The Biden administration’s plan to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles — reaching a two-thirds share of new cars in less than a decade — pushes automakers further in a direction they have already been going. But meeting the new timetable will be a challenge.
Most car companies are convinced that a transition to electric vehicles is necessary and inevitable, and they have been spending tens of billions of dollars to develop electric models and build the plants needed to produce the cars and their battery packs.
Ford Motor is aiming to have electric vehicles make up half of its sales by 2030, a big step toward the administration’s target. General Motors has overhauled a Detroit factory to make E.V.s, and it recently started production at a new battery plant in Ohio. Volkswagen makes an electric model in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Toyota has plans for a battery plant in North Carolina.
But the industry and its customers have a long way to go. While sales of electric vehicles are rising, they accounted for only 5.8 percent of the 13.8 million new cars and trucks sold in the United States last year.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce auto-pollution limits on Wednesday that are intended to ensure that all-electric models make up 54 to 60 percent of new vehicles sold in the United States by 2030, and 64 to 67 percent by 2032.
Those targets will raise the bar on ambitions outlined by President Biden two years ago, when he issued an executive order putting the E.V. target at 50 percent of new cars by 2030.
Transportation is the largest source of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to changes in the earth’s climate. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law last year, provides $7,500 in tax incentives for buyers of electric vehicles, which has helped lift E.V. purchases. The act also provides billions of dollars to support battery production in the United States and the mining and processing of lithium and other minerals needed for battery cells and electric motors.
Still, the push to put E.V.s into American garages may hinge on people like John Torrance of Hamburg, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo. A salesman for a packaging company, he agrees with the idea of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change, but has a hard time imagining an E.V. fitting into his life.
The owner of a 2018 Ford F-150 pickup truck, he often has to haul around a trailer full of equipment for his job, and he sometimes tows a camper for vacations — driving patterns that are not very suitable for E.V.s. It’s also not unusual for him to have to drive 300 miles on a work trip, and farther when he visits relatives in Michigan.
The Rise of Electric Vehicles
- A Case Study: Ohio, a state that is heavily dependent on the auto industry, is a bellwether of how the transition to electric vehicles could play out across America.
- Retiring the Camaro: General Motors is ending production of the classic American sports car, but executives say an electric version is likely.
- Lithium Prices: A decline in the price of the essential battery material, along with those of other commodities, is making electric cars more affordable. But experts disagree on how long it will last.
- Volkswagen: The German automaker said that it would spend $193 billion on software, battery factories and other investments as it aimed to make every fifth vehicle it sold electric by 2025.
“I’m a person who likes to go and not have a lot of stops,” he said. “If I’m working, I can’t really wait an hour or more to recharge an E.V.”
On top of that, he lives in an apartment, so he would have no way to charge an E.V. at home.
Whether Americans are willing to accept changes to their work and lifestyle to drive electric vehicles is only one of several hurdles and uncertainties. The biggest is perhaps lithium. The soft, silver-white metal is the key element in E.V. batteries, and the world produces only a small fraction of the amount that will be needed for a majority of car buyers to go electric in the United States, Europe and China, markets where more than 50 million cars were sold last year.
“Can we really produce enough lithium for that?” asked Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst who follows the electric car business. “We’re not even at 10 percent now, and it’s difficult for companies to get the lithium they need.”
While mining companies are racing to expand lithium production, the pace at which they can is unclear. In North Carolina, for example, Albemarle is trying to reopen a pit mine along Interstate 85 near Kings Mountain, 32 miles west of Charlotte.
The mine was in operation from the 1940s to the 1980s, and to reopen it the company must work out plans for protecting surrounding groundwater, determining if the mine’s steep walls are suitable for new operations and dealing with any contaminants that may be found in the pit lake at the mine’s bottom.
Extracting lithium from the hard ore at the site involves a more difficult and costly process than other sources, and residents in the area have begun working to block the resumption of mining operations.
The supply and production of other metals — including nickel, rare-earth metals, manganese and cobalt — must also increase to support a tenfold rise in E.V. sales.
On another front, the plants and assembly lines needed to produce millions of E.V.s every year don’t exist yet. While G.M., Ford and other manufacturers have plants under construction, they will have to produce twice or three times as many battery plants to hit their sales targets and those the Biden administration is setting.
Building and ramping up dozens of new plants will take years, and that process can be fraught. It took G.M. about three years to complete its battery plant near Lordstown, Ohio, and the start of production has been slow. In the first three months of this year, G.M. sold fewer than 1,000 E.V.s with battery packs from the Ohio factory.
Rivian and Lucid, two E.V. start-ups, have struggled for more than a year to get plants rolling at the expected pace. Even Ford, which started making its electric F-150 Lightning pickup a year ago, produced just over 2,000 of them a month in the first quarter of this year. Sales of another E.V., the Mustang Mach-E, fell 20 percent that quarter. The company’s goal is to be able to produce 600,000 E.V.s a year by the start of 2024, and to make two million a year by the start of 2027.
Established automakers also must balance how fast they increase sales of E.V.s with how fast they dial back production of the internal-combustion models that currently generate almost all of their profits. Ford recently said it expected its E.V. division to lose about $3 billion this year, although it forecasts that the unit will be solidly profitable by 2026.
Mr. Torrance’s issue with vehicle-charging and apartment-living highlights another obstacle. If tens of millions of people are driving E.V.s, an exponential increase in the number of public charging stations will be needed, especially of the DC-powered fast-charging stations.
Lastly, even with the tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act, E.V.s remain substantially more expensive than conventional vehicles.
Despite the difficulties, Mr. Ramsey, the Gartner analyst, thinks that continued efforts on all fronts could move the country close to the administration’s goals.
“Two years ago, I would have said there’s no way we get there,” he said. “Now, I’d say it’s at least possible.”