Cold Weather Reveals Electric Cars Are Still Toys for the Wealthy

You can add plug-in electric vehicles to the list of items that last week’s low temperatures left in the cold.

Amid hype that these expensive, battery-operated cars are the vanguard of a fossil fuel-free age, their cold-weather shortcomings reinforce their image as a subsidized toy for wealthy suburbanites.

As temperatures and wind chills plummeted to the -20s and -30s across the Midwest, Tesla owners began tweeting that the car’s travel range sharply decreased and that its interior would not warm up. Some owners weren’t even able to open the car door because the electric entry mechanism froze up.

Those who blast through snow and ice in beat-up but reliable gas-powered pickups can snicker at the neighbor who laid out between $80,000 and $140,000 for a vehicle that locks them out in cold weather. Yet amusement dampens when we remember that the Tesla owner got a $7,500 tax break for purchasing what is still an expensive, experimental prototype.

Tesla, because it holds the lion’s share of the U.S. PEV market, got the most attention, but Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt owners also experienced similar problems. These anecdotal reports bore out past research.

A 2014 AAA study found even moderate cold weather can reduce electric vehicle range by an average of 57 percent. The study found that average PEV battery range was 105 miles at 75 degrees fahrenheit, but dropped to 43 miles at 20 degrees. And a 2016 study of Nissan Leaf performance by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory found that, while the car’s range was 91 miles in 72-degree weather, it dropped to 50 miles in temperatures averaging 14 degrees.

Other PEV drawbacks are well-documented. In addition to their high prices, the lack of recharging stations limits their use for long-distance trips. When you find a station, it can take hours for the vehicle to recharge.

That’s why we should question the enthusiasm that the federal government and many states have for policy incentives that attempt to shoehorn immature technology into a wider consumer market.

In addition to the $7,500 tax rebate that the government offers to buyers of a car manufacturer’s first 200,000 PEVs, 41 states offer a variety of monetary and non-monetary incentives, including additional tax credits and rebates, vehicle registration fee reductions, exemptions from bridge and tunnel tolls and “free” PEV recharging in some public locations.

California has allowed Pacific Gas & Electric to rebate PEV owners up to $500 per year, and San Diego Gas and Electric credits customers up to $200 annually per PEV, presumably to defray the cost of charging PEVs. All this despite legitimate arguments that, by drawing power from coal and natural gas-fired plants, PEVs still contribute to carbon dioxide emissions.

These government incentives largely benefit the well-to-do. The average annual income of a Tesla owner is $146,000. The median age is 54. Because PEVs require a driveway or garage for an electric hookup, 88 percent of Tesla owners also own their own home, the median value of which is $348,000.

PEV subsidies and tax benefits transfer money from the broad population of middle-class and working-class people to a small group of wealthy and successful homeowners at the peak of their earnings power. Even if we debate the necessity of subsidies, most would agree that net value should flow in the opposite direction.

This problem will become more and more apparent as more extreme environmentalists urge Congress to back the so-called “Green New Deal,” which envisions a total phaseout of fossil-fueled vehicles in about a decade. Although still vague, Green New Deal supporters seem to demand only policies that require massive government intervention in the energy economy, despite a series of failed attempts with environmental policies designed to pick winners and losers, including the Solyndra scandal and the Chevy Volt debacle.

Yet Green New Dealers remain openly hostile to the use of hydroelectric power, nuclear power or any market mechanisms that would achieve the same CO2 reduction goals, perhaps faster and less expensively.

Most Americans agree with the effort to reduce carbon emissions. Consumer trends provide ample evidence that we need not rob the pauper to pay the prince to do so. Sales of hybrid gas/electric vehicles have been growing steadily while their prices have fallen — because they meet a market need for automotive performance and fuel efficiency. PEVs, however, for the foreseeable future will remain a luxury novelty for a small segment of high-income new adopters.

It will be a long time before any PEV lays claim to “car of the people.” The first step is for their doors to unlock in cold weather. Until then, the financial incentives PEV owners receive will be paid by others, including those who struggle just to make monthly payments on a used Toyota Corolla.


Steven Titch is a technology policy analyst based in Texas, and he is a policy adviser with the Heartland Institute.

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