Jim Motavalli: EV Updates

If you haven’t considered buying an electric vehicle yet, there’s a good chance that in the not-so-distant future, the decision will already be made for you. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to automotive and environmental journalist Jim Motavalli to catch-up on the latest news in the electric vehicle space. We learn about EV models of both cars and trucks coming down the pike, how traditional car dealerships in the US have yet to fully embrace the transition to an electric fleet (a transition which experts like Motavalli see as inevitable), what’s holding up the federal government’s efforts to purchase electric vehicles and why German and Japanese automakers remain behind the US in terms of electric vehicle manufacturing.

Narrator 0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Jim Motavalli 0:25  With them putting in these bans, it isn’t really protecting anything. Even with the bans, they’re still not selling many EVs they haven’t really fully committed to it at the dealer level.

Narrator 0:37  If you haven’t considered buying an electric vehicle yet, there’s a good chance that in the not so distant future, the decision will already be made for you. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to automotive and environmental journalist Jim Motavalli to catch up on the latest news in the electric vehicle space. We learn about EV models of both cars and trucks coming down the pike. How traditional car dealerships in the US have yet to fully embrace the transition to an electric fleet. A transition which experts like motivasi see is inevitable. What’s holding up the federal government’s efforts to purchase electric vehicles. And why German and Japanese automakers remain behind the US in terms of electric vehicle manufacturing.

Alex Wise  1:35  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Jim Motavalli. Jim is an author and an auto and environmental journalist. Jim – welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Jim Motavalli – It’s great to be on.

Alex Wise – So I wanted to get an update from you. On the electric vehicle. space. We did a piece not so long ago about hydrogen vehicles. But it’s been a little while since we’ve profiled the meat and potatoes of the non fossil fuel fleets out there. First, let’s look at the US seems like Tesla gets all the headlines. But there’s obviously a lot more to the market than Tesla.

Jim Motavalli 2:15  Yeah, I think we’re seeing an explosion of interest and development in the EV space, not yet a huge increase in sales. But it’s inching up. I would say that the pace is faster in Europe in China than it is in the United States. But in the US, we’re seeing a lot of new startups. The US excels at startup companies. And we’re seeing some fairly powerhouse new entries, including Rivian, and lucid, that are about to start selling cars. And I think they’re going to do quite well on the marketplace because their entries are smart and makes sense. And we also have just about every global automaker, including all the American ones switching to all EV or announcing dates when they will no longer be producing internal combustion engines, some have actually started announced that they’re no longer going to be developing internal combustion engine programs, or that all the new models going forward will be electric. They’re making announcements like that, which are pretty dramatic. And I’m not sure the public is fully aware that the entire international auto industry is moving to all electric battery cars. But that is what’s going to happen. It’s remarkable because I post these things, saying what the automakers are planning to do. And I get these responses people’s like No, I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I’m telling you, it is happening. There’s no going back. This is the this is the only way forward for the auto industry right now. You have a lot of countries saying they’re not going to allow the sale of internal combustion after a date certain it could be 2030 or 2035. But there’s no way an automaker could actually continue to just sell internal combustion cars, they would be out of business.

Alex Wise  4:09  Yes, I was shocked to see that Cadillac is moving to an all electric fleet. I mean, I think of Cadillac is being like the last bastion of the big gas guzzler. But it’s obviously they’ve woken up to that reality to the whole luxury space is dominated today by Tesla.

Jim Motavalli 4:24  Tesla is the one that having the actual sales, and then they’re doing better than BMW and Mercedes and Cadillac and all the traditional luxury players. So those automakers are realizing you know, putting a big V8 or V12 into a car and adding a lot of luxury features. It’s not going to sell cars, people are excited about the kind of performance you can get from EVs and the range thing is largely becoming a thing of the past. You have the lucid air being launched with 517 miles of range, which is probably more than most gas cars. And I think 600 mile EV is going to become common, there is the question of whether we even need to do 600 mile EVs because that dictates a very big battery with long recharge times, you know, 400 miles would be nice, anything more than that is probably unnecessary.

Alex Wise  5:26  And when you’re talking about the advantages of a big V8, or V12 engine, it’s usually the acceleration and the muscle car element of it. But there’s a very active racing series, formulaE, which is electric racing. And that seems to be the trend as well.

Jim Motavalli 5:47  Right. And you have a lot of mainstream automakers, including Mercedes, and Jaguar that have jumped on the bandwagon, formula II sound taking place all over the world is getting crowds to come out. And the other thing is just, even without racing, some of the new electric cars are just faster off the line than any of those big powerful hypercars, or muscle cars. The fastest cars in the world today are electric, he takes something like the Tesla plaid edition, the Model S cloud edition, and it’s zero to 60 in less than two seconds. Now put that in context compared to like a Lamborghini. It’s faster than anything produced by Lamborghini period. It’s probably faster than any McLaren period.

