Dear electric car owners: You don’t need the giant battery

“People just don’t want to be stuck,” says Melin. Understandable. And if so, those people have plenty of options for long-range electric cars, if they’re willing to pay for it. But within the climate movement, the fear of such reactions has grown intense. Some prefer instead to offer a message of low-carbon abundance – that clean energy technology can do everything we do now, and more. With that theory, the electrification of the Ford F-150, the best-selling car in America, is beyond criticism. (One analyst, who didn’t want to be named, said he thinks the truck is “evil,” electric or not.)

But even a truck could be much more efficient in terms of materials if it didn’t promise trips that went so far. Long trips are “drastically overrepresented in people’s minds,” says Tobias Brosch, a psychologist at the University of Geneva who has studied why people don’t buy electric cars. The trick is how to convince them otherwise. Information about where and how to charge remains confusingly abstract for people who have only previously used a petrol station. They just don’t quite believe it can be practical. One solution is careful guidance linked to drivers’ individual behavior – effectively simulating how an electric car would work in their current lives.

The good news is that this year buyers started to find out. Tal, which conducts annual surveys of electric car buyers, has noticed that as more people buy an extra electric car, or take a ride in their cousin’s car, they become smarter. They realize that the occasional trips aren’t actually deal breakers, that they can stop for a few minutes, use the bathroom, get some fro-yo, and it all feels pretty normal. They have greater confidence that few trips require extensive planning and that things will get easier in the future as the charging infrastructure expands. They enter a new reality, one in which the rhythms of charge and discharge are regular, habitual.

At the same time, companies, pressured by government policies and supply chain pressures, are easing the search for “more”. Volkswagen and Tesla are bringing lithium-iron-phosphate, or LFP, batteries, long popular in China, where cars tend to be smaller and charging stations are more numerous, to the United States. CATL, the world’s largest producer of batteries, has said it will soon bring sodium-based cells to cars alongside those made from lithium. Both involve reducing demand for some of the most scarce and destructive minerals—in the case of LFP, it’s cobalt, and for sodium batteries, it’s lithium—and lower costs for consumers. But as a trade-off, they also usually promise a shorter range.

That development is important, says Riofrancos. It’s a good thing if smarter, wallet-watching EV buyers choose to go with the smaller battery option. It will reduce the demand for materials. And it’s also a strong signal “that consumer preferences aren’t set in stone,” she says — that tropes like “rank anxiety” are manageable, or maybe not such a problem after all. It gets us away from the “choiceless” paradigm.

However, there is a long way to go. There is much more Americans can do to get more out of each electric car battery, such as sharing cars or adopting new technology that allows drivers to swap out different-sized batteries based on their needs. Both are popular approaches in China, notes Melin. And choosing a smaller battery is less of a big deal than swapping a truck for a car, or giving up car ownership altogether in favor of a bus or e-bike – options that would get us to a decarbonized future much faster. Despite localized experiments like toll-free mass transit or tax incentives to go car-free, this year of climate investment has still ultimately tipped in favor of private vehicles, even as urban sprawl expands and large public systems are caught in a pandemic-induced death spiral. Is it possible to have more electric cars on the road? and fewer cars at the same time? “This will be much more difficult to change,” says Tal. – We lose the match.

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