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How was 2023 for EVs?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Ford F-150 Lightning pickup had an unconventional test driver back in 2021. It was a day before the electric vehicle's official release, and to keep details under wraps until then, the big pickup truck was actually cloaked in camouflage. A man wearing aviator sunglasses climbed behind the wheel and took off.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mr. President.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This sucker's quick.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How's it drive?

DETROW: President Biden liked the ride.

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BIDEN: Well, I don't know if anybody has a stopwatch, but I think we're going 0 to 60 in about 4.3, 4.4.

DETROW: Early on in his presidency, Biden was making it clear just how much he was betting on electric vehicles.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fantastic. All right. Our best test driver ever.

DETROW: A long time car guy - remember those fake Onion articles about Biden working on old hot rods back when he was vice president? - well, he had set big goals of boosting American manufacturing and slashing the country's greenhouse gas footprint. Shifting the country to electric vehicles would do both. So to show just how serious he was about all of it, Biden took the F-150 for a spin himself after touring Ford's Rogue Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Mich.

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BIDEN: My name is Joe Biden, and I'm a car guy.

DETROW: Delivering remarks, Biden said that electric was the future of the auto industry, that there was no turning back.

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DETROW: The real question is whether we'll lead or we'll fall behind in the race of the future.

DETROW: His administration set the ambitious goal of having half of all new vehicle sales be electric by 2030, and Biden accelerated that goal earlier this year when the White House proposed strict new automobile pollution limits that could require as many as two-thirds of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electric by 2032. But even as more than a million EVs were sold in the U.S. this year, there have been a few speed bumps in recent months.

Standardizing the plug types, the charging speeds and the payment systems at public charging stations has taken time, and so has the physical construction of a national charging network that's partially funded by Biden's major infrastructure law. In fact, the first Biden funded charging station only opened this month in Ohio, more than two years after the president test drove that Ford F-150. Speaking of Ford, it has become one of several automakers who have scaled back production of electric models, citing slowing demand. The model in question for Ford was the F-150 Lightning, the very same model that Biden used to kickstart public enthusiasm for EVs.

The Biden administration says when it comes to EVs, the United States is in the race of the future. But now, with the sale of electric vehicles seeming to slow, is the country at risk of falling behind? To understand the state of EVs right now, I called up someone who's been keeping a close eye on this, Keith Barry, senior writer with Consumer Reports. Hey, Keith.

KEITH BARRY: Hey, Scott. How are you?

DETROW: I'm good. And I just want to start by ticking through some of the recent headlines of the past few weeks. On one hand, stuff like a million EVs sold in the U.S. this year. That's the first time we've crossed that mark. The first Biden funded charger opens up. But then on the other side of the ledger, Ford scaling back production on one of the most iconic of the new electric vehicles. Several other manufacturers have done the same in recent months. What would you say the state of things is?

BARRY: I would say the state of things remains what it has been for a while now is it's in flux. This is a new market. This is a new category. And the general public is just kind of dipping that toe in the water. We're finding a lot of folks are heading to Consumer Reports and to our articles about EVs are just, you know, kind of off the charts in terms of interest. At the same time, some of the other articles that people are looking at are, you know, vehicles under $25,000. So we're in this weird place in the market as well where people might be interested in these, but right now, they might not be feeling comfortable enough to afford one.

DETROW: You look at the comments that auto executives have made in these quarterly calls or announcements about scaling back manufacturing or sales goals, and a lot of them are saying that interest just seems to be waning a little more than we thought right now. Are you seeing that? And is there a clear reason why interest is waning? I mean, is it what you just said right there, EVs are just still more expensive and people can't get over that hurdle?

