By Jeff Alson
Over a century ago, Midwesterners created the automobile revolution that redesigned the global landscape and put a car in nearly every driveway. The Midwest is now uniquely positioned to reap massive economic benefits from the emerging transportation electrification revolution and demonstrate that electric vehicles are practical and cost effective.
Jumpstarting this critical transformation from fossil fuel vehicles to electric vehicles, often referred to as EVs, will require leadership from government, automakers, and consumers alike.
A fast transition to electrify our transportation sector (combined with a renewable electricity grid) is essential if we are to meet national climate goals and protect the planet for future generations. Success will require the U.S. to synchronize future federal regulatory policies with accelerated demand by car buyers so that electric vehicles account for roughly half of all new car sales by 2030 and nearly all car sales by 2035.
In the clearest example of Midwestern leadership on electric vehicles, U.S. automakers in the region are rapidly shifting future investments away from gasoline vehicles. General Motors has an aspirational goal of selling only EV cars and SUVs by 2035, and has announced a $35 billion investment in at least nine assembly and battery plants by 2025. Ford plans to invest $30 billion by 2030 in multiple assembly and battery plants. Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent company, recently announced that nearly half of its capital and research and development budget will be invested in electrification.
Major electrification capital investments by GM, Ford, and Stellantis will be made in both the Midwest and the South. So far, most of the investments to modify assembly plants for electric vehicle production are in the Midwest, while most of the investments for new battery plants are in the South. However, GM has announced plans to build battery plants in Lansing, Michigan, and Lordstown, Ohio.
We need GM, Ford, and Stellantis to be successful in the emerging global electric vehicle market in order to protect the hundreds of thousands of existing high-quality manufacturing and engineering jobs at automakers and parts suppliers throughout the Midwest.
It may sound counterintuitive, given that current EV sales are higher in other parts of the country, but car buyers in the Midwest can lead the way to an EV transition. Some EV benefits, such as lower and more predictable electricity costs relative to gasoline, as well as lower maintenance costs, will be equally attractive to consumers everywhere. But, convenient home charging will be easier in the Midwest because more housing units have access to garages and the rate of home ownership is higher than the national average.
EVs offer innovative features that are particularly attractive to Midwesterners. For example, the Ford F-150 Lightning EV pickup (to be introduced in 2022) can provide backup power for a home during a power outage — a fully-charged battery pack can supply a typical house demand for up to three days. The Lightning also has as many as 11 electric outlets that could be particularly convenient at worksites and campsites.
Electric vehicles would provide significant economic and health benefits to low-income communities in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Unexpected gasoline price shocks can destroy the budget of a low-income family. Not only do electric vehicles cost less to fuel than a gasoline car, but electricity prices, regulated at the state level, are much more stable than gasoline prices, eliminating the risk of unexpected fuel price shocks. And because electric vehicles have fewer parts, they will have lower maintenance costs (e.g., no oil changes or tune ups).
With batteries getting cheaper every year, lower fuel and maintenance costs, and federal incentives, electric vehicles will be an economic boon to low-income communities once we have a critical mass of public charging stations.
In addition, electric cars, trucks, and buses have no tailpipe pollution and eliminate the differential risk of high pollution levels near urban freeways. Lower gasoline demand will also require fewer or smaller refineries, which, for generations, have been sited in disadvantaged communities of color.
Maximizing the Midwest’s benefits from a gasoline to electric vehicles switch over the next 10 to 15 years will require leadership at many levels. Municipalities should prioritize the buildout of public charging infrastructure for electric vehicles to boost consumer confidence; state regulators should support clean, electricity-powered public transportation; the federal EPA should adopt strong automaker pollution standards; and the auto industry should ensure greater accessibility and affordability of electric vehicles.
Above all, Midwestern drivers must begin to view their car buying decisions as a critical way to protect the health and future of their families by increasing market demand and sending a strong message to policymakers to follow through on their commitments.
It’s time for the Midwest to go all in on electric vehicles.
Jeff Alson is a member of the Environmental Protection Network. He was a senior engineer and policy advisor in EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1978 to 2018 and one of the architects of the Obama-era Clean Car Standards. He resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.