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Joe Biden and Donald Trump Have Thoughts About Your Next Car

Joe Biden and Donald Trump Have Thoughts About Your Next Car
Joe Biden and Donald Trump Have Thoughts About Your Next Car

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Get ready for the EV election.

Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

March 20, 2024, 6:32 PM ET

The Biden administration earlier today issued a major new rule intended to spur the country’s electric-vehicle industry and slash future sales of new gas-powered cars. The rule is not a ban on gas cars, nor does it mandate electric-vehicle sales. It is a new emissions standard, requiring automakers to cut the average carbon emission of their fleets by nearly 50 percent by 2032.

It would speed up the transformation of the car industry: The simplest way for automakers to cut emissions will likely be to shift more of their fleets to electric and hybrid models, and the Biden administration estimates that the rule would result in electric vehicles making up as much as half of all new cars sold by 2032. It also gives the country more of a chance of meeting the administration’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and eliminating them by 2050. The final rule is a less stringent version of a proposal from last spring, reflecting concessions to the United Autoworkers Union that give car companies more leeway in the first three years after it takes effect in 2027.

Tailpipe emissions are an issue not only for the climate: Breathing the soot from car tailpipes is a major health hazard, leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. per year, and the EPA estimates that the rule will cut noxious air pollution enough to provide some $13 billion in annual health benefits. But this rule, outlining a particular version of the country’s automotive future, has arrived just as Republicans are trying to create a wedge issue out of electric vehicles as a signature Biden climate effort. The loudest opponent has been Donald Trump, who over the weekend used the word bloodbath in a tirade against electric vehicles and is sure to make a big deal of the Biden administration’s new rule. What cars Americans will drive eight years from now could easily become the major climate issue in this year’s presidential election.

Even with the rule, plenty of people in the U.S. will still be driving gas cars in 2032, and for a long time after. The average car on the road is more than 12 years old. A gas car someone buys today could still be chugging along in 2036; a gas car someone buys in 2032 could still be zooming down the highway in 2044, when Biden would be 101, and Trump 97—assuming either of them are still alive. And of course no consumer would be made to give up their existing gas cars or even avoid purchasing new gas ones, should they want to.

At the same time, decisions made now about the future of electric vehicles have consequences that Americans will be feeling for more than a decade. Cars and other forms of transit are responsible for the largest share of the U.S.’s planet-warming emissions. And with global warming accelerating at a pace that has climate scientists concerned about the planet entering uncharted climatic territory, the trajectory of transit emissions in the U.S. relates directly to how habitable the planet remains in future decades. The same is true, of course, of all efforts by the federal government to curb climate change, each of which are threatened by a potential second Trump term.

The Biden administration’s new EV rule would accelerate a transition to electric vehicles that, by all counts, is already happening. Globally, EVs are set to surpass two-thirds of car sales by 2030, per analysis by energy nonprofit RMI. In the U.S., in part thanks to Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, EVs are also trending up: The sector took 10 years to sell the first million electric vehicles in this country. It took two years after that to sell the second million and, last year, reached a new breakthrough pace—1 million EVs sold in a single year. EVs now make up some 9 percent of new U.S. car sales, and sales are still on the rise. But that growth has begun to slow slightly. More Americans drive EVs than ever before, but we are still far from being a nation enthusiastic about or equipped for a plug-in future. Car companies that not so long ago rolled out big-eyed EV plans are now rolling them back a bit.

In Republicans’ framing, though, electrical vehicles are an existential threat to the American car industry, most particularly because they are a stand-in for economic competition with China. Trump, in his remarks on electric vehicles over the weekend, falsely claimed that “they’re all made in China,” and claimed that Biden “ordered a hit job on Michigan manufacturing” by way of rules that incentivize the purchase of electric vehicles. He warned that China would soon try to sell EVs in the U.S., then promised to put a “100 percent tariff” on each car imported to the United States.

Existing tariffs have prevented Chinese EVs from taking over the U.S. market so far. They do pose a threat to American carmakers’ current offerings, should they ever make it here: One expert in the Netherlands recently told The Atlantic that “Chinese consumers are the luckiest EV buyers in the world,” because of the range of EVs available there. But competition has advantages, too: The threat of incredibly cheap Chinese EVs—some slick models are even in the sub-$10,000 range—has major U.S. automakers such as Ford and Stellantis (Chrysler’s parent company) openly talking about how they need to push innovation faster to keep up. (The Chinese electric-vehicle titan BYD, which offers its “Seagull” hatchback at roughly $9,700, recently surpassed Tesla to top global EV sales.) As I’ve written before, one of the dangers of Trump’s stance on climate change is that it will delay the U.S.’s advance into the future where new energy and transportation technologies hold the upper hand. Eventually, gas cars will be relics; all we are deciding now is how quickly that future will be ours, and how much climate misery the world should endure in the meantime.

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