BARRY: Yeah. I mean, I think we had some delays in getting some product out from GM that people were a little bit excited about. You know, some of these cars were a little bit delayed. And it's happening now. You know, we just got in a Chevy Blazer EV and a Kia EV9 for our test program. And the cool thing about those is that they're in this sort of SUV category that a lot of people want to purchase, and they're not $100,000. They're sort of more affordable. But at the same time, they are a lot more expensive than some gas-powered cars. There are a lot of great hybrids out there. So people are thinking, you know, maybe this time around, you know, interest rates are high. It costs a lot to buy a vehicle. Maybe I'll buy a two-year-old hybrid rather than getting that brand-new EV. There aren't those used cars in the market either.

DETROW: How would you assess the state of public chargers right now? Are chargers spread out to a point where you can get in a car, go for a drive a couple states over and not end up on the side of the road at the moment?

BARRY: Yeah. I mean, the majority of people who drive EVs, the majority of people who drive in general are driving within the range of a current EV on a daily basis. So I think the way that I think of it and the way that we think of it at CR is that sort of this range anxiety from the early days of EVs where, you know, an EV would have like an 80-mile range or a hundred-mile range, and if it were snowing out or if you got stuck in traffic, you might not make it home from work? That's gone. Cars are in the 200, mid-200 range. You can get where you need to go on a daily basis. But that's been replaced, that range anxiety has been replaced by charging anxiety. You know, there are more chargers than there ever were and we're going to be getting more of them. But as of right now, if you're outside of kind of the coasts, in California, there are fewer charges as well. So I think people are also seeing that and thinking maybe I'll wait a little bit until those charges are fully built out.

DETROW: So in your expert Consumer Reports opinion, generally speaking, if you're talking to somebody who's interested, who really wants to go electric but is on the fence right now, is your general recommendation now is the moment, or if you can hold off a little bit, wait for things to settle out a little bit more in the next year or so?

BARRY: It really depends on how you're going to use it. If you live somewhere where you can charge, where energy costs are low, you can afford it, there are some great lease deals on EVs because the tax credit does count for leased EVs, even if it doesn't count for cars that aren't leased, so you can get a very good deal there, yeah, try it. Jump in. Especially if you have, you know, another vehicle that you can use for the longest road trips. But if you live somewhere - if you're in California, of course, go out and buy an EV if you have a place that you can charge. Otherwise, there's some great hybrids out there. There are some plug-in hybrids that meet the needs for some people as well. So there are ways that you can get towards electrification without just fully jumping in. There's still a big distance between, you know, a vehicle that's just a gas guzzler and a car that is fully electric.

DETROW: That's Keith Barry, senior writer with Consumer Reports. Thank you so much.

BARRY: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: As we noted earlier, all of this is a big priority for President Biden. Two of the biggest laws he signed will spend billions of dollars on growing the EV market and the infrastructure needed to charge the cars. Biden's point person on all of this is former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who serves as Biden's infrastructure coordinator. We called him up too.

Let's start with this. How would you describe 2023 for electric vehicles?

MITCH LANDRIEU: Well, I think we're all on go. I don't think there's any turning back. The days of the combustion engine, I think, are numbered. Every major auto manufacturer is moving in that direction. As you know, through the bipartisan infrastructure law, the president put a significant amount of money into making sure that the federal government is doing its part - $7.5 billion for EV charging. And 5 billion is going to the backbone of high-speed chargers on every 50 miles on America's major roadways. So you see the private sector, all the auto manufacturers are moving in this direction. You know, the folks that are buying these things are moving in that direction. So now it's just a matter of time.

DETROW: You say there's no going back. And there's some big milestones this year, like passing a million sales for the first time. But at the same time, in recent weeks, there's been a lot of reports, like one from a few days ago, of Ford downgrading its production estimates for the coming years for the F-150, which got a lot of attention on EVs. A lot of these companies are saying, wait a second, we might not need as many as we thought we needed. Is that something that worries you?