Alex Wise  6:32  It’s really a rocket ship almost.

Jim Motavalli 6:35  Yeah, but it’s also that that’s the thing. So it’s a rocket ship. But it’s also a family car that seats up to seven people is full of every modern convenience you could possibly imagine. And it’s quite comfortable, it’s a sedan, it’s not some little entirely compromised two seater sports thing. It is a very capable car with a trunk and a front in front, the batteries again, they’re under the car, so they don’t take up any trunk space. So the trunk is full sized. So there’s just a lot of utility. And now we’re seeing the most popular vehicle in America, the Ford F 150. pickup, they’re coming up with a TV version of that called lightning. And I was totally knocked out by that because it has 230 miles of range or 300 in the luxury version of it. And it starts at under $40,000, which is in comes in a super crew form, which makes it cheaper, actually, then the gas version of it.

Alex Wise  7:38  I don’t have the numbers offhand. But I know that the Ford F 150 is a huge chunk of all vehicle sales in the US. What do you think this lightning electric version is going to mean for that segment? Is it going to replace the F 150 sales? Or and is it going to also eat away at competitors? Or do you think it’s kind of going to be more competing with the Teslas.

Jim Motavalli 8:04  I did a piece that is up at Forbes wheels, that looks at what every automaker is saying about when they’re going to get out of gas cars, and not all of them have made it a date commitment, but a lot of them have. And Ford is definitely moving in that direction. I do think the F 150 will eventually be all electric, I think the transition to that will be not super fast. I mean, they’re moving faster in Europe and China. Right now. 44% of the V’s in the world are in China, and another 31% are in Europe, and we have just 17% so there’s a lot of growth potential in the American market. As soon as people realize the next car is gonna be electric. It’ll be helpful. But you know, in part, I did another story about EV marketing. And I do think there are some problems there that the auto companies are making a difficult. I think they’re partly at fault, even though they’re introducing new EVs. They’re not marketing them properly. And there’s a few things that are happening that are wrong there. One is on the dealer level, the salesmen have not been doubling down on TVs and they will point them out to you only sort of grudgingly and they don’t know much about them, which is bad. That is not good. They usually can’t tell you much about them. I have a friend who is quite knowledgeable and he went to buy a mini electric car and he knew far more than the salesman. And he had such trouble getting it delivered and they couldn’t give him any answers that when it was going to be shipped. It was just a total. Every bad experience. You could imagine buying that and I think they make more money when they sell like some high end gas car, and they’re sitting next to each other in the showroom. I think that’s issue. I don’t think they’ve been doing enough TV ads and, you know, social media type of stuff. And I think they need to be concentrating at this point. Most of the TV ads I’ve seen just sort of celebrate, you know, our company is one with nature or something like that. And I don’t think that’s actually the appeal of the EV. It’s not It’s not an environmental appeal. Tesla isn’t selling EVs based on the fact that they’re cleaner. They’re basically selling them as better cars. And I think they should be emphasizing the performance, the quietness, the fact that you get a federal rebate, all these different things that you don’t have to go to gas stations anymore.

Alex Wise  10:45  That’s maybe one of the real appeals for the F 150 for a lot of truck owners. And that’s  kind of why it could be a good litmus test for the overall EV market in the US.

Jim Motavalli 10:58  Yeah, I think the truck buying public is traditionally pretty conservative market, I mean, just in terms of what they buy. And this truck market is strongest in some of the states where there are the fewest TVs. So it will be a little bit of an uphill battle. I really don’t think it’s going to turn around even though I think the car is really attractive. They see.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  12:04  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to automotive and environmental journalist Jim Motavalli. So you were just talking about the Ford, f 150, electric version, I think it’s called the Lightning. What other electric trucks are on the horizon if there if there are of note?

Jim Motavalli  12:22  Well, it’s interesting, because right now, as I’m talking to you, there are no electric pickups on the market. But there’s like eight of them coming. But Tesla is going to have its cybertruck I don’t have an exact date with that, which is very radically styled. A lot of people thought they were kidding, but they’re not kidding. It does look like that.

Alex Wise – Yeah, it looks almost like a stealth bomber.

Jim Motavalli – Right, a company called Bollinger is doing an electric pickup. I’m not sure where that’s going to be successful or not. It’s very expensive. It’s $125,000. And they’re emphasizing its ability to go off road. I don’t know if that’s gonna do very well. I think it’s too expensive. I think that market was basically reinvented by Ford when it said $40,000 for the whitening. There’s a electric Silverado coming a Chevy Silverado, which is another very popular vehicle. So that’s important. They haven’t announced the price for that. But they said it would have 400 miles of range. Lordstown is another startup they’ve been sort of plagued by various things, but they’re supposed to have an electric pickup that sounds credible, but the company has been floundering. So I don’t know what’s gonna happen there.

