EV Age Dawning Now? NYT Says Yes. We Say Maybe.

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

The New York Times, or one writer paid by the New York Times (one journalist’s take or analysis or opinion doesn’t represent the entire paper, you know), had a piece out a couple days ago claiming the dawn of the EV age is now.

Somehow, I missed this article until now. But let’s a look at its assertions, shall we, and see what is and is not accurate?

The focus here is on Europe, which makes it a bit tricky to see if it’s instructive for the North American market. After all, the U.S. and Canada are more spread out, and European emissions rules are different. Still, if EVs are gaining a foothold in Europe, it could mean that EVs will soon have more of a share of our market than the tiny percent they do now.

The author, Jack Ewing, asserts that while European sales of internal-combustion engine cars have collapsed in the Old World due to the pandemic, electric-vehicle sales have been up. This is, he says, because pricing for EVs has become close to what customers would pay for similar ICE vehicles.

The problem with the assertion comes in the next paragraph: Ewing notes that government subsidies are cutting up to $10,000 off the price of EVs, depending on the country. He also notes that OEMs are cutting some serious deals, in order to help them meet emissions standards.

Not to mention that while the market share for EVs in the U.S. is about 2 percent, it’s only 5 percent in Europe. If hybrids are included, that number rises to 9 percent – and as we all know, hybrids aren’t pure EVs. Hybrids, of course, use internal-combustion engines to some extent (varying by model).

So is the following true? “As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.”

Well, maybe. The last sentence is probably true – but it ignores factors such as range anxiety, charge time, and charger availability/accessibility. Even accounting for Europe’s dense cities and differences in EV infrastructure, consumers may still have those same concerns on that side of the pond.

As for the tipping point and the speed with which we’re reaching it, that’s debatable. Europe does have a lot of charge points – 190,000 as of 2019, according to this report – but that same report shows that 76 percent of the charge points are in four countries that make up only 27 percent of the European Union. Even accounting for the fact that not every European country is an EU member, that’s disproportionate distribution. And not all of those chargers are fast chargers.

Furthermore, there are currently about seven EVs per charge point on the market, and if the EV market is to grow, there will need to be more charge points. The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) estimates the number will need to be 2.8 million, at a minimum, by 2030.

I’m not saying Ewing, or the experts he quotes who estimate the EV tipping point as anywhere from 2023 to 2025, are wrong. They could very well be correct. But they’re definitely optimistic, and they seem to be focusing on MSRP, since they seem to believe that’s what will get customers to make the switch.

The logic seems to be that consumers will leap to EVs as soon as they are the same price or cheaper than gasoline- or diesel-powered cars. After all, EVs will also presumably be cheaper to maintain, since they don’t need oil changes. But EVs still will need new brakes and tires and they can still suffer body damage. They’ll be cheaper to maintain, perhaps, but not cost-free.

Ewing also asserts that the move to EVs might be “very scary” for traditional car companies since basic ICE tech hasn’t changed in major ways but there’s a race among companies to find the best battery tech that also brings the cost of lithium-ion batteries down. This seems to ignore that a) while changes to ICE tech have been incremental by comparison, there has been a lot of innovation that helps bring emissions down and b) traditional automakers are, in general, also working hard on EVs. Did Ewing forget that Nissan builds the Leaf and General Motors sells the Chevrolet Bolt?

That last one would be understandable – Chevy barely markets the Bolt.

Like other writers, Ewing seems to fall for the narrative that Tesla is just killing the traditional automakers in the EV game. The truth is more complex.

“The California company has been selling electric cars since 2008 and can draw on years of data to calculate how far it can safely push a battery’s performance without causing overheating or excessive wear. That knowledge allows Tesla to offer better range than competitors who have to be more careful. Tesla’s four models are the only widely available electric cars that can go more than 300 miles on a charge, according to Kelley Blue Book”, Ewing writes.

I have no idea what he means about competitors needing to be more careful. Does he mean other startups have fewer resources than Tesla, and thus can not test as extensively? That might make sense. But why would the legacy automakers have to be more careful? They have tons of resources for testing EV tech. And again, several have been selling EVs for years. The big automakers should have plenty of EV data and “knowledge” to draw on. Tesla may be tops in range for now, but the EVs offered by others aren’t that far off, and are more affordable.

