We Need Smart Policy for Automakers to Profit on EVs

As the EV age dawns, it’s not clear you can make money by putting up the first wave of national charging infrastructure – but having such a system is a prerequisite to consumers buying EVs on any scale.

Andy Levin

February 14, 2024

5 Min Read
F-150 Lightning_Lariat_off-road_05_0
F-150 Lightning BEV a critical success but consumer demand flagging.

Four years ago, I tried to do something to prevent the train wreck we are now seeing with EV adoption in the U.S. Unfortunately, I failed, and here we are. We have a problem in this country of being unable to see that bold policy is necessary to facilitate the success of the capitalist economy. We love talk of revolution and disruption in business, but we are allergic to making the policy moves necessary to allow such change to happen.

I have been an environmental activist most of my life. I worked on clean-energy issues in the administration of Jennifer Granholm when she was Michigan’s governor. In the 2010s, I created a statewide finance market called Lean & Green Michigan to help businesses and nonprofits undertake radical clean-energy makeovers of their buildings.

So, I suppose it’s no surprise that by the time I went to Congress to represent parts of Macomb and Oakland counties outside Detroit in January 2019, I was a committed EV driver. I had bought a soft-hybrid ’08 Mercury Mariner in 2007 and a ’16 Chevy Volt PHEV before Christmas in 2015.  Later, I would buy a ’20 Chevy Bolt BEV at the beginning of the pandemic. I knew we needed to electrify cars, trucks and other transportation as quickly as possible – one of many steps required to stop the disastrous overheating of our Earth. 

In Congress, I set to work on what became the EV Freedom Act, which I introduced four years ago this month, in February 2020. The idea was to establish within three years a comprehensive network of high-speed charging stations throughout the national highway system that would allow an EV owner to drive from any point in the country to any other (including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico) without fear of running out of juice. And this wasn’t about mandating something in the abstract. We needed clear standards for interoperability, accessibility, affordability, inclusion of poor communities and keeping chargers in good repair, among other things.

My research told me this wouldn’t even cost taxpayers much, because rather than stationing chargers in places such as gas stations or rest stops, we would do what makes more sense: integrate them into the economic activity of the American road. Once it’s decided that 20 high-speed chargers are needed near a certain interchange, for example, I’m quite sure restaurants, malls, hotels and other establishments would bid against each other to host them. After all, if you own a TGI Friday’s on one side of the street and I own a Red Lobster on the other, I’m not about to cede all the hungry EV drivers to you for the half-hour or so it takes for them to charge their vehicle from 10% to 80%.

The pointy-headed, apolitical scientists who write all those UN reports about how to address an overheating climate would say, “Duh – this is obviously necessary, and the sooner the better.” Unfortunately, many of my Democratic colleagues saw it as admirable but too ambitious. Virtually all Republicans were against it, either because they were climate deniers, they saw it as big government or both. Thus, despite winning the backing of many auto companies, utilities, unions and other stakeholders, the bill did not move forward.

What people don’t seem to realize is that helping markets go where they want to go requires bold, smart policy – especially when so many factors are changing rapidly. 

The simple truth is that at the dawn of the EV age, it’s not clear you can make money by putting up the first wave of national charging infrastructure – but having such a system is a prerequisite to consumers buying EVs on any scale. That’s the kind of Catch-22 only good policy can solve.

Even though this may seem obvious, as a nation we haven’t acted. And now our lack of action is harming the companies that have recognized the need to make EVs. For example, Ford has had to throttle back production of the F-150 Lightning significantly, despite its impressive critical reception. General Motors is delaying production of the Silverado EV pickup and other models by a full year, and so on. The industry’s failure to scale up EV production and sales at the pace the climate crisis demands means record-high EV sales in 2023 is progress, but nowhere near enough.

Yes, the Biden Admin. worked with us in the 117th Congress to secure $7.5 billion to jumpstart charging infrastructure across the country.  But simply appropriating funds isn’t enough. We need the market-facilitating vision that only detailed policy legislation can provide.

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Here’s the bottom line: Road-tripping is an integral part of American culture. People need to feel confident in knowing they can go visit Grandma in Omaha or take Junior (and all their stuff!) to start school at a university three states away before they’re going to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars for a new vehicle. Until we implement a charging infrastructure that can meet consumers’ needs, we’ll continue exacerbating the climate crisis and harming the very companies that have stepped up to lead the transition to electric vehicles.

Former U.S. Rep. and Detroit car guy Andy Levin (pictured, left) is a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he works on a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues.

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