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“There’s a bit of a cultural issue”: Pete Buttigieg gets real about the EV revolution

Recode spoke with the secretary of transportation about winning over rural drivers and surmounting other roadblocks to the EV transition.

Photo collage of Pete Buttigieg and the Capitol dome. Christina Animashaun/Vox

The electric vehicle revolution has a problem: There aren’t enough EVs or chargers. General Motors’ planned production of the electric GMC Hummer pickup and SUV sold out just 10 minutes after reservations opened, and prices on used EV models, like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt, are now higher than they were last year. Though as much as 25 percent of prospective car owners are interested in EVs, electric vehicles represent just 4 percent of the new cars produced in the United States.

The EV revolution promises to replace gas-powered vehicles with cars that are powered by batteries. Automakers are retooling their factories and building new plants so they can manufacture electric vehicles, and the government is investing heavily to speed up the transition and prepare the country’s infrastructure for their arrival. Leading figures of the Biden administration, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, have urged people to start buying EVs and have started to electrify the hundreds of thousands of vehicles used by government workers, too.

But as the transition to electric vehicles takes off, automakers are racing to produce more of them. As with internal combustion cars, supply chain challenges have made it difficult to manufacture EVs during the pandemic, and shortages of raw materials have made it harder to build the batteries that power them. This situation is far from ideal. EVs need to be more convenient to buy and own if they’re going to replace gas-powered vehicles, including the vehicles used in commercial fleets and public transportation. Until that happens, every internal combustion vehicle purchased in lieu of an EV could be on the road for years, continuing to emit carbon dioxide and exacerbating climate change.

“It’s true that in this particular season, the automakers can’t make them fast enough,” Buttigieg told Recode in a recent interview. “Nothing has happened in the auto industry as game-changing as this.”

US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg looks at a Tesla Model S during an electric vehicles showcase outside of the Transportation Department in Washington, DC, on October 20, 2021.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

While the car industry shifts gears to produce more EVs, the government’s campaign to get people to use them is underway. The Department of Transportation, led by Buttigieg, recently approved plans to distribute $5 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC, to build a nationwide EV charging network that will cover 75,000 miles of highway. Another $2.5 billion has been set aside to install chargers in rural and underserved areas. The Department of Energy is also spending $3 billion to develop the US battery supply chain and is investing in chargers for heavy-duty vehicles while working with the DOT on the national charging network.

There’s a long road ahead, though. Take the government’s delayed efforts to electrify its own vehicles. Biden has called for all new light-duty vehicles purchased for the federal fleet to be electric by 2027, but only about 1,800 of the more than 600,000 vehicles in this fleet are currently zero-emissions, according to the Associated Press. In addition to struggling to acquire EVs, the government only has 2,000 of its own EV chargers. “We’re still just releasing these products into the market,” said Kevin Riddell, a senior manager at industry forecaster LMC Automotive. “Once you release it, that’s great, but the factory can’t instantly just start making 70,000 vehicles a year.”

There are other challenges ahead. Plans for a nationwide charging network could be delayed by “Buy America” rules (these rules encourage companies to use materials and manufacture products in the US), which may make it harder for states to find the chargers they need. The Federal Highway Administration said late last year that it was “not aware of any EV chargers” that meet these requirements, and recently proposed a new waiver that would let these rules kick in more gradually. There are also cultural roadblocks, Buttigieg told Recode, including shifting some peoples’ perceptions that EVs are only for liberal city-dwellers. Then there’s the matter of convincing consumers that EVs — which generally cost more to purchase but are cheaper to power and maintain — are more affordable and convenient compared to gas-powered cars.

“If someone made a decision that they’re ready to switch to an 100 percent pure battery electric vehicle, they’re willing to wait,” said Gabe Shenhar, an auto engineer who oversees purchasing at Consumer Reports. “But if you’re in a situation where you need a car immediately, then it’s probably not going to be an EV unless you luck out.”

Still, you have to start somewhere. Buttigieg told Recode that the EV transition is well on its way. Extensive government investment will help make EVs a more regular part of life for most people, he argues, and automakers won’t always be facing the same production challenges they are now.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Rebecca Heilweil

The Department of Transportation recently approved plans to install EV chargers across the interstate highway in all 50 states, as well as DC and Puerto Rico. There’s the eventual goal of installing at least 500,000 chargers in the US by the end of the decade. What are the biggest challenges you see right now for building this network?

