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A Tough Week for Electric Vehicles

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at roadblocks in automotive electrification.
Abigail Bassett
Sep 15, 2023 11 min read
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It's been a tough week for electric vehicles and EV infrastructure in the U.S. Between a botched EV road trip by the U.S. Secretary of Energy and the looming threat of an even more massive United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against the Big Three automakers, automotive electrification has hit some roadblocks.

A Botched EV Roadtrip by the U.S. Secretary of Energy

Last weekend, a family in Augusta, Georgia called the police when staff for Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm’s staff, blocked a number of electric vehicle chargers to "reserve" them for the upcoming convoy of EVs. Secretary Granholm was leading the convoy as part of a scheduled road trip that was supposed to promote the ease and efficiency of going all-electric. 

According to NPR, the staffers blocked off EV chargers using a non-electric vehicle, a practice known as "ICE-ing." ICE-ing (or ICEing) refers to the act of intentionally blocking electric vehicle (EV) charging stations with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

The practice first caught headlines around 2018 when pick-up truck owners across the U.S. began parking their diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles in EV charging spots to harass EV owners.

While many EV forums have reported anecdotes of the practice for many years, it wasn’t until the pandemic, when people began to rely more heavily on their vehicles to safely social distance, that the practice of ICE-ing began to grab more prominent headlines.

Here in the U.S., the federal government has announced $7.5 billion in funding to advance and support the EV charging infrastructure. Those grants are due to be announced and distributed soon, but anyone who has owned or driven an EV knows how frustrating and difficult it can be to find public chargers that are functional, quick, and convenient. The bill aims to build out EV infrastructure to curb the issues plaguing the space.

While public infrastructure is vital to widespread EV adoption, there's also the issue of charging access for those who live in rentals and apartment buildings that don't support EV charging. In places like Venice, California, for example, EV owners string extension cords out windows and up trees to charge their vehicles overnight, as I reported in this Fortune Magazine story late last year. Granholm's experience this weekend underlines the issues that both EV owners and automakers face when it comes to supporting and powering electric vehicles

Tesla Superchargers are Only Part of the Answer (and They Have Some Very Dirty Secrets)

Advocates argue that there are some bright spots on the EV adoption horizon, including getting more vehicles made by different companies on the Tesla Supercharger Networks. In theory, this should ease some of the infrastructure issues that Granholm saw on her road trip.

A few months ago, Ford announced a partnership with Tesla to allow Ford electric vehicles to use the Tesla North American Charging Standard charging ports (known as NACS). This will enable non-Tesla vehicles to charge at Superchargers with an adapter.

By 2025, the NACS standard will become the standard for Ford.

Other automakers, including GM, Rivian, Volvo, Polestar, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, and Fisker, have followed suit and adopted the NACS standard in a similar fashion, Saying they will offer charging port adapters and eventually switch to the Tesla-style charging ports around the 2025 model year.

Widespread NACS adoption could help ease the issue of charging access, especially along major interstates, but it won't solve the problem of charging access for rural or local communities. EV Station keeps a regularly updated list of the automakers and charging networks (like ChargePoint and EvGo) adopting the NACS standard.

While it's a step in the right direction, widespread NACS standards won't address any of the less seemly actions of EV-maker Tesla, however. The company has been running a number of its Superchargers on diesel generators since 2015 when analyst and reporter Edward Niedermeyer first reported on the practice.

Just this week, a report at Jalopnik found that part of the massive 98-supercharger location in Harris Ranch continues to run on diesel generators, which undercuts the sustainability of EVs and charging. Musk publicly promised that "All Superchargers are being converted to solar/battery power. Over time, almost all will disconnect from the electricity grid" on Twitter (now X, also owned by Musk) in 2017. Six years later, however, some Superchargers continue to operate on diesel.

More Bad News for EV Makers: The UAW Strike

Thursday evening marked the deadline for the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against the Big Three U.S. automakers, GM, Ford, and Stellantis. As of Thursday night, the union is currently on strike at three locations: A Ford plant in Michigan that makes the Bronco SUV, a GM plant in Missouri that makes the Chevy Colorado, and a Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio, that makes the Jeep Wrangler.

While there are no current plans to strike at plants that make some of the Big Three’s EVs, it's not off the table, and only time will tell where the strike will head next. The union has said that it will continue to roll out other strike locations if their demands are not met. Bloomberg has a great explainer of what’s at stake in these strikes.

One of the strike's central issues is focused on workers' union status in the manufacturing plants that produce the batteries for EVs. Most of these plants are jointly owned by both battery companies headquartered overseas and the Big Three.

For example, Ford has a partnership with SK Innovation, a Korean company. Ford also has an agreement with CATL, a Chinese battery manufacturer. GM partnered with the Korean company LG, but the contract for building new U.S.-based plants has been stalled. The company is currently working on an agreement with Korean battery and electronics giant Samsung SDI for its Ultium battery technology. Stellantis works with a French battery supplier, TotalEnergies. Currently, only the Ultium plant in Ohio, jointly owned by GM and LG, is unionized.

Those overseas battery makers aren't union shops and frequently partner with other non-US auto manufacturers. The UAW negotiations could cause prices for EVs to rise for consumers as automakers pass increased costs of production on to buyers. Data from March shows that the average cost of an EV is around $55,488. That's 14% higher than the average price of a combustion vehicle. If prices continue to rise for EVs, it will considerably stall EV adoption.

As Politico noted earlier this week, the stakes are also high for Biden's presidential run. The Biden administration has been moving quickly on everything from infrastructure investment and climate bills, but the UAW strike could derail the progress. Politico noted that "Democrats are counting on the United Auto Workers to join other unions in providing crucial organizational muscle and get-out-the-vote efforts in 2024. A backlash against Biden's EV push could discourage that involvement — a threat underlined by the UAW's refusal so far to endorse Biden’s reelection, despite the larger AFL-CIO throwing its weight behind Biden in its earliest-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate.”

All in, it's been a very rough week for electric vehicles and EV infrastructure in the U.S., with plenty of fumbles along the way. We'll continue to keep you updated on the latest on the transition to electric as these events continue to unfold, so stay tuned.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett