Episode 25: What’s Driving the Electric Car Revival?

In 2022, there were more than 2 million electric vehicles, or EVs, on the road in the United States. In 2005, there were only about 1,000. The conventional wisdom credits better batteries with this remarkable growth. In the 2010s, engineers delivered batteries that cost less and could go many miles further. Consequently, driving range increased, costs decreased, and sales soared. EVs now compete with vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines. 

But Matthew N. Eisler (University of Strathclyde) challenges this narrative. He argues that the US resurgence in EVs had little to do with technology and much more to do with public policies, business models, and social conditions. On this episode, Eisler talks with host Jason Lloyd about the complex history of EV adoption, how a powerful metaphor invited new players into car manufacturing, and what the EV revival might mean for infrastructure such as electric grids.  

SpotifyApple PodcastsStitcherGoogle PodcastsOvercast



Jason Lloyd: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University. Electric vehicles, or EVs, seem like a very modern innovation, but in fact were invented around the same time as the internal combustion engine. From the 1890s until the First World War, both types of vehicles were popular, with drivers often preferring the quiet and durable electric car over internal combustion engines. But after falling out of favor in the 1920s, conventional wisdom has it that EVs did not experience a resurgence until the 2010s because battery technology was simply not advanced enough to meet drivers’ expectations and needs.

I’m Jason Lloyd, managing editor of Issues. On this episode I’m joined by Matthew Eisler, who challenges that conventional history of EVs. Matt is a lecturer of history at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the author of a new book, Age of Auto Electric: Environment, Energy, and the Quest for the Sustainable Car, which was published in December 2022 by MIT Press. He adapted an excerpt from the book for the Winter edition of Issues in Science and Technology.

Matt, in your book, you say that one of the defining features of the history of electric vehicles in the United States was that of false starts: the first one being at the very dawn of the automotive age when many early vehicles used rechargeable lead acid batteries, and then the second false start occurring in the 1990s and early 2000s when some automakers experimented with all-electric vehicles, but ultimately scrapped their electric car programs. And you make the case that these false starts had little to do with battery technology, but were much more the result of public policy, business models, social conditions, and other factors. So, could you talk about these false starts?

Matthew Eisler: That’s right, Jay. public policy has always played a huge role in the shaping of the broader landscape, the industrial landscape, and the social landscape for electric vehicles. Within the literature on the history of science and technology, authors like Gijs Mom talked about the first false start, and that was at the turn of the twentieth century, the first two decades of the twentieth century, when at the 1910s and the early 1900s, electric vehicles, in some contexts, outnumbered internal combustion vehicles and outperformed them on a number of metrics—and besides being clean, they were easier to operate, easier to drive, easier to manage.

There were improvements in technology that enabled internal combustion vehicles to become easier to manage, so the electric car starter certainly made it easier to start internal combustion engine vehicles. Mom argues that it was really with the advent of the First World War and the state intervention to produce the move the economy to a war footing and the massive production of internal combustion vehicles, and particularly trucks. At the end of the First World War, there was this enormous mass of war surplus vehicles of all sorts.

The argument was that electric vehicles just could not compete on a cost basis with this huge output of war-produced internal combustion vehicles. And then, of course, the 1920s, you had the post-war decade of prosperity in the United States, the massive expansion of Ford’s production, and that basically seals the coffin on the electric vehicle on public roads. So the argument is that as a result of the inability of electric vehicles to compete on a cost basis, they disappear, and it’s not until many, many years later, and for not economic reasons initially, but the environmental crisis energizes public policy and then creates, in California, really, in the US context, the modern age of auto electric really begins with a Zero-Emission Vehicle statute, and that compels automakers to make zero-emission vehicles, the only practical zero-emission vehicle at that time is an all-battery electric vehicle.

There are a number of reasons why automakers don’t want to produce battery electric vehicles, all-battery electric vehicles at commercial scale. Largely because, I’ve argued in the book, they believe that it would undermine a century-old business model because the most valuable component of an electric vehicle is the battery, and because of a temporal mismatch between the motor and the battery. Batteries have a much shorter lifespan than motors, which can last decades. That implies that all of the profit in a commercial scale, all-battery electric vehicle is going to be in the battery and that you’re going to really be more interested in making batteries than making cars, and the automaking industry, for them, that was an experiment they did not want to engage in. I’ve argued in the book, this was the main reason that they had rolled out electric vehicles on a demonstration basis, essentially, to please California air quality regulators.

They withdrew these programs in the early 2000s and essentially destroyed—in the case of GM, they ostentatiously destroyed these vehicles, sending a message that we are the ones, not public policymakers, that are going to determine the kinds of energy conversion technologies in automobiles. This is the second revival. The revival really happens partly because there’s an economic crisis that really leads to Silicon Valley becoming interested in reviving all-battery electric automobility. The environmental crisis is always in the background. It’s always a justification made by proponents of electric vehicles, particularly those coming from the Silicon Valley. But it’s also this economic crisis that is overlapping with the environmental crisis that leads to this revival stage, where you have the collapse of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, early 2000s, $5 trillion in paper wealth is lost as a result of this highly speculative enterprise.

The personal computing, all the infrastructure is all built out by the end of the 1990s, and now it’s time to do business on the internet. That’s highly speculative, and that collapses. So, out of that collapse comes some successful dot-com entrepreneurs who are looking for the next big thing. It’s a classic conundrum of capital going back 200 years. What does capital do for the next big thing? What’s the next big investment? For people like Elon Musk and Martin Eberhard, and Mark Tarpenning, all were co-founders of Tesla, the next big thing was going to be in transportation.

So, they saw that public policy was very strongly involved in transportation. That was the experience of the 1990s, and particularly Elon Musk, I think, was very prescient in seeing the expanding role of public policy of the state in the transportation sector, so that economic crisis within Silicon Valley, the environmental crisis, and the expansion of public policy, particularly in transportation, all three of these factors really combine to drive the revival.

Jason Lloyd: So, we’ve gotten to the point where Detroit is more or less stalled on, no pun intended, on producing electric vehicles. And these new players, these Silicon Valley players have stepped in, and one of the things that you talk about as being a way of reconceiving the EV was through this metaphor of as a computer on wheels. So, one of the reasons Detroit automakers weren’t interested in it was because they saw it as kind of a platform for batteries, and they didn’t want to become battery producers.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, following dot-com boom, actually saw a similar thing, but saw the potential for it as continuing something that they had been doing with hardware and software for computers. So, could you talk about who these new players are, who you’ve mentioned a little bit, and how this metaphor of a computer on wheels helped them kind of reimagine the EV?

Matthew Eisler: I think the idea of a computer on wheels fed into a lot of the general mode of innovation that Silicon Valley had come to pioneer, particularly by the late 1990s. And what we need to understand too is that that mode of development in many ways had been conditioned by long-term trends in the broader American economy that saw the optimization within the American consumer electronics industry, around semiconductors, and the gradual sort of disintegration of the consumer electronics industry within the United States, and the shifting of a lot of the material practice, a lot of the assembly, a lot of the design to Asia, the optimization within the US around semiconductors as being the strategic electronic component, the most important part of computers and of consumer electronics in general and this happened through the 1980s. So, you had this asymmetrical global consumer electronics industry where within the United States, you would have computer commodifiers like Dell, for example, and this was the term that Michael Dell coined to understand innovation in this environment where a lot of the design, a lot of the manufacturing was offshore and outsourced, and he had coined this term virtual integration. The idea was that you could simply assemble consumer electronics using components available on the open market that were produced offshore, and you could maintain within the company, in this case, Dell, you could have a skeleton R&D crew and you really would have low overhead costs and essentially it was a marketing model. Then, you would have the consumer who would decide, “Well, what kinds of characteristics do I want in my personal computer?” they would design their computer, so to speak, based on off the shelf components. Now, that model worked really, really well with desktop computers.

When Dell tried to apply that model to a more complicated technologies: mobile technology, personal computers, laptop computers, there were systems integration problems linked to this new component that was being introduced in consumer electronics in the 1990s; this was the lithium-ion battery, was a tremendously energetic power source, the greatest advance in power source technology in a century, the most energetic battery ever created to date. There were certainly bumps in the virtual integration model when it came to mobile electronics, but I think where Martin Eberhard and his collaborator Mark Tarpenning were concerned, they weren’t really thinking through the laptop battery crisis. This was a very powerful, energetic battery. The components were highly combustible, so you really needed very robust safety protocols in order to be able to use these technologies at scale.

But all this complexity of virtually integrating an electric vehicle was glossed by the idea of talking about electric car as a computer on wheels. It was a way of framing a problem and approaching a problem and then engaging with that problem when you’re working in the milieu of Silicon Valley, and it was, really, a thought experiment of working through problems. Of course, Eberhard and Tarpenning had no background in making automobiles, and Eberhard freely admitted he did not know what he was doing at the beginning, and I don’t think he should be faulted for that. He was not an automobile engineer.

So the metaphor of the computer on wheels really helped experts from a completely different field, consumer electronics and programming, engage with this unfamiliar technology that no one had really developed at scale, and the automobile industry had developed it, but this was a demonstration scale and they were not using, at that time, lithium-ion battery technology too, which this was a very potent device to integrate in laptops, and there were serious systems integration problems just on that level, so applying that technology to an electric vehicle, where you’re using much greater volume of reactive material, this is a serious engineering challenge.

Jason Lloyd: Could you talk a little bit about the public policy landscape at the time that this next generation of EVs were emerging into and how that shaped the industry?

Matthew Eisler: Yeah. There were really two tracks of public policy. There was environmental policy and, primarily, the Zero-Emission Vehicle statute, which was part of a larger statute called a Low Emission Vehicle statute, which was promulgated as part of one package in 1990. The automaking industry, the global automaking industry, it’s important to understand not just American automakers, but the global automaking industry, hated the Zero-Emission Vehicle statute, they hated the prospect of being forced to make battery electric vehicles, all automakers, because of the challenge that it represented to this century-old business model.

They resisted the Zero-Emission Vehicle statute, and essentially, they managed to engage the California Air Resources Board, whose sole concern was air quality in California. They engaged the California Air Resources Board in an extended definition, a process of defining what the zero-emission vehicle was going to be because California, by law, could not specify the kind of technology that was going to yield these particular air quality outcomes.

California was not allowed to specify the kinds of energy conversion technologies that would produce these air quality outcomes, because energy efficiency in automobiles was a prerogative of the federal government. California could only use these vague terms, air quality outcomes, and the automobile industry was able to say, “Well, what do you mean by a zero emission vehicle? You could mean an all-battery electric vehicle, but it could also be something else. It could be a fuel cell electric vehicle.” And this is what the auto industry tried to do. They tried to come up with alternate kinds of technology that could achieve the same air quality outcomes. And what the automobile industry argued in their attempt to roll back the zero-emission vehicle mandate was that the existing battery electric technology was insufficient. It had a poor range, it couldn’t deliver the parameters of performance in a commercial automobile.

They introduced other considerations besides air quality into their discussion with carb on the identity of the zero-emission vehicle. What the auto industry was able to do is that they were able to change the character of what the Zero-Emission Vehicle Statute implied for the automobile industry, changing that from an industrial program to a program of long-term research and development. In this way, they were able to put off scaling their battery electric fleets in exchange for this promise down the road of an electric supercar. So, the California Air Resources Board by the early 2000s, found itself, it engaged in this debate with the auto industry over the identity of the zero-emission vehicle. And it agreed with the auto industry, essentially, that existing battery electric vehicle technology was inadequate. Now it didn’t get rid of the mandate, but it delayed implementing. It accepted the auto industry’s reasons for not immediately commercializing these technologies.

That element of public policy, it was at an impasse vis-a-vis the industry by the early 2000s. But then, there was also another emerging aspect of public policy that was ultimately responsible for galvanizing the resurgence of the electric vehicle, and this was economic policy. Particularly through the 2000s, as energy prices rose and following the dot-com crisis, there was a deepening economic crisis, which really manifested in the Great Recession from 2007.