We don’t doubt that KBB’s assertion is accurate. But again, context is ignored. The other automakers have been testing EVs for years, too. And Tesla may have four models that can go over 300 miles on a charge, but the company has been plagued by quality issues, and most Teslas are priced too high to be affordable to the mainstream car buyer. Not to mention that owning a Tesla – or any EV – can be a dicey proposition to the customer who can’t afford a home charger. Or the customer who lives in an urban area and doesn’t have access to his or her own charger. Finally, chargers can be unreliable. I know from experience.

Ewing then goes on to talk about rumors that Tesla will use today’s Battery Day to announce a battery that can store more juice at a much lower cost as proof that Tesla is far ahead, and he follows by quoting an analyst who once worked for a Tesla supplier as saying that the legacy OEMs are playing catch-up on EVs. To be fair, the analyst does concede that the big automakers will catch up.

Then there is this gem: “The traditional carmakers’ best hope to avoid oblivion will be to exploit their expertise in supply chains and mass production to churn out economical electrical cars by the millions.”

Again, Ewing seems to be operating from the premise that Tesla and other startup EV makers will just decimate the legacy OEMs as soon as price parity is achieved. As if the OEMs haven’t already been working on EV tech alongside the startups. As if the OEMs aren’t better positioned to mass-produce cars at scale with fewer quality problems, regardless of powertrain. As if OEMs don’t already have dealer networks, and supplier networks for the parts that aren’t powertrain dependent (brakes, electronic parts, tires, et cetera). As if OEMs haven’t spent 100 years figuring out how to sell and service cars at a level that most startups haven’t grasped yet. As if legacy automakers haven’t spent decades working on aerodynamics and other aspects of automotive design that EV makers will need to master to be successful.

Hell, two of the three EVs that Ewing lists in his lede as examples of vehicles that could soon be eclipsing ICE vehicles in sales are built by legacy automakers – Volkswagen and Renault. Speaking of VW, Ewing claims the launch of the ID.3 in Europe will be a test of legacy automaker’s ability to build EVs.

Again, as if legacy automakers won’t know how to build EVs as well as startups, or will be seen as old news by consumers. He then quotes a professor about how the automakers will have a steep learning curve when it comes to building battery-electric vehicles on a mass scale since the tech is so new. Once again ignoring that the OEMs are already building EVs (in small numbers, to be fair) and have plenty of experience with mass production.

Sure, battery tech is new, but automakers have been working on it for years now, and if any group of companies knows how to bring new tech to scale with relative ease, automakers would be that group.

I’m not arguing that EVs won’t eventually become dominant. They likely will, although the ICE will perhaps remain for a small part of the market, such as trucks and sports cars. Nor am I arguing that the start-ups haven’t been impressive, in some ways, or haven’t helped drive innovation. The truth is that both startups (Tesla, Lucid, Rivian, et al) and the legacy OEMs have been working to drive EV development. And both will likely be part of the picture moving forward.

Nor do I mean to pick on Ewing or the Times. The Times generally produces good journalism, faceplants from the op-ed department notwithstanding. And Ewing isn’t totally off-base, here. It is true that dropping sticker prices for EVs will help drive adoption, and it’s true that if batteries can store more energy for less cost, that will help. If batteries cost less, EVs will cost less, and if the range increases, consumers will be more interested. Therefore, if cheaper EVs have longer ranges, it’s a win-win for electric vehicles.

But charge times still need to drop (even the half-hour time to 80 percent that Tesla offers is still a lot longer than the empty-to-full time of just a few minutes for gas cars) and charger availability needs to increase. Cheaper sticker prices for EVs isn’t enough, since sticker pricing isn’t the only factor at play.

Is the EV dawn upon us? Possibly. But it’s more likely to be a slow transition that moves in fits in starts over the next few years, maybe even the next decade, than the rosy and seamless transition that Ewing seems to see taking place.

I’m not anti-EV, I am not in the pocket of legacy automakers or Big Oil, and I don’t think the NYT is fake news. I’m not even a pessimist or a cynic. I just see a messy, complicated reality where many industry analysts, business writers (many seem to not fully understand the automotive industry, which is, to be fair, quite different than most), and EV proponents (many of whom have a stake in the success of EV startups) see only the best-case scenario.

Again, I believe EVs will, at some point, be dominant for most car buyers. But to borrow language from the COVID vaccine discussion (language that’s also based on electronics), getting there won’t be like flipping a switch. It will be more like using a dimmer – a gradual increase. Not only that, but the increase may dim at times before progressing again.

The EV age will dawn in fits and starts. Not overnight.

