Biden Wants the Government to Run on EVs. It Won’t Be Easy

The president hopes electrifying the federal fleet will create jobs and encourage motorists to ditch gas-powered cars. But no automaker is ready yet.

The federal government is going electric. Or, well, it’s going to try.

President Biden last week signed an executive order that, among other initiatives to mitigate climate change, strongly encourages the federal government to buy only zero-emission vehicles. Biden wants those vehicles to be made mostly in the US, by unionized workers, which he thinks will help stimulate the economy and create up to 1 million jobs.

Seen one way, the federal fleet is just a drop in the ocean of American vehicles. According to the General Services Administration, the federal government owned 645,000 vehicles as of 2019, just 3,200 of them fully electric and 1,260 gas hybrids. That’s a tiny fraction of the 280 million vehicles that traveled on US roads that year. Of the 17.1 million vehicles sold in the US in 2019, just 1.4 percent were fully electric.

Still, experts say the executive order is significant. It’s a sign that the Biden administration is serious about mitigating climate change—and that it’s committed to supporting the still-fledgling electric vehicle industry, which has collected plenty of Wall Street money but not yet convinced many Americans to buy its cars.

“It’s a very symbolic gesture, and the first of its kind from the federal government,” says Sanya Carley, a professor who studies energy policy at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. “This sets a precedent.”

EV proponents hope the government vehicles will become rolling billboards for motorists uncertain about electric cars. “If people see that their mail delivery people are driving electric vehicles, they’ll get the confidence they’ll need,” says Doug Kettles, director of the Central Florida Clean Cities Coalition, a Department of Energy-supported group that promotes advanced vehicle technologies. Many Americans haven’t even seen an EV on the road, much less driven one. An invasion of federal cars just might change that. “It’s going to be a huge incentive for people to take a closer look at electric transportation,” Kettles says.

Biden’s directive may not be quick or easy to pull off. The federal government may not actually be able to require one of its largest fleets—at the Postal Service—to go electric. Thanks to the quasi-governmental status of the agency, which doesn’t receive federal taxpayer dollars, the administration may not be able to attach an electric requirement to the purchase of new mail trucks.

Meanwhile, Obama-era executive orders directing government agencies to create internal goals for buying electric vehicles were repealed by the Trump administration, which also dealt electric vehicle development a blow by rolling back aggressive fuel economy requirements. Moreover, the government turns over its fleet slowly; today, the average government-owned vehicle is almost 15 years old. Aging gas-powered vehicles out of that fleet will take some time.

Which is convenient, because automakers will need time to cook up the government’s order. Three automakers—Tesla, General Motors, and Ford—make electric vehicles in the US. But none complies with the government’s new “Buy American” and unionized labor provisions.

Still, government contracts could give US car companies the certainty they need to ramp up their electric vehicle efforts. “Governments have a lot of purchasing power, and they often lead with innovation to pull along market demand,” says Costa Samaras, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies electric vehicle policy at Carnegie Mellon University. To wit: All told, the feds spent $4.37 billion buying, fueling, and maintaining vehicles in 2019. “This is the lowest of the low-hanging electric vehicle fruit,” he says.

Last week, General Motors announced it plans to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035, and plans to pour $27 billion into rolling out 30 electric vehicle models over the next five years. Ford has pledged to spend $11 billion on electrified vehicles—including an electric Mustang and an electric F-150 pickup—through next year.

Government action may also have subtler effects. If the government can prove that electric fleets require less maintenance and, in the end, cost less than their gasoline counterparts, it may convince other fleet owners to follow suit. That includes state and local governments—which own 2.3 million vehicles—and private businesses—which own 3 million more.

The directive could also spur the construction of more charging stations. That would make it easier for anyone in the country to drive electric—and help obviate many Americans’ biggest EV-related anxiety, which is running out of charge with no outlet in sight. The Biden administration has promised to build 550,000 new charging stations, a vast expansion from the nation’s complement of 26,000 today.

Roughly one-third of the federal fleet is Postal Service vehicles, and another quarter is owned by the military. But smaller agencies have their own fleets, including the Tennessee Valley Authority (2,531 vehicles, including 11 electric ones and one plug-in hybrid), the National Labor Relations Board (14 vehicles, including two flex-fuel ethanol-powered ones), and NASA (2,692 vehicles, 213 of which are electric).

Government procurement processes are famously lengthy and complex. The US Postal Service began a process to buy its next round of mail trucks during the Obama administration, and it invited electric vehicle makers to place bids. An investigation by Vice suggests replacement trucks are badly needed; hundreds have allegedly caught fire in the past six years. And mail trucks are a great candidate for electrification: They stop and start often, regenerating power through braking as they go. But the awarding of the $6 billion production contract for 180,000 delivery vehicles is at least three years behind schedule.

Of the three manufacturers still in contention for the Postal Service contract, just one, the electric truck maker Workhorse, makes electric vehicles in the US. In December, the Postal Service said it planned to award the contract sometime between January and March of this year. Workhorse, meanwhile, is still getting its production machine off the ground; it said in 2020 that it aims to produce 1,800 vehicles this year. The company didn’t respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

Still, electric vehicle champions hope that once a few postal workers—or USDA scientists or Peace Corps volunteers or Smithsonian curators—get behind the wheel of an electric vehicle, they won’t want to leave. When government workers experience the smooth ride and fast acceleration of electric vehicles, they may want to buy one themselves, says Carley, the Indiana professor. “Once you drive one, you’re hooked,” she says.

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