By Ralph Nader
November 13, 2023
John (Jack) Fitzgerald is no ordinary auto dealer. He communicates with consumer advocates. He started in the dealership business in 1956 and presently has 25 Fitzgerald Auto Mall dealerships in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida. He knows about automobiles.
Mr. Fitzgerald called me in August with worries about electric vehicles. For decades he has seen how auto dealers get blamed for vehicle deficiencies produced by the auto companies. He doesn’t want this to happen with electric cars and trucks. Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have been surging – bolstered by tax credits, some state laws mandating the end of the internal combustion engine in a couple of decades, and the EPA-proposed rules for reducing vehicle emissions by 2032.
He expressed skepticism about going all electric, as distinguished from hybrids and plug-in hybrids, too fast and overlooking emerging what he called multiple “challenges” to EVs.
He cited the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) six findings on the increasing number of high-voltage lithium-ion battery fires. Firefighters are finding that these batteries raise unprecedented fire suppression problems. Included in this category are e-bikes and e-scooters. Firefighters are urging the Consumer Product Safety Commission to come up with mandatory standards to help prevent these deadly fires.
Fitzgerald is concerned that motorists are not being told about tires wearing out faster, due to the heavier weight of electric vehicles with tire particles that also add to the toll of unregulated air pollution. The trade publication Rubber News reports that instead of getting 40,000 miles from their original equipment tires, they are “getting just 13,000 miles before needing to purchase a replacement set.” (Source: J.D. Power OE Tire Customer Satisfaction survey results.)
Tire companies are moving to make longer-lasting tires, but the process is slow.
Heavy heat waves have been linked to reducing the range of all electric vehicles. He is concerned about what needs to be done to offset the replacement cost of these vehicles and where to recycle their very, very heavy batteries.
Then there are facts beyond the need to establish EV chargers everywhere. In addition to the basic price for recharging, this rising industry sees opportunities for added fees and complexities. There is also the effect of disruption of electric power by storms, as occurred recently in the fire and hurricane disasters in California and Florida, and the rising price of electricity everywhere. And there are those increasing climate-caused emergency evacuations of whole communities. Recharging and range concerns are the uppermost factors impeding many financially-able buyers from switching to all electric models, which partly explains the sharp increase of electric cars being leased.
Like any new technology, (although the first electric vehicles came out in 1890), innovations in battery designs are underway. Meanwhile, glitches are inviting refinements and the economics vis-à-vis gasoline-fueled vehicles are fluctuating significantly.
There is a lot that interested motorists do not know, of course. That also holds true for phlegmatic General Motors (GM), which in the recent third quarter of 2023, sold only 20,000 all-electric vehicles compared with Tesla’s 435,000. Over the past decade, GM has had huge problems selling its troubled electric car models.
GM’s CEO Mary Barra, an engineer and the highest-paid auto industry CEO in history, who made $29 million last year plus benefits, can’t seem to prevent blunders and technical failures year after year. Elon Musk doesn’t lose any sleep over competition from this faltering industry giant.
Mr. Fitzgerald wants a more public discussion that includes Toyota’s approach. The giant, pace-setting company believes that “BEVs” (Battery Electric Vehicles) are a critical part of reducing carbon emissions, but not the entire solution.
Toyota believes “an extreme BEV mandate ignores the scarcity of minerals to make batteries, the high cost of BEVs, China’s dominance of the battery supply chain, the lack of charging infrastructure, and the reluctance of many consumers to buy a BEV.”
Instead, Toyota argues “for a portfolio approach that includes hybrids, plug-in hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells and BEVs. … this gives consumers a range of more affordable options to reduce carbon emissions.”
Politically, the Democrats and Republicans have squared off with the former, reflecting the climate crises and pressing for a faster transition to all electric vehicles. The GOP takes the opposite position.
In 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich defunded the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) within Congress. To this day both Parties have failed to restore funding for this trusted in-house advisor to the Congress (See, Bill S.2618). So, the lobbies’ commercial demands on Capitol Hill continue unchallenged by sound technological, non-partisan assessments.
As more EVs hit the highways, more real-life experience flows to the media, auto dealers, government regulators and potential customers. This is leading to a tempering of the flood of huzzas over recent years for EVs, fueled by Tesla’s success. Regulators and consumers are paying more attention as critiques are being reported in the media. A warning signal; inventories of EVs are piling up on dealer lots with more supply than demand, leading manufacturers like Ford to react to the softening market with price cuts.
As the life cycle of EVs on the road matures, motorists will discover how long their battery is going to last and other “reliability” factors that Consumer Reports is engaged in testing.
Consumers should also do their own research. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Rocky Mountain Institute and National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREC), have all assembled useful information on Electric Vehicles. Greater support for mass transit is also key to reducing auto pollution.
Meanwhile, other auto dealers should level with their customers on the pros and cons, the knowns and yet unknowns, as did Jack Fitzgerald. Or as he says with a little swagger, in his ads, “Transparency You Can Trust, That’s the Fitz Way!”