There were a series of major pieces of legislation which reoriented the US interventionist state away from some other technologies that it was supporting, including the fuel cell, hydrogen fuel cell technology. It began to shift towards in favor of large battery plug-in vehicles, large battery hybrids with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Both prioritized large battery hybrid electric vehicles.

It was a major shift in priorities for the US government, particularly the energy research and development arm of it, which had long been supporting various kinds of research on power sources relating to electric automobility advanced, a variety of advanced batteries and fuel cells. And really at the turn of the millennium, there was a strong emphasis on hydrogen, hydrogen fuel cells, through the Bush administration particularly.

But by the middle of the 2000s, by 2005, there was a shift away from hydrogen fuel cells and a willingness to consider if not all-battery electric vehicles than large battery hybrids. Partly because of the success of the Prius, Toyota’s Prius, which at that time was probably making Toyota money at that time. These factors, the economic crisis, the success of a competitor, a foreign automaker with a kind of an electric vehicle that it was reaching American markets, all these factors then galvanized the second track of public policy’s economic policy, particularly during the recession, and then highly incentivized the development of electric vehicles, large battery electric vehicles.

This really, really helped the early Tesla because by 2009, GM had gone bankrupt, and Chrysler had gone bankrupt, and Tesla had not gone bankrupt. It was actually not functioning like a conventional commercial enterprise. It didn’t make profits at all, so it couldn’t go bankrupt. But it was an economic trouble, and it received a lot of help from the Department of Energy, a crucial low-interest loan that really, really helped it stay afloat and develop its technology, its follow on to the Roadster, which was the Model S. It was really this economic crisis that galvanized and re-energized the environmental policy, which had started the whole process with the Zero-Emission Vehicle statute, and then helped Silicon Valley develop the resources to develop technology that the mainstream automakers had rejected.

Jason Lloyd: And in rejecting had opened up a space for these new players to emerge and reconceive of the EV. that they had essentially passed on as a future technology.

Matthew Eisler: Absolutely. And now GM did realize in the mid-2000s that it had made a terrible mistake in not trying to compete with Toyota’s Prius. It tried to develop its own hybrid, large battery hybrid, the Volt, which had the fate of being rolled out right at the beginning of the recession. When the Obama administration helped reconfigure the automaking industry, it did its reorganization of GM with the express intent of compelling GM to invest more in alternative propulsion technologies, including electric technology and hybrid electric technology.

That reorganization that took place in 2009 really strongly emphasized and helped GM develop this belated technology, which was late to the game, designed to compete with the Prius, and was just not successful. It was just too late. But then as Tesla built up momentum in the 2010s, then the rest of the auto industry, the global auto industry realized that all-battery electric vehicles were going to be a big thing because public policy was supporting Tesla and people wanted all-battery electric vehicles. They didn’t just want hybrids. They wanted the pure option of having a car that had zero emissions.

Jason Lloyd: Yeah. One of the other things I wanted to touch on is that there were other metaphors that could have been used in connection with EVs that weren’t, and I’m thinking in particular of the idea of the car as a power plant on wheels, which is, as kind of a counterfactual, would involve a different set of actors, yet again, maybe not even Silicon Valley and Detroit, but electric utilities or something who would bring in different motivations.

Now, that didn’t happen, but EVs do have a complex relationship with, or potentially have a complex relationship with, existing electric infrastructure. And one of the things I think you do focus on in your book is that electricity and automobility emerged around the same time in the late nineteenth century, but that the industries evolved separately with, essentially, totally incompatible technologies and business models, and that lack of integration, now that these industries are sort of converging again, might cause problems in places where EVs have become popular. Could you talk about the relationship between EVs and the built environment?

