Why my lawnmower is electric but my car isn’t
Some analysts think the EV transition would be going smoother if there were a more deliberate focus on hybrids as a bridging strategy.
I bought my first battery-powered lawnmower nearly 10 years ago as an experiment. It was a success, and most of the other machines in my garage — trimmer, weed whacker, chain saw, rototiller, leaf blower, snow thrower — are now powered by batteries I recharge from an electrical outlet.
My car, however, is not electric, and I still don’t foresee a day when I’ll choose an electric vehicle over a gasoline-powered one. I love EV technology, and I’m glad most automakers are rolling out electrics. But EVs are too far above the practicality curve for me, and it’s not clear if or when they’ll fall inside it.
The choices on display in my garage are now playing out in the broader market for EVs, where automakers are beginning to pause aggressive efforts to transition rapidly from gas-powered cars to electrics. EV sales are still growing. They’ve jumped from barely nothing a few years ago to 8% of all new car sales. But demand seems to be flagging, forcing automakers to cut prices for EVs, which are not profitable yet for most companies that make them.
Ford, General Motors, Honda, and Volkswagen have scaled back EV plans recently or warned about disappointing sales. Even high-flying Tesla, which only makes electrics and lost money for 14 years before turning its first profit in 2020, is slashing prices and delaying the opening of a new factory in Mexico.
None of this means EVs are a failure. The difficulty most automakers face is predicting adoption rates for the new technology and adjusting their production plans to match what is basically a moving target. Retooling assembly lines to switch from gas-powered cars to electrics is cumbersome and expensive. So is opening new factories to build EVs or components such as the big battery packs they require.
Rising interest rates, meanwhile, are forcing buyers to change their plans. And now, the type of fuel that powers your car has become a political issue. Former President Donald Trump has decided EVs = bad, calling them the “ridiculous all-electric car hoax.” He’s wrong. EVs are here to stay. But they’re not for everybody, and in addition to all the other considerations involving a car, potential buyers now have to ask whether an EV fits their political brand.
The biggest unknown about EVs is how much of the market they’ll constitute at any given point in time, and how to get the supply-demand balance right. President Biden, who promised to “end fossil fuel” as a presidential candidate in 2019, wants half of all new cars to be zero-emission vehicles by 2030. For the most part, that means electrics. But Biden can’t force people to buy EVs. He can only set regulations and sign legislation giving them reason to do so, such as the EV tax credits that were in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Evaluating the pros and cons of electrification as you move up the appliance chain from power tools to automobiles helps explain why there may be a demand ceiling for current EV technology. My battery-powered lawnmower is a hit because the technology forces no tradeoffs on me. It cost a little bit more than a gas-powered model, but there’s no gasoline, oil, or other messy fluids, and I charge it at home. There’s basically no maintenance, either. You just pop in a fresh battery and start it up like you would a vacuum cleaner. It’s quieter than gas mowers, and I don’t pollute the air or breathe in carcinogens while mowing.
As I was writing this story, I decided to scribble some ways of measuring the usefulness of various gizmos, and ended up drawing my personal practicality curve, as you can see below. There are no numerical values associated with the various products I’ve plotted on this chart. All I want to convey is the relative appeal of different types of products, based on what I value as a consumer.
Cost is on the vertical access and convenience is on the horizontal axis. I’m willing to pay more money for more convenience, and vice versa, which is why my practicality curve rises from left to right. I define convenience broadly to include what I want from these products, which for me is ease of use, reliability, and a sense that I’m being a thoughtful consumer. Your results may vary.
I could have bought a gas mower instead of my electric for a little less money, but it scores low on convenience because I’d have to buy gas for it, maintain it, and tolerate needless noise and pollution. So it falls outside my practicality curve.
The worst machine on the planet right now is the gas-powered leaf blower, which generates obscene amounts of noise and pollution in the service of vanquishing leaves or dust. It occupies the worst spot on my practicality chart, in the northwest quadrant, where it’s a terrible combination of cost and convenience.
All my battery-powered electric tools fall inside the practicality curve for the same reasons my lawnmower does: no liquid fuels, no maintenance, always ready, plus they’re quieter and cleaner than gas-powered equivalents. I have a small yard, though, and if I had to manage an acre or more, these tools might not be up to the job.
Now for the cars. I have only one car, and I go on long trips sometimes when I have to gas up along the way. I simply need the range and easy refueling that comes with a gas-powered car. EVs are ideal for people who never drive long distances, or who have more than one car, including a gas-powered one they can use for road trips.
Yes, you can take long trips in an EV. But charging takes a lot longer than filling with gas, under the best circumstances, and you might have to go out of your way to find a charger. You should also assume you’ll get less than your car’s advertised range. Those tradeoffs and others put EVs outside my practicality curve, since I travel to remote areas sometimes and I don’t want to lengthen my trips substantially by hunting for a charger or killing time while my car powers up.
EVs do come with some of the same advantages that battery-powered lawnmowers do: You can charge them at home most of the time. They require less maintenance and they’re cleaner. So what would it take to get EVs inside my practicality curve?
The answer is simple: more range and faster refueling. Those cars actually exist. They’re called hybrids, in the vein of the Toyota Prius that debuted all the way back in 1999. Most modern hybrids are plug-ins, which means you can charge a battery that will give you 20 or 30 miles of range, before a gasoline-powered electric motor kicks in, to assist. You can always run the car on gasoline, so you don’t have to worry about a dead battery or an hours-long refueling odyssey.
But automakers and policymakers have focused less on hybrids than on fully electric cars with no gasoline backup. Many of the hybrids that are available are upscale models or top trim lines beyond the reach of ordinary buyers, which puts them high on the cost axis on my practicality chart. Federal tax credits apply to hybrids as they do to electrics, but complex rules on domestic-content requirements limit the applicability to a handful of models.
Some analysts think the EV transition would be going smoother if there were more deliberate focus on hybrids as a bridging strategy. “Tell me why we abandoned hybrids,” Sarah Emerson, managing principal at Energy Security Analysis, Inc, told me during an interview last year. “We can’t have hybrids because we want to get rid of gasoline. But it might be better to have 10 years of hybrids and then 10 years of EVs.”
In my yard, by contrast, there’s no need for a bridging strategy. Electrics do the smaller jobs just fine. Working up to the bigger jobs is simply going to take a while.