The CARS Act Could Preview An Undesired Electric Vehicle Culture War

This year has made it pretty clear that switching to an electric future won’t be a smooth ride. Now there’s another bump on the road to electrification, a rather large one: a legislative pushback against electric vehicles, and specifically, opposition to emissions regulations that aim to phase out gas and diesel cars in the U.S. And it looks like this resistance might get even stronger as we head into the 2024 election season.

Last week, Republicans and five Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Choice In Automobile Retail Sales (CARS) Act with a 221-197 vote. The act aims to prevent the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) from implementing rules that would push America closer to an all-EV market over time—rules that the EPA said would improve air quality across the U.S., reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, and significantly lower oil imports.

The staunch opposition to this plan is a direct shot at President Joe Biden’s environmental agenda, which includes pushing for 50 percent of new car sales to be electric by 2030. According to Rep. Tim Walberg, the Michigan Republican who sponsored the bill, the EPA’s “radical agenda” would “hand over the keys of America’s auto industry to China.” Granted, Biden has vowed to veto this bill and it’s not even likely to gain traction in the more moderate U.S. Senate.

Before we get into the muddy politics, what exactly are EPA’s emissions standards? What impact do they have? And what should you, the consumer, expect out of this proposed bill?

The EPA proposed in April that 67 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales, and 25 percent of heavy-duty truck sales should be electric by 2032. These goals aim to curtail the carbon footprint of the highly polluting transportation sector, the EPA said. The proposal has deepened the rift among American politicians—some say that the targets are overly ambitious, leaving insufficient time for both automakers and consumers to adapt. Others argue that global warming warrants faster adoption.

But as we enter an election year, these recurring debates around EVs seem to be erupting into culture wars, and some politicians are fueling these wars more than others.

In one corner, you have Biden and the Democrats pushing for EVs as a defense against climate change. And in the other corner, you have Republican politicians opposing regulations and using this moment as a chance to roll back one of Biden’s key policies. It’s also worth noting that some Democrats are opposed to these rules, as they’re not convinced buyers are “ready” to make the switch over the next few years. And this is often being couched as a matter of “choice” for what people get to drive. 

“Americans should always have the option to buy whatever car suits them the best and the House has taken a massive step toward ensuring that opportunity still exists,” Walberg told Fox News recently. Former President Donald Trump said in a town hall this week that he would sign executive orders to “drill, drill, drill,” if he returns to the Oval Office. Sadly, he wasn’t referring to his enthusiasm for Chief Keef. Some of his Republican rivals, including businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, have also expressed their distaste for EVs. Ramaswamy has been squawking the paean of fossil fuels being the “requirement of human prosperity,” and Haley has vowed to repeal the incentives provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.

No prizes for guessing the biggest supporters of this bill apart from Republican party members: Dozens of petroleum companies and associations, according to House research. That story goes on to make several pejorative remarks towards EVs and the EPA; it says the proposed standards are an “attack on consumer choice,” labels EVs as “unproven technology,” and claims that the mandates are being “forced upon the American people.”

Do all of these arguments add up? There are certainly many valid concerns over the transition to EVs. For example, sure, Tesla has unproven technology; that’s why it’s selling over 400,000 EVs each quarter worldwide. Elon Musk’s company, a true American success story, has earned the title of having the best brand loyalty industry-wide. S&P Global Mobility’s study showed that most Tesla owners end up buying another Tesla as their next vehicle, likely without anyone attacking them or forcing them to make that decision—but I’ll admit, there’s no data on the decision-making process of these buyers.

Certain EV roadblocks are indeed genuine and indisputable. Ethical issues stemming from mining and labor practices seem far from being resolved, and there’s little doubt that EVs don’t run on “clean” electricity yet. Reliable charging infrastructure needs massive expansion, and range anxiety needs a permanent cure. But such nuances seem to have evaded the wider political discourse. Instead, we have arguments about the EPA “forcing” people to buy EVs and that it has some “radical agenda.” And that’s something we’re expecting to hear a lot more going into the next election cycle.

Above all else, the arguments are outrageously misaligned with the broad scientific consensus on climate change, which states that greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced urgently to keep the planet from warming beyond two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Researchers and scientists say EVs have a role to play in accomplishing that mission. Studies have shown that indirect emissions emerging from the supply chain of EVs pale in comparison to the direct and indirect emissions emerging from gas and diesel cars.

Most importantly, emissions emerging from the transportation sector in the U.S. accounted for 29 percent of all national emissions in 2021, the EPA said. The federal emissions standards that it has proposed, which right-wing politicians are staunchly combatting, are expected to slash nearly 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2055. That’s approximately two years’ worth of total carbon emissions in the U.S.—from all sectors combined.

The claim that Americans are being forced to buy EVs also holds little ground. While it’s true that automakers have committed to phasing out their ICE cars, that deadline isn’t due until 2035 for most of them. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, six brands, including Ford, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz, pledged to phase out ICE cars. But the pledge was non-binding, so there’s no guarantee that those dates won’t be pushed back. So take the alarmist claims with a grain of salt; you will likely have plenty of gas, hybrid, BEV, and PHEV options for years to come. (To say nothing of the countless gas cars currently on the road that will be in service for decades to come.)

The supporters of the CARS Act also seem to have ignored one key piece of data: EVs are selling at a record pace in the U.S. Last week, the Bloomberg New Energy Foundation reported a historic milestone: Annual EV sales surpassed one million for the first time in the U.S., and 2023 isn’t even over yet. And it doesn’t seem like buyers are purchasing them at gunpoint, at least not to my limited knowledge. They’re being incentivized, for sure, thanks to the $7,500 federal clean vehicle credit—although new foreign entity of concern rules could alter the list of vehicles that qualify for credits.

All said, there’s probably no reason for EV supporters to worry—not yet, at least. The CARS Act bill is unlikely to go anywhere. But this is only the beginning. As EVs gain prominence, they seem on track to become one of the key talking points for candidates in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections.

Should the anti-EV brigade take over, the policies currently in place that encourage and incentivize EV manufacturing and sales could be impacted. The election year may lead to the eventual rollback of fuel economy rules, and we all know many automakers would seize the chance to slow their electric transition here. But whether America’s technological ability to compete in the world—and our climate—can withstand a slow walk to EVs is extremely uncertain.