A poll released in June by the Pew Research Center indicated that 51 percent of Americans opposed a proposal to phase out production of gasoline powered cars and trucks entirely, even as automotive makers are moving to do this on their own. Early last year, for example, General Motors said it wanted to stop selling gas- and diesel-reliant cars within the next 14 years.
This week, we got a glimpse into how contentious things might get when Vice President Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, promoted electric cars and buses at an event, and then were slammed by Republican commenters for being “tone deaf.” The criticism was that it was insensitive, when so many Americans were struggling with the high cost of gas, to mention that zero-emission transport would release us from the vagaries of fuel pricing.
Soon enough, electric cars were at the center of conspiracy theories spreading on social media. The Biden administration, it was suggested, was nefariously driving up the cost of gas specifically to get people to drive electric cars. Similar to the fantasy that Covid vaccines were really just a means of government mind control, another conspiracy theory has it that the government wants us to drive electric cars so they can freeze them at any time, a scenario straight out of “Minority Report.”
New York’s Republican strongholds — in Staten Island and certain areas of Queens and Brooklyn — happen to be places where public transportation is sparse and car use is high. I asked the city’s current transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodríguez, how realistic it was to imagine that drivers across the ideological spectrum would embrace electric cars. The commissioner was in fact quite optimistic.
“Katrina, Maria, Sandy — these big events make people understand that it’s real and not something invented by the Chinese,” Mr. Rodríguez said, referring to the climate crisis and the notion floated by Donald Trump that it was all a hoax manufactured by China. When Mr. Rodríguez served as the chair of the City Council’s transportation committee, he told me, he often met livery drivers who were eager to switch to electric cars. “What we have found out is that there is an interest not just among upper-class New Yorkers to move away from gas, but working-class New Yorkers as well.”
While that is undoubtedly the case, the fact remains that even with declining prices and government subsidies — which in New York State could total about $10,000 — the price of a new electric car is still in excess $20,000, or about twice as much as a 2011 Hyundai Sonata This in a city where hundreds of thousands of residents face eviction and a high rent burden. The road to virtue is long.