American interest in electric vehicles short circuits for first time in four years

American interest in electric vehicles short circuits for first time in four years

Interest in electric vehicles has waned slightly among US motorists for the first time since 2020 says Pew Research, with only three out of ten Americans right now saying they’re considering a battery-powered ride for their next purchase.

That’s a drop of nine percent in the past year, according to the analysis, which found respondents were most concerned about EV reliability and cost when comparing them to their gas-guzzling counterparts.

Even more interesting is the considerable decline in the number of people who believe EVs are better for the environment than internal combustion engines. While respondents still said that environmental benefits are the best thing about EVs, only 47 percent now believe that to be the case – a 20 percent drop since 2021.

The data also suggests that enthusiasm for EVs is largely split on political grounds, with far more self-described Democrats showing interest in an EV, and a full 35 percent of self-identified Republicans believing that electric cars are actually worse for the environment than gas vehicles.

To be fair to those not convinced that EVs are an environmental benefit, there are concerns to be raised about the technology. Battery production can be incredibly environmentally destructive, and charging EVs using energy generated by fossil fuel-burning power plants doesn’t exactly mean they’re running clean.

Nonetheless, the data does not suggest that EVs are inherently worse for the environment.

According to the US Department of Energy, an all-electric vehicle is responsible for emitting the equivalent of 2,727 pounds of CO2 per year, while an all-gas vehicle emits an average of 12,594 lbs of CO2 equivalent per year. That’s a national average that accounts for charging EVs with fossil fuels too, with breakdowns available per state.

Considering transportation was responsible for 28 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 – the largest share across all sectors – replacing more gas-powered vehicles would naturally reduce emissions, even if they were being charged using energy generated from fossil fuels.

We’ve asked Pew if it had any explanation from respondents about their belief EVs were worse for the environment.

One thing we can all agree on: Not enough EV infrastructure

US Democrats continue to have a rosy picture of the EV infrastructure rollout that President Biden promised in 2022 when the government earmarked $900 million for EV infrastructure expansion around the US with plans to hand out an additional $4 billion. 

According to Pew, the messaging has landed with Democratic voters, only 38 percent of whom believe the US is falling behind on building enough EV infrastructure. Seventy-six percent of Republican respondents believe the same.

Nationally, that works out to an average of 56 percent of Americans being unsure the US is doing enough to expand EV infrastructure, and that’s the crowd that seems to be on to something.

As of March 2024, only seven charging stations had been built using the EV infrastructure funds included in the bipartisan infrastructure law – far fewer than the 500,000 chargers the Biden administration hopes will be built by 2030. 

Those infrastructure concerns seem to coincide well with desire to buy an EV, with 58 percent of respondents that are confident in the US EV infrastructure rollout saying they’re interested in driving one, and only 16 percent of those unsure saying the same.

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The International Energy Agency believes the number of EVs on the road could increase tenfold by 2030. If charging infrastructure rollout doesn’t continue, US car buyers may end up even less inclined to buy an EV over a fossil fuel alternative.

That said, there is one bright spot in the study: EV interest may be flagging, but hybrids are on the rise.

“Hybrid vehicle sales have been increasing for the past three years,” Pew said. “Our survey finds that Americans are more likely to consider a hybrid than an electric vehicle,” with four in ten US car buyers saying they were interested in one.

Is all this uncertainty attributable to Tesla?

There’s also one more caveat to add to any look at the state of the EV industry right now, and that’s Tesla.

EV sales have been slowing in the US, but a lot of that downturn is due to the fact that Tesla sales are plummeting to the point where Elon Musk’s automaker is on the verge of losing its market majority in the United States.

Sales of EVs in America declined in April, marking the first sales drop since 2020, which coincides with Pew’s data on declining interest so far this year. For the first quarter, there was an increase in total electric car sales, albeit a slower one than previous quarters, with a 15 percent year-on-year rise.

Take Tesla out of the mix, according to data [PDF] from Cox Automotive, and EV sales in the country actually increased 33 percent from Q1 2023 to Q1 2024.

Slide showing how if you take Tesla out of the mix, EV US sales increased YoY

Cox Automotive slide showing how if you take Tesla out of the mix, estimated EV sales in the US increased year-on-year by 33 percent … Click to enlarge

This raises the question of whether it’s interest in EVs declining in the US, or Elon Musk’s antics.

Either way, Gartner VP of automotive Mike Ramsay told us, the EV market will likely rebound in the US, but different incentives will be needed to prevent adoption from being sluggish.

“If you look at what has happened in China, it’s clear that a large country can shift to EVs and not suffer from the shift,” Ramsay said in an emailed statement. “But it may take longer in the US than other regions because we have focused on incentives to buy EVs without adding disincentives to own a gasoline-fueled vehicle. Without that, it will take some time for the shift to happen.” ®

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