Pete Buttigieg, surrounded by EVs and chargers, speaks outside of the Transportation Department on October 20, 2021.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Secretary Buttigieg

It’s no small task. We’re talking about a major, major transformation in terms of the way that we fuel our vehicles and a different model from what we have. The best thing we have to compare it to is gas vehicles. In some ways, it can be easier, in the sense that people with single-family homes can charge their vehicles in a way that you obviously can’t fill up with gas at home. On the other hand, it’s much harder in the sense that it can take longer to charge a vehicle than it can to fill it up. And it just takes a different infrastructure to make sure that you can get the electricity to where it needs to be.

But it’s gonna take a lot of work. And there are a lot of places now where chargers are needed, whether we’re talking about in a dense urban area or along the stretch of the highway somewhere, that don’t automatically pencil out in terms of being profitable but does need to happen. That’s where the federal funds can really come in.

Rebecca Heilweil

Logistically, what’s going to be difficult to do during this transition?

Secretary Buttigieg

Issues include siting and getting that right. We have some basic requirements, but it’s really up to the states to work out questions around that. It’s certainly the availability of the chargers themselves. Making sure that we’re supporting our Buy America policy goals, and also getting these things out to where they need to be.

Workforce can be an issue. We’ve got to make sure that we have the right-trained workforce of skilled workers to install these chargers. It’s an exciting thing. It’s good news, since it’s a lot of good-paying jobs. But we’ve really got to ramp up and be ready for that.

There’s the grid, which is — in many places — going to have to be upgraded or adjusted in order to meet the demand. At a global level, it’s certainly more efficient to produce power in utility-scale, and get it over to a vehicle, than it is to put a fuel into millions of vehicles and combust them individually in those vehicles. But actually capturing that efficiency? That takes a distribution system that we don’t have today. And that’s something we have our eyes open about. It’s one of the reasons why you see grid improvements and highway improvements as part of the same bill because increasingly, you can’t separate the two.

Rebecca Heilweil

What messages are you most struggling to get across to apprehensive EV buyers?

Secretary Buttigieg

First is realistic assumptions about range. The truth is, for most drivers, it is rare that you’re going to need to go 300 miles without being able to fill up. But also for most drivers, we feel like we at least want that option. And so I think we need to make sure that we can speak to that so-called “range anxiety,” both in terms of the resources to be able to charge up whenever you need to and thinking through what the true needs actually are.

Another challenge is cost, so making sure that there are good apples-to-apples comparisons out there. Because right now, typically in an electric vehicle, your car payments are going to be higher because the sticker price of the car is higher, but your cost of fuel and your cost of ownership in terms of maintenance is going to be lower. Making it really easy to see how you could come out ahead is something that I think is important. But then again, I’m not sure that anything and everything that officials like me do will matter as much as what car dealers and car commercials can do to help educate the public about the economics here.

And then there’s a bit of a cultural issue, which is just making sure people understand that this is not just something for urban, presumptively liberal drivers taking short trips around big coastal cities. But on the contrary, actually, the more rural your environment, the more gas money you’re probably going to save by having one of these things. The performance of the cars and our pickup trucks is very compelling. But you have to have driven one or talk to somebody who has to really know that.

Rebecca Heilweil

Relatedly, we’re seeing increasingly that people do want to buy these electric vehicles, and on some models, we’re seeing demand outstripping the supply that’s available. Were automakers behind in making the switch to EVs? Why are we seeing slower manufacturing of EVs than what we would have liked?

Secretary Buttigieg

It’s true that in this particular season, the automakers can’t make them fast enough. I think that it will rise and fall over time, in terms of what the real limiting factor is going to be and it won’t always be production. But I do think what we’re seeing is an industry that is having to adjust in a very profound way.

Nothing has happened in the auto industry as game-changing as this, really since they settled on combustion in the first place 100 years ago. Notably, that was an open debate 110 years ago. If you go to the Studebaker Museum in my hometown (Editor’s note: Buttigieg is from South Bend, Indiana, where he previously served as mayor), you can see 1903 [and] 1904 model horseless carriages that were actually battery-operated. So in a way, this is a full-circle moment for the industry.