Matthew Eisler: Absolutely. Well, utilities have had a long relationship with electric vehicles, and almost as soon as the first grids were built at the turn of the 20th century, the first electric vehicles were being introduced. At an early stage, these expanding utilities saw electric vehicles as a way to soak up nighttime demand, excess demand, another way of storing electricity that wouldn’t have otherwise had a market. That led to the creation of utility managed charging pools where electric vehicles, they would be centrally charged and they would be operated on a fleet basis, users wouldn’t actually own them, they would lease them, and then the utilities would have an ownership stake, and then they could use these devices, electric vehicles, as a means of managing their own business, of selling electricity. Prior to the First World War, they favored electric trucks because they had very large batteries. Their interpretation of an electric vehicle was not necessarily the interpretation of an electric vehicle from the average person on the street who would have a completely different sort of a use application than the utilities. Because, obviously, if you’re an average commuter, you wouldn’t be interested in driving an electric truck. Those interests, the utility interests kind of aligned with the interest of other kinds of commercial enterprises at that time.

After the First World War, the whole question of using EVs as a mode of grid storage, it went away because all of the utilities were massively expanding across time zones and solving this problem of demand by locking into other sources of demand across time zones in an environment of massive industrialization where the United States was just growing, so this growth of industry, industrialization, informed the growth of electrification, and those two factors really eliminated the need to have a large electric vehicle fleet.

Now it’s not to say that utilities gave up the dream of having electric vehicle fleets. I don’t think they ever did. If you read accounts through the post-war period right up until the 90s, utilities still remain interested in the potential of using electric vehicles to soak up off-peak demand. But the interesting thing is, when you look at all the various players involved in electric automobility from the 1990s on, you don’t really see electric utilities being the dominant voice in the room. They’re not the ones who are getting a hearing when it comes to the discussion of what kind of a mix of electric vehicles versus internal combustion vehicles are going to be in the fleet. It’s air quality regulators, and it’s the automaking industry, and those are the two voices and all of the other allied interests that are associated with them.

Those are the ones dominating the debate, and the electric utilities just really don’t really appear to have much political influence. It’s really an interesting phenomenon because when you think about the scaling of the electric fleet, it has massive implications for utilities and for the grid. But the California Resources Board was just not thinking in terms of the implications of a scaled electric fleet when they promulgated the Zero-Emission Vehicle statute. There was not a full stakeholder discussion of what the energy conversion infrastructures of the United States would look like once the fleet was built out. That never happened for a variety of reasons. It’s because I think that it was not a centralized debate. Because at the federal level, it was seen as this is a regional question. Now it’s true, you have air quality problems throughout the United States, throughout urban regions, throughout the country.

But there was no real arbiter of all the various groups that was capable or willing to sit them all down and say, “Well, let’s just think through what we’re doing here and how the changes to the automobile fleet are going to impact changes to the electric grid, in terms of demand and in terms of systems integration, systems compatibility.” That discussion really never happened. It’s happening now, because I think people who were taking a closer look at the relationship between grids and cars are seeing that there could be some quite serious systems problems down the road. I didn’t really talk about those, the implications that much in the book, but a lot of people are talking about it right now. They’re very concerned about it, and people like Bob Charette, the risk analyst who writes for IEEE Spectrum, has written quite extensively on this.

Some neighborhoods that have a very large number of electric vehicles, if all of these vehicles are charging at the same time, that could have serious implications for transformer technology, could rapidly age that technology and burn out these local transformers. So, this discussion did not happen during the first 30 years following the Zero-Emission Vehicle statute, and it’s beginning to happen now. I don’t know if it’s happening at a high enough level for rapid action to take place. I don’t know about that. It doesn’t really seem, when you follow the media and you follow the discourse in electric vehicles, you really don’t hear so much about systems integration problems. But certainly, they’re happening.

Jason Lloyd: Yeah, that’s really fascinating. I guess another aspect of systems integration that I wanted to talk about was supply chains. And you talk about the EV revival as being made possible by building on existing supply chains that were constructed for the consumer electronic industry. And you have a pretty funny anecdote about Martin Eberhard going to Sanyo in Japan, and he convinced the battery factory manager to sell him lithium-ion batteries by essentially saying, “This is basically the equivalent of 2000 laptops that we’re putting into this vehicle. And so, you’re going to sell a lot of batteries.”