Alex Wise  13:40  And with the infrastructure bill being discussed, I remember seeing that a piece of it was to electrify the federal automotive fleet. Is there any kind of exclusivity with a particular automaker that you’re aware of? Or is this going to be more of a fragmented purchase from the federal government?

Jim Motavalli 14:02  Well, let me just sort of unpack that. When Biden came into office, he said he wanted to make the entire federal fleet electric. And that’s a mandate he can do without federal funding. I mean, they buy vehicles anyway. They don’t need new funding for that. But the thing is, the government buys a lot of pickup trucks. And they didn’t really have any on the market. So and certainly not that we’re ready for fleet purchase. So even though Biden announced that they were still buying a lot of gas pickup trucks with these new entries into the pickup field, that they’ll have a lot more vehicles to choose from. Now the post office things a whole separate entity. I mean, the procurement process for buying new vehicles for the post office I think is started even before Trump was in office. It’s been dragging out for a long time. And the post office under Louis DeJoy, Trump appointee – He recently made an award to a company that does not make EVs and snubbed the company that did. And there was a lot of calls for that consideration to be reversed. I’m not sure it’s going to be the company that got the contracts that it was open to building EVs, it doesn’t really have experience in that area. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think postal vehicles really should be electric.

Alex Wise  15:29

It’s kind of a no brainer, isn’t I remember looking at the mail carriers car just the other day, and it was like super rusted out. And that’s not a typical, I imagine.

Jim Motavalli 15:39  No, no, the replacement of the Federal fleet for the post office is long overdue. And like I said, it’s been dragging out forever. And right now, it’s sort of in limbo. I mean, they didn’t make the award, but I don’t know if it’s gonna stand. Now, there’s also a large fund that the federal government approved, appropriated, and I think it’s an amount of $25 billion. This is, I believe, when Obama Actually no, it goes all the way back to George W. Bush. And they made some awards to Tesla and to Fisker, some of the loans went bad. And the same not exactly the same agency, but the Department of Energy made a loan to a sort of high profile solar company Solyndra. That went bad, and I got a lot of attention. And result is that that program sort of went underground, and they didn’t make any more awards. So they’ve been sitting on a very large appropriation of money. And under Biden that has been re awoke, reawakened, you could say, and they’re starting to, well, they haven’t made any awards yet. But they’re going to it’s considerably revitalize revitalized and Chelsea Sexton who’s big EV proponent is now an advisor to that program. So I would expect there to be some smart loans. It’s a loan program, like Tesla paid back all those loans. Ford is making payments on his loans, but other companies defaulted. So that’s sort of why that program was dormant for a while. But then you know, there is federal money. What happens with the infrastructure? Bill is unclear. The goal of the Biden ministration was like 500,000.EV, charging stations around the country. I don’t know. I don’t even know if we need that many charging stations. 80% of all the charging is going to be at home. I think it’s important that the federal government be involved in funding this stuff, but I don’t think it’s critical. It’s going to happen. Without that. I mean, if republican recalcitrance means there’s no funding for movies, it doesn’t kill anything.

Alex Wise  18:10  So Jim, in your piece in media village, you write about how dealers are actually fighting EV sales and lobbying against states allowing direct sales by these startup automakers like the Rivians of the world. What are the dealers afraid of here in this calculus?

Jim Motavalli 18:28  You have to go back in history and look at the unusual way in which the auto dealership thing was set up. This is going back to like the 20s or the 30s. I’m not sure exactly when. But there was fear that if the automakers owned the dealerships, they would have too much power. And they would force out any competitors like independent competitors. So they basically dictated that auto dealers would be independent. And that’s been the situation the result is that a whole lot of dealers got very, very wealthy. I mean, auto dealers that made a lot more money doing that than being on wall street or something. So they had a lot of interest in keeping the status quo. And when Tesla started selling directly, a lot of dealers went to their state legislators and said, You got to stop this. It’s going to kill our business and stuff like that. So some states allowed direct selling and others didn’t. But the thing is that even with these bands, I don’t know maybe 17 states I did a piece on it. I don’t remember the exact numbers but as I said here 2020 79% of EV sales were direct sales, meaning that those are almost all Tesla’s and franchise dealers, the actual automakers they only sold 44,000 vehicles around the whole country. It’s not a lot of EVs. So with them putting in these bands, it isn’t really protecting anything. Even With the band’s, they’re still not selling many EVs. And it’s because of the reasons I said before, that they haven’t really fully committed to it at the dealer level, they make so much money selling gas cars. And this is something new, it requires them to set up some kind of like charging infrastructure at the dealership and help people out in getting charging stuff in their garages and things like that stuff that they’re not used to doing. So they just have been sluggish about it. So they haven’t found they have not really gotten on board that well.