Pete Buttigieg talks with Toyota executives at the Toyota booth at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on September 14.
Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images

But look how quickly they’re gearing up. At least one company, Ford, has reorganized their entire business around this. You got a company like GM that’s declared that it’s not even gonna make combustion cars past 2035. Stellantis is making a lot of big moves that deeply commit them to EVs. And then you have the newer companies, the Teslas, Rivians, and so on that had been set up for this the whole time, but are themselves going through the evolution that would be required for them to hit the next level in terms of scale.

Rebecca Heilweil

What do you think needs to happen to reach a tipping point where EVs are so convenient that people are just going to instinctively want to buy them instead of gas-powered vehicles?

Secretary Buttigieg

It’s really going to depend on where you are [living], and part of that is even geographically. I’ll give you an example: So for where Chasten and I (Chasten Buttigieg is Buttigieg’s husband) live when I’m not in Washington — where we live in Michigan — we’re already well past the point where it’s a better choice because we’re fortunate to have a single-family home with a garage. And the main charging infrastructure that we count on is just a plug in the wall. We also have a plug-in hybrid, which means that if we were to go past the 30 miles or so that our minivan runs on electric — which we rarely do going to Target and back— but if we do, then the gas kicks in, and that’s fine for a road trip.

That’s completely different from being in a city where maybe you even have less range anxiety, but also you’re in a multifamily building where the charging infrastructure may not be there. Or being in a rural area where maybe you have the benefit of a single-family home and plug in your garage, but you really are driving more than a couple hundred miles a day.

In terms of the economic side, we’re pretty close to that tipping point already. In other words, depending on the model, we are fast approaching the point where the cost of buying, owning, and fueling a car, taken together, it’s cheaper for an electric model than a corresponding gas model. We’re roughly there or very close.

So now the question really will be making sure it can reach everybody, [including] lower-income drivers, who will really benefit from those gas savings but need to be able to afford it in the first place. That’s why the used tax credit being part of the IRA (Editor’s note: The updated EV tax credit includes a credit for buying previously owned electric vehicles as well as new ones) is so important. And this question of charging range anxiety, and making sure that it works functionally and not just financially.

Rebecca Heilweil

The Associated Press put out a report that fewer than 1,800 of the more than 600,000 vehicles in the federal fleet are zero-emissions right now. Are there lessons to be learned from the transition of the federal fleet to EVs? Does this raise concerns about this being slower than ideal and not boding well for the transition for everyone’s cars?

Secretary Buttigieg

The other way to look at it would actually be that if you look at the growth from 2021 to 2022, for example, if that were to happen in the consumer market, we’d be in great shape. We moved from I think [approximately] 1 percent in 2021 to 13 percent in 2022 (Editor’s note: This number does not include the Postal Service, which purchases about a third of the government’s overall fleet). That level of growth is, to be honest, not quite realistic on the consumer side. But it does suggest that when you’re talking about fleets, it can be slower to start, but then quicker once you get underway. That’s likely what we’ll see on the federal side. But it is a process. This is new for federal acquisitions, too.

Pete Buttigieg examines the interior of a Ford Mustang Mach-E during an electric vehicle showcase and display outside the Transportation Department headquarters in Washington, DC, on October 20, 2021.
Craig Hudson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Again, it’s pretty beneficial pretty quickly, especially because a commercial vehicle might pencil out even quicker than a consumer one because you’re driving it more and it burns more gas. But we just weren’t historically set up for that. We need the charging infrastructure in our own federal buildings, and we need to make sure that people are equipped to acquire them and that our vendors are prepared to produce them.

So the president’s goal is by 2027, every passenger vehicle we buy is electric. By 2035, even the heavy-duty trucks are. It’s definitely a process. Even the DOT fleet, we’ve got some work to do.

We did take delivery on the vehicle that I get around in. That’s an electric car. My favorite moment about that was when they handed — as is standard practice — the keys and then the gas card, from the General Services Administration, to my security detail. It gives me a lot of pleasure to know that taxpayers will never have to put a penny on a purchase of gas for this EV.

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