The Unplowed Road to Electric Vehicles

By Todd Lassa

The morning of General Motors’ reveal at CES in Las Vegas of new electric vehicles—most notably the Chevrolet Silverado EV pickup truck and also the Chevy Blazer EV and Equinox EV, which will be coming in 2023 and ’24—the most-read op-ed column in The Washington Post was entitled, “Imagine Virginia’s icy traffic catastrophe – but only with electric vehicles.”

WaPo editorial writer and columnist Charles Lane relates the story of a Canadian semi driver stuck in the storm’s 40-mile backup on I-95 in Virginia earlier this week. A Tesla driver knocks on the semi’s door and tells the trucker that his kids are stranded in the car and there’s no way to recharge the EV. The truck driver, who told the story in his Twitter account @MyWorldThroughaWindshield, gave the Tesla driver water, a spare blanket and a mylar thermal blanket.

Lane points out that pure-electric vehicles lose range in cold weather and cannot be revived as easily as a petroleum-fueled vehicle. To make the Tesla driver’s prospects for recharge tougher, the power grid failed in parts of Virginia Monday night.  

As Gary Vasilash notes in his post “Still the EV Charging Question,” there is no solution in sight for how to quickly re-charge electric vehicles that run out of juice between any two charging points.

But the source of the problem is far older than the accelerating shift from internal combustion engines to EVs. The core issue is the priority the U.S. gave in the last century to designing and building infrastructure centered around the automobile.

In his column Lane references GM’s EV commercial for last year’s Super Bowl, in which Will Ferrell satirically takes on Norway for its then-actual 54% EV market share (which increased to 65% in 2021). Norway is much colder than most of the U.S., though with a much smaller population, and it’s beginning to back out of “massive” EV subsidies. Then the columnist gets to the core of the country’s advantage regarding EVs: In Norway “a mere 10% of workers in the largest city – Oslo – commute by car.”

Eureka. Transportation alternatives are a way of life in places like Norway. That makes a big difference.

Meanwhile, back in Virginia after the huge mid-Atlantic storm, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) spent 26 hours, 45 minutes driving up I-95 to Washington, D.C., for a voting rights meeting—a drive that usually takes two hours. Kaine told NPR’s All Things Considered he once took a bicycle ride from Richmond to D.C. in an event with Virginia police officers one Memorial Day weekend, “basically the same ride up Route 1,” in 13 hours.

Now, I’m not the least-bit anti-car, and I’m not advocating a wholesale shift to alternative transportation sources. But our overcrowded highways, freeways and city streets have long been an anathema to any pleasure associated with driving.

The clean, efficient way to commute in that part of the country should be an electric-powered commuter rail system, though it’s far too late for that.

The best we can hope for is to face 40-mile snow-clogged traffic jams with EVs rated 400+ miles of range (probably 325-350 miles in cold weather) and a proliferation of recharging systems along the way. That’s assuming we can afford such EVs, as even ICE-powered new vehicles average more than $46,000. Middle-class commuters can always get a deal on a three-year-old off-lease EV featuring yesterday’s state-ot-the-art range, while the working class – the people who drive the snowplows, semi-trucks and emergency vehicles – get to work in our gas- and diesel-powered trade-ins.

Goodbye, Best Driver’s Road, Ever; Hello, Bike Trail

Todd Lassa remembers the times he ran the second- and third-gear snake up and down the California coast, and realizes that it may need to change–significantly

Highway 1, the north-south highway in California that runs from Mendocino County in the north to Dana Point in the south, is crumbling into the sea. The road I have traveled countless times over the past three-and-a-half decades just to drive it is a victim of its own popularity, an irony worthy of a Twilight Zone episode.

To quote the February 28 front page of The Washington Post; “California’s shifting weather patterns are presenting new threats to this exotic road as wildfire reaches into places it has never been, leaving raw landscapes and fresh dangers in its burn path.”

For about five years during the Bush 41 era I drove up from Southern California, where I lived at the time, at least once a year.

MX-5 Miata. Ideal for Highway 1 driving. (Image: Mazda)

I had a 1987 Honda CRX, and I quickly learned that it was best to plan a trip from San Luis Obispo to Monterrey/Carmel on Highway 1 just after New Year’s in order to avoid long, slow lines of gawkers in rental Mustang convertibles, Midwest minivans and VW Microbuses full of Dead Heads. Not that I wasn’t a gawker myself, looking west at the Pacific past the cliffs below, while on one of the short straights. Virtually every such drive included a stop for lunch or dinner on the outdoor deck of Nepenthe, in Big Sur, with its aging hippie wait staff, extensive California wine selection, and perfect view of the highway just to the east and the coast to west.

My fin de siècle Highway 1 drive came long before I would wring out a test car on it for a magazine story, in September 1991. I drove all the way up the coast, past Bodega Bay, past the Oregon and Washington borders, past Vancouver, B.C. inland to Prince George and then east to Jasper, Alberta, and back (along inland freeways to make time during the return, sigh). In roughly 18 days, over 5,700 miles, the coastal road in Oregon and Washington, and the Canadian Rockies of Alberta certainly rivaled Big Sur for natural beauty, though no road was more fun than 1.

And now, it is all over. California’s highway department can keep trying to put it back together again, but for what – more CO2-spewing SUVs? No. The next Tesla sports car, or the Corvette E-ray, maybe.

If you happened to read my piece on how bicycle sales in the U.S. had a big year in 2020 – bigger than auto sales, even with inventory shortages, especially for urban/commuter bikes – and put that together with the headline here, you already know where I’m going with this. Highway 1 is ripe for establishing a roads-to-trails movement, like the 60-year-old rails-to-trails movement, in which bicycling and hiking enthusiasts turned old, abandoned railroad beds into gravel or blacktop trails.

Sure, we still need those mass expanses of multi-lane interstate, wide urban and suburban boulevards and two-lane rural blacktops between small towns just to handle current levels of automotive congestion. It won’t be long before those roads and highways are filled with autonomous electric vehicles. As much as I’d like a few more runs between San Simeon and Big Sur in something like a Porsche 718 or Mazda Miata, we are going to have to ban motor vehicles from Highway 1 in order to save it. Forget trying to return with a Miata, or Porsche Boxster or even a Tesla Roadster. My new goal is to get in shape so that I don’t have to resort to an e-bike to cycle up and down the road.

2020 Car Sales: Goodbye Affordability (Unless You’re Rich)

Auto sales plummeted by one-third in the second quarter of last year, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, and at the time it felt the like tip of disaster for the car business. The global pandemic stifled demand as the supply side was strangled by shuttered factories and parts and components that couldn’t be shipped to automakers.

General Motors had to shut its Chevrolet Corvette assembly plant for several weeks, but this turned out to be more a supply problem for the automaker than a demand problem, as consumers on the $60,000-plus end of the sports car market generally weren’t the people losing jobs and income.

This gets to a drum I’ve been beating for years. The idea of building brand-new cars and light trucks for working class and middle-class Americans, the very model incubated by the Curved-Dash Oldsmobile and brought to life by the automated assembly lines of Henry Ford’s Model T, the car that put America on wheels, is over.

Latest proof is the comeback of new vehicle sales from those dark days at the end of the first quarter in 2020 and through the second quarter, into much healthier third and fourth quarters. Calendar year 2020 vehicle sales in the U.S. dropped 14.4% from 2019, to 14,645,049 cars and light trucks says Automotive News, but that’s far better than anyone expected from that second quarter drop.

2021 Cadillac Escalade. Big. Powerful. Tech-intensive. Expensive. (Image: Cadillac)

Even with a pandemic that most economists say created our most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression 90 years ago, the 14.6-million sales number is far more palatable to the industry than the 2008-2009 Great Recession, when sales dipped below 11 million at its nadir. With the current pandemic, the auto industry mirrors the economy in general, in which college-educated professionals, management and executive-level employees and their employers spend their workdays in home offices, seeing their colleagues and clients on Zoom rather than in person.

Presently, of Americans who can work at home, unemployment is 3.9%, but for those who have to report to a work site, the rate is 8.9%, KMPG chief economist Constance Hunter told The Washington Post. (Jan. 28, 2021).

About the same time that auto sales fell by one-third, the April 2020 U.S. unemployment rate reached 14.8%. By December 2020, auto sales climbed to near-pre-pandemic levels, but the U.S. unemployment rate was still high at 6.7%, compared with just 3.5% for January and February 2020, according to tradingeconomics.com. The rate for Black and Hispanic Americans is significantly higher, and the Congressional Research Service singles out heavy job loss in the leisure, hospitality industry and restaurants. Your favorite waiter or waitress at the local Olive Garden isn’t shopping for a new Kia, let alone a new Cadillac these days.

Meanwhile, tech barons and big-time investors in tech stocks like Amazon, Facebook and Apple are buying new cars, if the strength of the luxury market is any guide.

In its sales report issued the first week in January, General Motors boasts the all-new 2021 Cadillac Escalade that launched in the middle of the ’20 calendar year—when shutdowns and job losses were growing–“retook market leadership” in the fourth quarter, meaning it began to outsell the Lincoln Navigator again. And here’s the kicker: GM noted that 43% of the new Escalades have “a transaction price of more than $100,000.”

Clearly it was more supply problem and less demand accounting for the 14.4% dip for the year which included phase-out sales of the last of the old model as well as the new, ’21 ‘Slade. Before the pandemic, the average new car transaction price hovered around $38,000, already up significantly from the low-$30s earlier in the ‘10s. The current average is now $40,573, according to Edmunds. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the median household income was $68703 (latest figures). Yikes.

BMW was one of the few leading luxury marques that suffered a sales drop worse than the industry average in 2020, of 17.5%. Archrival Mercedes-Benz also had a sales decline, 8.9%, but that was better than the overall industry 14.4% decrease. Tesla was up 20.3%. Jaguar sales dropped 29.8% to 18,586 vehicles; its sister brand, Land Rover was down just—comparatively speaking–15.5%, to 80,034.

The boom in the SUV and truck market plays a big role in making luxury items of brand-new vehicles, even among the commodity brands. Small sedans and hatchbacks that many brands have cut from their lineups in the last few years were entry-level models. Small sport/utilities and crossovers generally are priced a size category up from their sedan counterparts. One surviving commodity compact sedan, the 2021 Honda Civic LX, starts at $22,425 (including destination charge), while the CR-V LX, a compact SUV sharing many of the Civic’s bits, starts at $26,525, and that’s with front-wheel-drive. Good luck finding a FWD compact SUV of virtually any brand on a dealer’s lot in the north. If you want an AWD CR-V, you must move up to the EX trim level, and that starts at $29,035 before adding floor mats, $6,610 more than the Civic LX sedan.

Toyota’s CR-V rival is the RAV4, America’s bestselling vehicle after full-size Ford, Chevy and Ram pickup trucks. Last year’s RAV4 sales were down just 3.9% to 430,387. Toyota’s luxury division undoubtedly more than made up for that dip with much higher profit margins on the 2,574-unit increase in Lexus GXes sold last year, up 9.9% to 28,519, a sport-utility that starts at $54,275. The Lexus GX was the only model among Toyota’s two North American-market brands to post a sales increase last year. The full Lexus lineup is off just 7.7%, compared with the Toyota brand’s 11.9% drop.

So what’s the average Joe to do? There’s always the used market, but even that is become a bit rich. According to Edmunds, in Q4 2020 the average monthly payment for a used car was $ 437, and that for a 68.1-month loan.—Todd Lassa