark...

DOMONOSKE: I talked to Sandra Wappelhorst with the International Council on Clean Transportation. They've been tracking which governments have set dates for ending the sale of new gas cars. And, you know, she can go on and on about this.

WAPPELHORST: ...States, Canada in two provinces - British Columbia and Quebec.

DOMONOSKE: And you know, this is a global conversation. The big climate talks included a call to phase out gas-powered cars worldwide by 2040. But in Europe, there's the possibility that they'll actually mandate this change with a legally binding regulation by 2035. And already, Europe has imposed these really strict fuel economy standards where basically companies that don't build electric vehicles have to pay huge fines; they have to pay a lot of money.

And you can really see the result. Just a few years ago, the U.S. and Europe were basically neck and neck in terms of what percentage of car sales were electric. We were right around 2%. But then Europe changed these policies. And now here in the U.S., we're at the very latest numbers, maybe 4%, and Europe is almost 20%. Electric vehicles shot up to make up a fifth of the market. So I do think...

CHARLES: Wow.

DOMONOSKE: ...It's pretty clear that policy does make a difference here.

CHARLES: Yeah. It sounds like a very big puzzle to put together to, you know, build this big picture.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. And it's a puzzle that's being put together by a lot of different players. You've got the automakers, you've got governments, even electric utilities and then, ultimately, car drivers like you and me.

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CHARLES: Thanks, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks, Dan.

CHARLES: This episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Sara Sarasohn and fact-checked by Indi Khera. The audio engineer for this episode was Gilly Moon. I'm Dan Charles, and you've been listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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