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Electric Vehicles

Trump Would Destroy the American Car Industry

America and the world have already decided that electric cars are the future.

Donald Trump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Disgraced and multiply indicted former President Trump recently injected himself into the United Auto Workers’ ongoing strike against Ford, GM, and Stellantis. He went to a non-union parts company called Drake Enterprises at the invitation of its owner, where he criticized the decision to strike. “Your current negotiations don’t mean as much as you think,” he said, because electric vehicles are a bigger threat than corporate executives to auto workers. “You can be loyal to American labor or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics … But you can’t really be loyal to both.” (He also threatened to destroy the UAW if they don’t endorse him in the 2024 campaign.)

It isn’t just Trump taking this line, either. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) recently claimed that the EV transition is harming the auto industry.

Not only is this argument a crock, it is the opposite of true. If Republicans repeal President Biden’s signature climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, the effects on the auto industry will be nothing short of catastrophic.

Let me start by admitting there is a small grain of truth in what Trump said. There are going to be some job losses as a result of the EV transition, especially in the parts supply chain and repair industry. The reason is that EVs, for all their whiz-bang technological sheen, are actually much easier to build and require far less maintenance than internal combustion vehicles.

The basic energy transfer system of a gas-powered car involves a vastly complex assemblage of valves, cams, fuel injectors, spark plugs, pistons, a crankshaft, a transmission, and a drive shaft. An electric car, by contrast, has a battery and motor. That means a lot of people who currently work producing or fixing all those finicky and breakage-prone parts are going to lose their jobs over the next 15-20 years. Now, it might even out in the aggregate, Carnegie Mellon researchers have suggested, because the batteries powering EVs are so complicated to construct. But it’s far from settled. (It’s also why job creation programs should prioritize places that have hitherto depended on carbon energy, but that’s a subject for another article).

The possibility that EVs will require less work is just one of several reasons why it’s vital for legacy American auto manufacturers to get ahead of the electric vehicle transition. The flip side of EV simplicity is better performance, cheaper operating costs, and greater theoretical reliability. Tesla might be notorious for manufacturing defects, but as I have previously written, that is just a reflection of Elon Musk’s terrible business management. As soon as the big traditional manufacturers (and possibly Tesla itself) get the kinks ironed out, EVs are going to be a breeze to own.

Performance is even more important. The first thing that anyone discovers when driving an EV for the first time is the rush of that instant surge of torque. Even the most powerful gas engines simply can’t react as quickly as electric current. I recently rented an EV myself for the first time, and even as a committed partisan insurgent in the war on cars, I must admit even the modest Chevy Bolt EUV is very fun.

Put simply, EVs are simply better than internal combustion cars, and their advantages are going to grow over time. Aside from reliability and performance, consider another Trump complaint: that today’s EVs can’t go far enough on a charge. After taking my first EV trip myself, I’m convinced the issue here is not range anxiety per se, but rather anxiety about the availability of chargers. After all, lots of people drive motorcycles with pitiful ranges — the Harley Sportster 883 can go only about 135 miles on a tank — but this is not a problem because gas stations are absolutely everywhere. Anyone who has taken a road trip in an EV recently, by contrast, has likely experienced crowded or broken public chargers, or struggled to get them to connect or deliver the advertised charge rate.

But this problem will certainly be solved over time. As compared to the vast apparatus to find, drill, refine, transport, store, and sell gasoline and diesel, which took decades to construct, virtually every single building in the country is already connected to the electric grid. It’s merely a question of building more and more reliable chargers, and adding a bit more generation capacity. Both of those things are already happening. (A simpler reform would be to just install RV hookups everywhere, as Kevin Williams argues here at Heatmap.)

These manifest advantages, together with the large subsidies for electric vehicles and battery investment in the Inflation Reduction Act, infrastructure bill, and CHIPS Act, are why all the Big Three American auto companies have already fully committed to the EV transition. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, they have already laid out some $143 billion in investment. New auto plants, battery factories, charging stations, and so on are being built by the hundreds. If Trump tears the guts out of the IRA, as he has promised to do, most of those will have to be abandoned, and he will have torn the guts out of the Big Three too.

Even if Republicans could somehow compensate for flushing tens of billions in investment down the toilet for no reason, that won’t change the fact that EVs are quite obviously the auto technology of the future, and the rest of the world is in a headlong race to get there. China as usual is way out ahead, with its national champion BYD already dominating the lower end of the world market. America is perhaps roughly equal with European and Korean manufacturers, and a bit ahead of Japanese ones. But the Big Three won’t be anymore if they are gutshot by Trump.

When an eviscerated Ford and GM can’t produce the cars that Americans of tomorrow want, they are going to look elsewhere. To try to stop the EV transition would be to hand the American driver to foreign manufacturers on a silver platter.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics." Read More

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