So I’m curious about, looking ahead a little bit, now that you have what you mentioned, the way that the industry has been set up with design occurring in Western countries, manufacturing occurring in Asian countries, now that the weaknesses of that supply chain, the disadvantages, have sort of come to the fore over the past few years, certainly with the pandemic and the semiconductor shortages, how do you see this arrangement potentially evolving in the future?

Matthew Eisler: I don’t see how you’re going to have a commercial-scale electric vehicle without these global supply chains. I don’t see how it can be done. The industrial infrastructure of the United States has been optimized for particular things within all the things that constitute electronics and that’s really been semiconductors, and everything else that has to do with consumer electronics, from flat screen technology to power sources, most of that is manufactured at scale by enterprises in Asian countries, in South Korea, in Japan and in China.

A lot of the basic science for that was developed in the United States, but it was never applied by industrial enterprises because there just weren’t any industrial enterprises that were interested in making those kinds of technologies in the United States, because of this decision that it was going to be semiconductors as the strategic area, the most valuable area. When you think about all the various kinds of new knowledge that you would need if you were going to build an electric vehicle industry from scratch, there are a whole bunch of skillsets, there are a whole bunch of knowledge fields that are just not being developed in the United States at the scale that you would need.

For example, electric chemistry and solid state ionics, the theory of power sources, it’s happening in some disciplines like material science, for example. But there’s a crucial element that’s missing in that there aren’t really that many enterprises, US enterprises, that apply that knowledge. So, you can get a degree in material science, but whether or not you’ll get a job in the industry, that’s another question. And when we talk about the relationship between basic science and industrial production, too, the assumption is that you don’t have a basic new knowledge being produced in the factory floor.

Well, in the history of technology, we know that’s just not true. And there are all kinds of knowledge problems. Factory floors, they’re kinds of laboratories where brand new knowledge is created by engineers. All kinds of new circumstances that weren’t considered at the laboratory bench appear at factory scale, and there just aren’t that many industrial enterprises in the United States that apply that knowledge. Now, what we see now is that there are certainly a lot of Asian enterprises that are relocating to the United States, and that’s how the basic knowledge and the basic engineering for an electric vehicle industry is being constituted in the United States. There’s been a flow back of capacity, and then that capacity is being built in the United States. But then you would have to make a broader set of inquiries into whether or not you have the post-secondary university complex is aligned and producing the kinds of knowledge that you want in these factories. Or is it all going to be imported?

And we’re trying to create firewalls around certain Asian countries. We’re trying to create a firewall around China right now, but the economy is that Japan, South Korea, and China are heavily integrated. I don’t see how you could possibly firewall South Korea and Japan from China and Taiwan. It’s a very, very difficult thing to do. And relying on all of that offshored expertise, that’s just a result of the historical dynamics in the way US capitalism has organized itself globally. It’s not going to be, I think, a system that you’re easily going to be able to reconfigure. I don’t see that the system that’s been set up, this global complex, this asymmetrical distribution of different kinds of expertise, different kinds of skills, different kinds of industrial capacity, reconfiguring that and bringing that all back to the United States is going to be, I think, a quite difficult task.

Jason Lloyd: Great. Well, I feel like I certainly have a better sense of all the many complexities involved. I hope our listeners and the readers of your piece will as well. Matt, thank you so much for joining us. This was a really fascinating discussion.

Matthew Eisler: Oh, my pleasure, Jay. It was a real pleasure chatting with you.

Jason Lloyd: To learn more about electric vehicles and the complexities of their development and widespread adoption, read Matthew Eisler’s book, Age of Auto Electric: Environment, Energy, and the Quest for the Sustainable Car. Visit issues.org to read an excerpt from the book, and there you can also subscribe to our quarterly print magazine and sign up for our weekly newsletter. You can email us [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. And, of course, I encourage you to subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m Jason Lloyd, managing editor of Issues in Science and Technology. Thanks for joining us.