LANDRIEU: No. It's not unexpected. I mean, anytime you're trying a major transformation, you're going to have, you know, go forward a couple steps, move back a little bit. But the direction is really, really clear, and it's certain. As more automakers enter the EV space and more EV models proliferate, I mean, it's only natural that you're going to see these trend shifts. That's always been the case in the auto market. It's actually a sign of healthy competition. But listen. The data is really clear here. You know, EV sales are continuing to increase overall, pretty much a 50% increase year on year. Also, the data reflects that businesses have announced more than $140 billion in investments in EVs and batteries. So it's like anything else. I mean, as we rebuild the country with infrastructure, this is the first time we're doing this, the expectation is we'll have stops and starts. But I think all the indications are pretty good.

DETROW: A lot of the surveys show that a lot of people who are interested say, you know, I want to wait till there's more chargers out there. I just want to be sure. You mentioned before that $7.5 billion to build out the chargers. It's such a big part of the infrastructure law. What's the state of those investments? Where are things right now? I know the very first one funded with the law opened up in Ohio. But big picture, when can we start to see more and more of these on the roads?

LANDRIEU: Actually, I mean, really as we speak, remember, you know, one of the things that's understandable because we live in an instant gratification society is if you pass a bill, everybody thinks, like, that's the end of it, when, in fact, it's really just the beginning of it. And if you're building infrastructure, that takes longer rather than shorter. One of the reasons why it takes some time is because planning is critically important. We want to make sure that every state is following the guidelines to put these every 50 miles because, as you know, people mostly have range anxiety. So we're expecting some - a lot of progress in 2023, 2024. And then eventually, it's going to sync up. The sales and the EV chargers will sync up. And, you know, my prediction is in the not-too-distant future, in the next couple years, people are going to go, wow, this is actually working the way it was designed. There's no reason to believe that we can't get there or that we won't get there in time.

DETROW: When I talked to you at one point about this this summer, we talked about the fact that, so far, the switch to electric vehicles had not become the type of culture war issue that a lot of people expected, given how much cars are, you know, a central part of American culture. And since then, you've seen Donald Trump and other Republicans running for president and other Republicans out there kind of making electric vehicles more and more part of a political attack. And I'm wondering how worried you are on whether that could slow down the transition if it does become more of a culture divide type thing.

LANDRIEU: I am not worried at all because the American people are really, really smart. I'll bet my life on this, that in the not too distant future, the electric pickup trucks are going to be crisscrossing this entire country. People that are driving a Ford F-150, you know, or things like that, even in the most rural areas, these cars are fine. They're fast. They're more cost effective. I have no doubt about it. I'm sure. There's no doubt about the fact that politicians that are out there running today who can't agree on what time of day it is will find any issue to drive a wedge between people. But you know what? American citizens like things that are fast, things that make their lives better, things that get them to and from. And when all these charging stations are open, here's another bet that I'll make you - that every one of these folks will be at the ribbon cutting.

DETROW: So just to sum this up, the charging stations are being built. Construction is underway for new battery plants all across the U.S. Companies are building more electric vehicles. But we're at this point of kind of a question mark of the market, right? These companies are saying maybe not as fast as we thought, we're still figuring this out. What do you think the one or two or three biggest challenges are over the next few years to make sure that trend keeps going up?

LANDRIEU: I don't - well, first of all, don't I don't completely disagree with your statement, but I wouldn't color it that negative. I think it's not unexpected at all for there to be a little bit of a retrenchment. I think the data is pretty clear heading in one direction. And so I absolutely feel very confident that we're going to get there. You know, again, like anything else, when you start getting stuff done, as opposed to talking about it, you're always going to run into trouble.

But let me just say this. For all the headlines written in the last six months about how EV demand is faltering, the data really doesn't support it. I mean, sales of passenger EVs are on pace to hit 14 million this year, which is up 36% from 2022. And in the United States, where most of the concerns on demand have been raised, sales are growing even faster, about 50% this year. So I think the narrative here is critically important. It's not like we're kind of moving backwards. We're not moving as fast as forward as we thought. My guess is that things are going to, at some point in time, you know, meet up. It's just one of these things. It takes time, and it takes work.

DETROW: That's White House infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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