Tuesday, June 25, 2024
Business & EconomicsEnergyMobility

GM Vision Zero: Joe Biden and Mary Barra, Fiddling While The World Burns

The media is abuzz with news about the vaunted electric vehicle revolution. For yesterday, President Joe Biden drove a Hummer EV! It’s a hummer. But electric! And it happened at the state-of-the-art Factory Zero. You know, the one that was built on the ashes of a neighborhood that the city of Detroit demolished with public money. This invites the question: Are we really, seriously, honestly thinking that we will decarbonize the economy, one electric SUV at a time? I lampooned this ethos in March 2020, my last event in the beforetimes. But it seems to be a pretty popular one, between GM’s new Hummer (9,046 lbs.), Ford’s Mustang Mach-E (4,400-4,900 lbs), or the Ford F-150 Lightning (4,670 lbs). Meanwhile, across the maple syrup pond, British Columbia is suffering some of its worst flooding ever, just months after some of its worst ever wildfires and record temperatures. Are electric trucks enough of a paradigm shift to help us fix this climate change thing? Or are we just upping the federal EV tax credit to subsidize the wealthy Teslarati, who are buying cars they’re already able to afford?

First: Vehicle Weight Kills People Just Like Fossil Fuels Kill People

I’ve written about how electric vehicles pose a substantial danger to pedestrians as a product of their heavy weight. Indeed, this accompanies the growing prevalence of quite lethal trucks and SUVs. Fordies and General Motors acolytes and apologists will insist that selling gas-guzzling trucks is the only way they’re able to fund cool stuff like Maven (oh, wait, that was cancelled) or electric bikes like ARIV (also cancelled— whoops). Never mind that both companies have enough money to buy, you know, the world and its material possessions ten times over. In short, it doesn’t matter a damn bit what kind of car you’re driving. You’re still driving.

Tesla, for its part, has much lighter vehicles, in comparison. It’s also heavily involved in other projects, like the Powerwall, which can provide much-needed peak load reduction in power grids, or emergency power in outages. SolarCity? Eh, not so much– Tesla has fumbled the ball on this one in a major way, interesting idea though it was. I have little faith or trust in the Musk and the Muskovites, Muskbros, Teslarati, whatever you want to call them- but the fact remains that Tesla’s impressively quick scaling is probably going to face some stiff competition from the likes of Rivian and GM in the coming years, if not even in the coming months.

President Joe Biden waves before taking a GM Hummer EV out for a spin yesterday, Wednesday, November 17, 2021, in Detroit. (Photo by Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors)
Second: The Hummer EV serves rich people, and only rich people

Nothing controversial about this! GM and Ford embrace the ethos that there’s value in a paradigm shift from fossil fuels to electrified ones. As someone who actually works for a public utility, I can tell you that there’s enormous value for this paradigm shift in some regards. Electric cars reduce things like point source pollution from cars, which generate a lot of exhaust. This is especially a thing in areas with high congestion. There’s also a value in the increased local grid capacity– feeder lines, we call them- since we have to modernize this local infrastructure and can use some clever technology to do it. Increased capacity for EVs means increased capacity for other electric things like heat pumps or induction stoves– both of which help us move away from the paradigm of fossil fuels.

But as a car gets heavier, it generates more brake dust and tire dust as a virtue of a lil thing called inertia. Both of these ingredients are pretty toxic.

In general? I’m less concerned about the brake dust and the tire particles. I’m concerned about accessibility. If you can’t afford a $20,000 car, there’s no way you’re going to be able to afford a $100,000 one– even with an expanded EV tax credit. The Hummer EV thing, then, is some pretty pure political theater. It’s especially dismaying coming from the predictable bedfellows of a Democratic administration headed by a guy with a track record of draconian, Republican-favored legislation– and GM CEO Mary Barra, who cuddled up to the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back CAFE standards. Oh, wait, I guess they ended up dropping that.

Guess even a hometown Michigan gal like Barra can figure out which way the wind blows. This would explain why GM publicly touts the Triple Zero bottom line– of zero congestion, zero emissions, and zero fatalities- while it also publicly promotes trucks, trucks, trucks, and vehicles that keep getting bigger every year, while refusing to support things like, well, alternatives to cars.

Third: If We’re Serious About Climate Change, We’ll Reduce VMT

Doesn’t matter whether you’re drooling over a Rivian “adventure vehicle” (I know I sure am) or riding your organic bamboo bicycle to the local co-op grocery (I’m not). The Hummer EV has no place in the conversation about decarbonization. Electric cars? Definitely. But we need to focus on the here and now, and that involves not cars, but much cheaper solutions– that incrementally reduce our reliance on cars. Otherwise, forest fires and mass flooding, ladies, gentlemen, and esteemed nonbinary colleagues– are only the beginning.

Biden notably didn’t have to drive the Hummer EV on the potholed stretch of road that connects Grand Boulevard with Joseph Campau St. in Hamtramck, a street that more closely resembles the surface of a Martian moon than it does a city street. But maybe he should have. It’s possible the hefty weight would damage the street surface sufficiently that the city would be forced to replace it. Perhaps next time– if we get a Cadillac Escalade. By that time, it might carry the weight of a small house.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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