[Images: Chevrolet, Nissan, Tesla, Volkswagen]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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6 of 66 comments
  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Sep 22, 2020

    Practical EV ownership requires dedicated parking space with power hookup. In the suburbs or rural areas, this is no problem. Once you get closer to the city, and in the city, parking can be found, but dedicated parking with a hookup is going to be tough, and very expensive if you find it. Garages in NYC are $600 per month, and you don't get "your own" parking space-an attendant gets your car from a stack....so even at NYC nosebleed prices, hooking up that Tesla's going to be complicated. Most EV are still Tesla, bought at the E Class Benz price point. I've a neighbor with an e-Golf, a 2017 leftover in 2020 but the Golf's range is too little for most, 80-120 miles, and yes, he has a driveway and installed an outlet, and owns another car, an ICE wagon (Buick !) There's a long, long way to go here....EV will take a niche with tech folks like the neighbor, but in the normal world....

    • See 1 previous
    • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Sep 23, 2020

      @FreedMike Agreed. The eGolf was bought for those store runs and as a station car for the train in the "before times". My normal driving on a daily basis (I have a 120 mile run tomorrow AM) means I could Tesla but not e golf. I have a driveway and electricity is possible, but Tesla scared me in that there is no one to service or sell parts but...Tesla Mother Ship. Drove a Bolt but the interior wasn't a place I'd want to spend a 300 mile day....It'll get there, the first computers weren't great either....

  • Dartdude Dartdude on Sep 23, 2020

    One thing that the article doesn't state in Europe gasoline and diesel are tax generators. Countries giving subsidies and losing tax revenues are going to have to generate more tax money with higher taxes from elsewhere. Bevs are going to make electricity a commodity. As with commodities higher demand the the higher the price. Just as ethanol increased the corn based products price higher. But everyone will have solar panels on their house to compensate the cost of electricity. Solar panels are not cheap and don't last very long. Bevs still will create more problems then they solve.

    • See 1 previous
    • HotPotato HotPotato on Sep 29, 2020

      Between the choices of "avoiding hastened extinction of human life" and "needing to restructure tax collection," I think even the most sclerotic bureaucracy would reluctantly agree that the importance of the first outweighs the inconvenience of the second. I realize that's not how a lot of people view the climate issue here, but we are the outlier.

  • Honda1 Unions were needed back in the early days, not needed know. There are plenty of rules and regulations and government agencies that keep companies in line. It's just a money grad and nothing more. Fain is a punk!
  • 1995 SC If the necessary number of employees vote to unionize then yes, they should be unionized. That's how it works.
  • Sobhuza Trooper That Dave Thomas fella sounds like the kind of twit who is oh-so-quick to tell us how easy and fun the bus is for any and all of your personal transportation needs. The time to get to and from the bus stop is never a concern. The time waiting for the bus is never a concern. The time waiting for a connection (if there is one) is never a concern. The weather is never a concern. Whatever you might be carrying or intend to purchase is never a concern. Nope, Boo Cars! Yeah Buses! Buses rule!Needless to say, these twits don't actual take the damn bus.
  • MaintenanceCosts Nobody here seems to acknowledge that there are multiple use cases for cars.Some people spend all their time driving all over the country and need every mile and minute of time savings. ICE cars are better for them right now.Some people only drive locally and fly when they travel. For them, there's probably a range number that works, and they don't really need more. For the uses for which we use our EV, that would be around 150 miles. The other thing about a low range requirement is it can make 120V charging viable. If you don't drive more than an average of about 40 miles/day, you can probably get enough electrons through a wall outlet. We spent over two years charging our Bolt only through 120V, while our house was getting rebuilt, and never had an issue.Those are extremes. There are all sorts of use cases in between, which probably represent the majority of drivers. For some users, what's needed is more range. But I think for most users, what's needed is better charging. Retrofit apartment garages like Tim's with 240V outlets at every spot. Install more L3 chargers in supermarket parking lots and alongside gas stations. Make chargers that work like Tesla Superchargers as ubiquitous as gas stations, and EV charging will not be an issue for most users.
  • MaintenanceCosts I don't have an opinion on whether any one plant unionizing is the right answer, but the employees sure need to have the right to organize. Unions or the credible threat of unionization are the only thing, history has proven, that can keep employers honest. Without it, we've seen over and over, the employers have complete power over the workers and feel free to exploit the workers however they see fit. (And don't tell me "oh, the workers can just leave" - in an oligopolistic industry, working conditions quickly converge, and there's not another employer right around the corner.)