Biden lauds them. Trump wants to restrict them. How driving an electric car got political

ST. LOUIS – SUV driver Darlene Wilson unexpectedly found herself behind the steering wheel of a Tesla electric car after someone crashed into her family’s Chevrolet Traverse.

Driving hundreds of miles a week, with two kids to haul around while also managing an Airbnb, Wilson appreciated the Traverse’s space. But filling up every other day had gotten old ‒ and expensive.

And now, after a few weeks of driving the insurance-paid rental Tesla, Wilson, 41, is a convert to electric vehicles, or at least this specific one.

“We love it. And I didn’t think we were going to,” said Wilson as her two kids watched videos and played games on the car’s large display screen, the Tesla charging behind a Target store.

While many Tesla owners have installed chargers at their homes, Wilson has to use company-branded chargers that take about 30 minutes to refill the car’s batteries. Still, she said, even having to sit parked a few times a week is far cheaper than filling her SUV’s 20-gallon tank, and she’s now considering buying an EV herself.

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“I would drive it because it’s more economical,” she said. “For what we spent on gas compared to what it costs to charge, it’s not even close.”

For Wilson, driving an electric car isn’t a political decision, just straight-up economics. But increasingly for Americans, President Joe Biden and rival Donald Trump are putting EV drivers and their haters squarely in the political spotlight.

And as they move closer to mainstream, EVs have become the latest culture war flashpoint between Republicans and Democrats, with Biden pushing heavily for their adoption and Trump promising a “bloodbath” of regulatory restrictions to block imports and protect American auto workers, many of whom are based in the swing state of Michigan. Because EVs have fewer parts, they require less work to build and maintain.

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The battle over EV adoption has high stakes, with experts warning the U.S. needs to move rapidly away from gas-burning vehicles in order to meet goals set by the Paris Climate Accords and help blunt the impacts of an already-changing climate.

Today, there are about 4.5 million plug-in hybrids and EVs on American roads, representing about 10% of all vehicles. About 1/3 of all EVs are in California.

Although electric vehicles have been adopted more rapidly around the world ‒ including in Norway, China and the European Union ‒ Americans have been slow to shift their purchases. Last year, the top three vehicle models sold in the U.S. were pickups, followed by the Toyota RAV4. But the fifth-best selling vehicle, according to estimates by Motor1, was the battery-powered Tesla Model Y SUV.

The Biden administration on Wednesday issued new rules aimed at shifting drivers away from buying gasoline cars and SUVs.

The new rules, based around tailpipe emission standards, are intended to ensure that within eight years, the majority of consumer vehicles sold are either all-electric or gas-electric hybrids. The rules don’t require manufacturers to make EVs, but the emission standards are so tough that automakers will have a hard time complying unless they do. Last year, about 16% of new vehicles sold were EVs or hybrids, according to federal officials.

While Biden and other EV fans say electric cars are widely beneficial for both drivers and the climate, critics complain that EVs are more expensive, slow to recharge, have smaller ranges, especially in cold weather, and that the charging infrastructure is spotty.

To help lower costs, the Biden administration offers tax breaks to buy American-made EVs, and is spending more than $7.5 billion to build rapid-charging stations across the country, especially along heavily traveled interstate corridors.

In a statement distributed by the Biden administration, an industry group that represents most of the major auto manufacturers ‒ including Ford, GM, Honda and Stellantis, the parent company that makes Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep vehicles ‒ said the push toward EVs is both necessary and challenging. The group thanked Biden for delaying the start of the emission standards for several years, allowing charging infrastructure and supply chains to develop.

“The future is electric,” said John Bozzella, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. “Consumers have tons of choices. But pace matters.”

While some EV critics say they just don’t want to be forced into driving a battery-powered car, others have a far more visceral reaction. Across the country, there’s been news reports of gas-vehicle drivers deliberately blocking off EV charging stations in what’s known as “ICEing,” a reference to their internal combustion engine.

The transportation sector is the single-largest producer of climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions, largely because the vast majority of vehicles are powered either directly or indirectly by burning coal, natural gas or gasoline. Wind, solar and hydro make up about 20% of the nation’s electricity generation, although that number is rising rapidly each year, according to federal officials.

A 2023 study published by the journal Transportation Research found that about 25% of EV purchasers ultimately replaced them with a gas-powered vehicle, while another 10% bought a plug-in hybrid because they typically have a longer range. The study noted, however, that Tesla purchasers almost invariably bought another Tesla. Experts say “range anxiety” is one of the single-biggest stumbling blocks for widespread EV adoption, which is what’s driving the Biden administration push for more changing stations.

Tesla driver Topher Clark, 54, doesn’t understand how trying to protect the Earth became so political. He sees his Tesla, along with the solar panels on the roof of his Portland, Oregon, home, as one part of a reasonable effort to reduce pollution and fight climate change.

“This was the realization of a lifelong dream to not be spewing exhaust,” said Clark, a software engineering manager, gesturing at his Tesla SUV charging near the junction of I-64 and I-170.

Clark, 54, was driving cross-country ‒ he’d already put 2,000 miles behind him ‒ and said charging was easy and convenient. Clark said after buying the Tesla, he practiced driving it increasingly long distances from Portland to ensure the SUV’s miles-left estimates were accurate. He was especially worried about losing capacity in cold weather, but said the SUV’s computer made it “brain-dead easy” to travel from charger to charger.

He also said he’s frustrated that caring for the Earth is somehow a partisan issue.

“There’s nothing political about keeping your house clean,” he said. “I can’t look my nieces and nephews in their eyes, tell them I love them and then piss on the planet. And that’s effectively what’s people are doing.”

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