Alex Wise  20:32  It seems like a real lost opportunity if what you’re describing sounds almost like the taxi cab industry, lobbying against the Ubers and the Lyfts in their communities. But you could understand why the taxi cab companies are holding on to their last bastion of revenue for themselves. But the dealers have a huge opportunity to reignite their industry and have a huge influx of these new, desirable cleaner cars. And yet, it sounds like they’re still kind of trying to block the sales instead of getting on board with it. It’s  head scratching.

Jim Motavalli 21:06  It is and the Sierra Club did a survey in 2019 found that 74% of auto dealers aren’t selling TVs at all. And 28% of the ones that were the salesman provided no information about how to charge an EV. That’s really incredibly damning. They have not got on board. And I think what this is one of the main reasons the US is lagging behind China and Europe and selling TVs and marketing the main China, they can basically dictate that everybody buys an EV. In Europe, they can do it via regulation. They say, no gas cars in our central cities. And they can say no electric, no gas cars for sale after a certain date. They can impose restrictions on tailpipes, and fine automakers that don’t meet like the average co2 emissions, all these different things. And the result is that every automaker goes electric, we tend to give our businesses a lot more freedom to operate here in the US. So the Biden administration just reimpose or just re announced Actually, I don’t think they’ve been announced yet. But it’s working on new standards, fuel economy standards for the country. It was set back during the Trump administration from the Obama standards. And Biden is going to bring it at least partway back. I’ve seen some criticism that his plan, which is based on the California plan doesn’t go far enough. But I haven’t seen the actual statistics or the actual plans. I don’t think it’s been announced yet. But there’s already some criticism that it isn’t going far enough from the environmental movement.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  23:32  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to automotive and environmental journalist Jim Motavalli. So you’ve mentioned how the sales rates are higher in Europe and China than in the US for EVs. But where are the Toyota’s Subarus, Mercedes in this very promising category, Jim?

Jim Motavalli 23:53  There are two reasons why German and Japanese automakers are lagging behind in other different in Europe, the automakers largely banded around the idea of green diesel and dismissed or downplayed IE V’s. The result was the Volkswagen diesel scandal which actually engulfed all the German automakers. And since then they’ve had to play catch up, which they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get into leadership positions with the V’s but they were set back by this long push for diesel which is now definitively dead. I mean, there’s no diesel development at all, and diesel will cease to be except for trucks I don’t think we’re gonna see. We’re not going to see diesels and cars and SUVs and stuff like that going forward. So that delayed the German automakers quite a bit. And in Japan, instead of betting on diesel, they bet on fuel cells. And that has also been something of a dead end. I think that fuel cells might become motive power for some trucking because it does give you longer distance travel. But there’s huge logistics reasons it’s not really taking off. There was a startup company that was going to do hydrogen power for trucks. And it’s hasn’t really been able to get off the ground. And there was a mini scandal involving that company. And the automakers have been trying to sell hydrogen cars. But there’s really only hydrogen infrastructure in Southern California. And the rollout around the country hasn’t really happened. It costs like a million to $2 million to build a hydrogen station for versus about $10,000 for a electric vehicle charging structure. So it’s completely not feasible to do the hydrogen thing. And I think the Japanese automakers are sort of backing away a little bit from that they’re still pretty committed to hydrogen, though.

Alex Wise  25:56  I can’t imagine why a Subaru, which is so popular in Northern California, for example, you see Subarus everywhere. And most of the people who buy them are middle class or upper middle class who liked to enjoy the environment ski use the all wheel drive element of Subarus, and yet, I don’t think Subaru has any electric vehicles, do they?

Jim Motavalli 26:21  It’s one of the biggest laggards in the whole industry in terms of EVs. I don’t see anything much coming out of Subaru. If they have electric vehicles. I haven’t seen them. They have a few hybrids. They have some progressive elements and their cars early on were what they call PS abs, which are partial zero emission vehicles. So they tend to be low emission their vehicles which is a good thing but an electric car leader they’re not so you know, companies like Honda, the first EVs from Honda, which are going to come out in 2024 for sale in the American market will actually be built by General Motors and use General Motors. That’s how far behind all the batteries that’s how far behind they are. Companies like Honda because of their long detour into fuel cells. They are not leaders at all in battery technology. They’re having to learn that they claim that they’ll soon be catching up. But again, when you have a detour into another technology and they spent a lot of money on it. It means that they weren’t spending money on battery development and now they’re playing catch up just like the Germans are. The US is really ahead of everybody in terms of battery technology.

Alex Wise  27:40  I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the show. If people want to find Jim’s work, go to JimMotovalli.com and he writes for Barron’s, Media Village and Treehugger and plenty of other places. Jim Motavalli, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Jim Motavalli Great to be on. Thanks.

Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Alex Wise, Gillian Welch and Bobby McFerrin, check out our website at Sea Change Radio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.