EVs: Wholesale Madness, Retail Insanity

Steven F. Hayward02 Apr, 2024 4 Min Read
U.S. to world: take your EVs and shove them.

Increasingly the trajectory of the electric car is bringing back to mind an episode from a generation ago. Back in the yeasty days of the 1960s, all “enlightened” people assumed that the United States would soon follow the rest of the world in adopting the transparently superior and ultra-rational metric system, which was one of the few innovations of the French Revolution that wasn’t destructive.

Base Ten measurements were clearly easier to use than the old Imperial system with its irregular measures (inches, feet, yards, furlongs, gallons, pints, and so on), and even the capital of all things Imperial, Great Britain, was moved to the metric system, metricizing its famously confusing money measures, rife with oddly denominated shillings and farthings and ha'pennies. The hundred-yard dash gave away to the 100 meters; the mile run gave way to the 1,500 meters. Only the marathon remains measured in miles (26.2). Metric distance and speed signs started appearing on American interstate highways in 1973, and even a college football game was played on a metric field. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975 to speed up the transition.

And then a funny thing happened. The American public rebelled. Time Magazine reported later, “Why is it that America hasn’t gone full-on metric? The simple answer is that the overwhelming majority of Americans have never wanted to. The gains have always seemed too little, and the goal too purist.” Since then, Americans have gotten used to many metric measurements (especially for guns and ammunition), but we have drawn a firm line with our cars, sticking with horsepower, cubic-inch engine blocks, miles, gallons, and speed. The metric road signs of the 1970s have almost completely vanished.

The same story arc is repeating now with electric vehicles (EVs). The enlightened position is that everything must be electrified to prevent "climate change" (never mind the immense obstacles to providing carbon-free electricity for everything), and thus the heavy foot of government has decreed that the entire surface transportation fleet make the transition to all-electric cars, trucks, and trains on an unprecedented short timeline. As usual, California is in the revolutionary vanguard, currently planning to ban the sale of all gasoline powered cars in little more than a decade.

On closer look, the impulse to force the transition to electric vehicles is far less rational than the metric system. While some Americans have embraced electric cars, whose technology (chiefly range and charging time) has improved substantially since GM attempted to develop the EV1 in the early 1990s. The EV1 was a total flop, with severely limited range (less than 100 miles), requiring hours to charge, and cost more than $100,000 to manufacture. By the time GM pulled the plug, so to speak, it had sunk $1 billion into the project, but had only produced 1,100 vehicles.

Like the current electric car mandate, GM attempted the EV1 because California had mandated that automakers must sell at least 2 percent “zero emission vehicles” in the state by the year 2000. (This mandate was imposed to help reduce smog—a real local problem in California—and not to save the planet’s climate.) California quietly dropped the zero-emission mandate when it became evident that there wouldn’t be any consumer demand for a vehicle as limited and costly as the EV1. But confident regulators nevertheless celebrated their “technology forcing” mandate, despite its obvious and predictable failure.

While GM was pouring capital into a hopeless venture, Japanese auto makers had the intuition that while a pure electric car was impossible, a hybrid-electric could work, though hybrids couldn’t meet a zero-emission mandate because they still use gasoline. Thus the first Toyota Prius arrived. Hybrid gas-electric cars deliver major reduction in emissions of all kinds (as well as gasoline consumption), and do not suffer the practical defects of all-electric cars: they are lighter, don’t have range issues, aren’t limited by scarce or slow charging stations, and actually have a smaller total environmental footprint than all-electric cars.

Couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, introduced the metric system.

There are some hybrid gas-electric models available, but they won’t meet the California and Biden administration mandates that are trying to force an all-electric fleet, and hence the auto makers are pouring billions once again into money-losing models that have limited consumer demand. The reason for this anti-gas-electric stubbornness is the complete anti-fossil fuel fanaticism of the climate cult. The climate fanatics will be satisfied with nothing less than the complete extinction of the petroleum industry, and hybrid gas-electric cars won’t deliver that imaginary utopia. It is a classic case study in the perfect being the enemy of the good. Meanwhile, the limited consumer appetite for all-electric vehicles is going to doom the EV mania to a place alongside the metric system in the museum of rejected elite ideas, no matter how much the technology improves.

One last practical point from the opening story of American rejection of the metric system in the 1970s. Time Magazine’s account added this detail: “Labor unions were among the strongest opponents of 1970s-era metrication, fearing that the switch would make it easier to ship jobs off-shore. (Which it did.)” The same political dynamic is repeating itself, since phasing out gasoline-powered cars in favor of electric-only models will tilt the manufacturing and supply chain to foreign nations (especially China). This is not lost on unionized auto workers, which is why Joe Biden is going to lose Michigan in the November election by a wide margin according to the most recent polls.

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, and lecturer at Berkeley Law. His most recent book is "M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom." He writes daily at Powerlineblog.com.


See All

7 comments on “EVs: Wholesale Madness, Retail Insanity”

  1. Thanks for mentioning 'technology-forcing mandates," Steve. I had to work with equipment manufacturers to 'invent' things with no other purpose than to meet the regulations passed by Cal EPA and their fractious local factions (such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District.) These agencies delayed many environmental improvements that we implemented elsewhere in the US. California residents suffer the most intrusive regulatory apparatus, yet typically get the benefits later and at much higher cost than many other states. Yet they all pretend to be planetary superheroes.

  2. Oh we Americans didn't just hate the metric speed signs. We shot them down.
    The EPA has already been reined back by the Supreme Court but they apparently don't think the Constitution applies to them. I suggest ending the EPA. Perhaps a new President could tell every EPA bureaucrat: "You're fired!"

  3. I have long been willing, even eager, to read speed limit signs in SI units rather than miles per hour. The SI unit of speed is meters per second; 1 m/sec = 2.078 miles per hour. Somehow I have found official recognition lacking.

  4. This reminds me of when the elites passed the 55 mph speed limit…to save gas

    That lastee about ten years

  5. As far back as the 1980s Honda was selling ICE engines ranked as "PZEV" - partially zero-emission vehicles. They promised very low emissions, other than CO2, which wasn't even a concern at that point. I remember getting my required test as the car got old and OMG, my car was at the very bottom of allowed emissions, I mean, it was *really* clean. I'm exceedingly glad that Los Angeles licked our smog problem, and I got to see it all, from the early 1960s to today. Had to clean up those refineries in the south bay, and some dirty ships in the harbor, and the power generation stations some fools located at the beach. And the added costs to a car were pretty minimal, the catalytic converter is probably the most expensive part, other than the engineering non-recurring costs. Just saying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *