In an editorial published in The New York Times on Thursday, Sen. Chuck Schumer proposed replacing today's cars with cleaner-running electric models to help fend off the potentially devastating effects of climate change. The high-ranking Democrat from New York envisions something not that dissimilar to the "Cash for Clunkers" scheme from a decade ago.
"The goal of the plan, which also aims to spur a transformation in American manufacturing," Schumer wrote, "Is that by 2040 all vehicles on the road should be clean." To achieve this ambitious target, he envisions spending some $454 billion over a span of 10 years to help spur the adoption of EVs, which he noted is "progressing too slowly" right now, even as more and more battery-powered vehicles are hitting the market.
High up-front costs and a charging infrastructure that's often insufficient are two roadblocks hindering the more widespread acceptance of electrified automobiles. Addressing the price issue, Schumer proposes offering large discounts on EVs made in America when an internal-combustion-powered car or truck is traded in. Additionally, more generous rebates would be offered to lower-income drivers. Incentives like this could, according to the Senator, eliminate some 63 million gasoline-powered vehicles on America's roadways by the year 2030.
This portion of his proposed scheme is similar to the Car Allowance Rebate System, a program colloquially referred to as Cash for Clunkers. It ran for several months in 2009 during The Great Recession and offered rebates up to $4,500 on certain vehicles that were traded in toward more fuel-efficient models, though one major difference between this and Schumer's plan is scale.
"It was a fraction of the size," topping out at around $3 billion, explained Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions. "And the point of Cash for Clunkers was to spur the economy, not necessarily to clean the air."
Schumer's plan is intended to drive us ahead to a greener future, though Fiorani isn't sure it will do that. He said, yes, it would most likely make some impact on improving the environment, though a big issue is the generation of electricity. "You just transfer the pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant," he said, because so many power plants in America are still coal-fired or otherwise dirty. Of course, natural gas or renewable power-generation options could offset much of this, things like solar, wind and nuclear.
EVs currently have something of a chicken-or-the-egg problem. Motorists could be deterred from purchasing one because there aren't enough convenient charging locations available, but companies are not encouraged to install more chargers because there are so few electric vehicles on the road. Schumer has a plan for this as well. To spur the development of America's charging infrastructure, he proposes handing out grants to cities and states, "with a particular emphasis on low-income, rural and other underserved communities."
The potential to go electric is huge. Fiorani said, "[There are] a quarter billion cars on the road on the United States alone," and many of those emit significant pollution. Still, EVs aren't necessarily as squeaky-clean as they've been made out to be. Aside from potentially dirty electricity, battery packs also require a significant amount of often difficult-to-obtain elements, the mining of which can devastate local environments.
But there's another problem, too. "We're still trying to figure out the whole [battery] recycling issue. Nobody has cracked that case yet," said Fiorani, though he noted China and Europe are hard at work tackling this snag.
"There are easier ways to clean up the atmosphere than [Schumer's plan]," Fiorani argued, suggesting we improve emissions on medium- and heavy-duty trucks, introduce fuels with lower amounts of sulfur and bring large amounts of biodiesel to market. "Things like that are much cheaper ways of cleaning up the environment than throwing out incentives to sell vehicles they can't even build."
Fiorani said he's not opposed to electric cars; he's well aware of their numerous benefits. He just has a broad perspective on the issue.
Aside from potential pitfalls, when it comes to battery and electric-vehicle production, Schumer wants America to be the world leader. Numerous EVs are already built here, like thewhich is assembled in Lake Orion, Michigan. Additionally, Tesla is an industry leader in the electric-vehicle field, having assembled nearly 100,000 vehicles in the third quarter of this year alone. Still, Schumer wants even more, and to make this a reality he proposes additional grants, this time to help companies retool their production facilities and build new plants specifically for manufacturing EVs and related technology. He estimates this will create tens of thousands of well-paying jobs and "should re-establish the United States as the world leader in auto manufacturing."
Schumer's plan, while broad and ambitious, likely has no chance of becoming law, not with today's gridlocked legislature and a president that's openly hostile toward environmental protection. "It looks great on paper, but it would never pass through our current government," Fiorani said. Still, the Senator says that if Democrats take control of the upper house next year he will "introduce bold and far-reaching climate legislation." His clean-car proposal would be a key part of any such bill.