How Electric Cars Will Change Driving And The Economy

Oct 8, 2019
Originally published on October 8, 2019 6:15 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Six thousand miles through 17 states - now, that would be an ambitious road trip for anyone. It's an especially ambitious undertaking for the team of reporters who are driving that entire route in electric cars. To explain, we're joined by the leader of the pack. That's reporter David Ferris of E&E News, an online news site that covers energy and environmental issues David Ferris, how you doing?

DAVID FERRIS: I'm doing well.

KELLY: Good. So I want to get in just a second to where exactly on this road trip we've reached you. But start with the why. What is your team hoping to accomplish with this? It's a two-month-long road trip, is that right?

FERRIS: It is two months.

KELLY: OK.

FERRIS: Well, we're in an interesting interval with electric cars. I think they've been kind of a geeky science project. And now we know that automakers are devoting billions of dollars to building these cars. And we thought it was the right time to inform ourselves, not just to what it's like to be in the car, not just to what it's like to fuel to charge the car but actually how it's going to affect the whole economy - manufacturing, cities, jobs.

KELLY: So your team began this whole journey in Texas about a month ago. Y'all are tag-teaming as you go. I know...

FERRIS: Exactly.

KELLY: ...At first, people started through southern states. Then you turned north. You went through Detroit, which I'm sure was fascinating. And then you took over on Sunday. Where exactly have we found you?

FERRIS: You're talking to me in Dickinson, N.D. This is the single-hardest leg of the trip because North Dakota has less charging, less fueling infrastructure than any place in the country. And so I've been learning some hard lessons about how to manage an electric car when there's almost no place to fuel.

KELLY: That sounds intriguing. Have you had any close calls where you were stranded on the side of the road?

FERRIS: Yes. So I left Minneapolis on Sunday. And I know I'm not going to make my destination to Fargo when I have to stop in this little town called Fergus Falls. And I know I have enough battery to get there. So I'm going down the road enjoying myself, really windy day, and I'm going along and I'm noticing that the cushion, the difference between how many miles the car tells me I can go and the number of miles I actually need to go, it's narrowing. So I'm like, maybe, I should ease it off. I'll go to 65. Night's falling. It's raining. And I have no other options because there's just simply - unless I begged with someone to plug into their dryer outlet, there's nowhere to charge. And so I finally end up limping off the interstate into this town of Fergus Falls and ease into the brewery, which, it turns out, is one of the only two places to charge.

KELLY: The brewery. Wow. OK.

FERRIS: So I was able to charge there, and since the charging is slow - rats. I had to spend three hours at a brewery on a Saturday night.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: So now you have the challenge of sobering up before you can get back in your charged up car.

FERRIS: I know. I limited myself to only two beers. I was like, keep it under control.

KELLY: Part of what y'all are calculating is how much cleaner electric cars are than gas cars - right? - because electric vehicles say there's zero emissions. But, of course, the electricity powering them has to be generated, and that results in carbon emissions. What have you found in terms of how much better for the planet these might be?

FERRIS: Well, we've been rigorously calculating the carbon emissions of the charging we're doing, and that has to do with the power mix in that individual state. If that state uses a lot of coal, the emissions are going to be higher. If it's a state that uses a lot of hydropower or wind or solar, it's going to be lower. And in either case, it's still significantly lower emissions than gas, but it does vary a lot.

KELLY: I gather that one of the things you've noted as you've been doing this drive across North Dakota is signs for electric vehicles that say powered by coal. Explain this.

FERRIS: Yes. The Lignite Energy Council, which is the advocacy group for North Dakota coal, has embraced electric vehicles as a way to create a market for itself in the future. The writing is on the wall that it's going to get tougher for coal. And they've realized that electric vehicles need to charge and that they could be a good market for coal power.

KELLY: That electric cars will drive the market for electricity, obviously, which then helps coal - fascinating.

FERRIS: Yeah.

KELLY: Have you found it requires a different mindset setting out on such an ambitious journey in an electric car?

FERRIS: It definitely requires a different mindset. I travel a lot more slowly. That's a part of a battery-conservation thing. And when you stop, you need to stop for longer. And when you make those stops, you might stop a place that you didn't expect. And it's - I think it's possible that because electric vehicles take longer to fuel, they could change the pace of travel, make it more relaxed with longer stops. And I think that's an intriguing option. That's the part of travelling along in an electric car I've really enjoyed.

KELLY: Well, David Ferris, we wish you luck with the many miles still to go.

Thanks for catching us up on the road trip so far.

FERRIS: Absolutely. It's been fun to talk to you.

KELLY: That is David Ferris, reporter with E&E News and leader of E&E's Electric Road Trip. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.