Op-Ed: How to Counter Anti-EV Canards? Just Say, “Never Show a Fool a Job Half-Done.”
Nearly all the criticism we hear in the media against electric vehicles is based on two very simple fallacies. It has taken me a while to figure this out, but now that I’ve had my epiphany I’m glad to share it with you.
The main fallacy is ignoring that modern EVs are a new technology. Almost universally, if a new technology is commercially and practically viable, then it will experience rapid improvement during its first few generations (the technology’s generations, not human generations).
Most negative critique of EVs pretends (implicitly) that EVs are a mature technology, and therefore what we see from EVs now, is as good as they’re going to get.
To understand how ridiculous this is, go no further than the early history of ICE cars themselves. It took ~15 years after the first ICE automobile, for an automaker to figure out how to build cars using an assembly line. From that point onwards, progress was incredibly swift.
The first line-produced car was the reasonably-affordable Oldsmobile Curved Dash (pictured above). The 1901-1903 model’s 1-cylinder engine had 4 HP output and 20 MPH top speed. The 1904-1907 improved to 7 HP and 25 MPH. Hand-cranking was needed to start it. Range is hard to find, but with 5 gallons and a primitive engine it couldn’t have been much.
Now, envision a journalist with a mindset like present-day EV critics, coming onto the scene in 1904. He would “Meh” at the Dash’s improvements, point out that its speed is barely more than a good-quality horse carriage (not to mention a train) – certainly not worth the price, the noise and the hassle of looking for expensive fuel. America’s first filling station would open only the following year, and the first one resembling what we’d envision as a gas station wasn’t opened until 1913.
Our critic would end up ridiculing the entire automobile concept as a stupid toy for the rich to throw money at. Even considering up-and-coming rival Ford’s 1904 offering, the Ford Model C with somewhat superior specs (2-cylinder 8 HP), would not convince the critic otherwise. True, in 1904 a Ford car set an land-speed record of 91 MPH. But that was a one-of-a-kind monster with a 19-liter engine; definitely not anything resembling a consumer product.
Dial another half-decade forward, and in late 1908 Ford came out with a moving assembly-line and the Model T: an electric-ignition, 4-cylinder, 20-HP, 40+ MPH automobile having a somewhat higher price point than the Dash, but essentially a supercar by comparison (pictured below). And within 6-7 years a new Model T cost less than half its original price, with specs and design continuously improving.
Of course, I’m not suggesting a literal comparison between EV and ICE early history. One clear difference is that… well, now we have ICE cars to compete with. And I’m sure that real antique-car afficionados can spot minor errors in the Wikipedia-based narrative above. But that’s beside the point.
When car technology was young, improvements were made on a constant, continuous basis, to everything from motor to wheels to chassis to body, to arrangement of parts, and everything in between. Because the first way you manage to slap something together so that it works, is nowwhere near the best way. And humans are superb at tinkering and upgrading stuff.
Similarly, the modern EV is still very young. Improvements can and do happen across the board, and fairly rapidly. That’s how it been throughout history with any new technology. So it is utter idiocy or brazen mendacity, to pretend that for EVs, somehow, the story will be different. In fact, we are already seeing those improvements happening.
This main fallacy is often accompanied by the following related fallacy, which has to do with timelines on which it is reasonable to expect things to happen. A car’s effective lifespan on the road is typically a decade-plus. This means, among other things, that
– Even if a new car type immediately conquers the entire market, it will take more than a decade to replace the entire active fleet. A more realistic timeline for technological fleet-replacement is on the order of a human generation, i.e., a couple of automotive generations, because it takes time to build the production capacity.
– Barring exceptional cases, it takes at least a decade to fully characterize a new car model’s track record (reliability, behavior in the used market, etc.)
And yet, many people keep expecting changes in EV technology and market to happen nearly overnight in terms of a car’s life-cycle. To be fair to EV critics, even people inside the EV industry fall prey to this one. The most egregious example is Better Place, whose CEO thought he could wave a magic wand, and automakers will step up with hundreds of thousands of swappable-battery BEVs within a couple of years.
But Renault-Nissan and GM leadership, too, were way too rosy in their initial sales predictions. The issue was not so much that customers didn’t like the Leaf and the Volt, but rather that you cannot force on the auto industry and market, a heartbeat that’s too fast for its life-cycle.
Together, these 2 fallacies can be summarized by the old saying “Never show a fool a job half-done.” One cannot show a fool a work half-done, because fools (whether innocent or willful) don’t get what “work in progress” means, cannot envision beyond what they see right now, and certainly don’t have the patience to wait the amount of time that’s natural to the system they are so busy not liking.
So… does this mean we are not allowed to critique EVs as a whole, just because it’s a new technology and it will take a while to see how it shakes out? Of course critique is needed and welcome. But it must pass the test of minimal relevance and realism. Here are some questions one could ask, instead of the stupid ones we see in the press:
– Do the 1st-generation products show enough potential for classic new-technology improvement, including cost and footprint reduction, resulting in solid mass-market viability?
– Given that this is a radical alternative to an existing dominant product, does it seem capable of providing equivalent experience and consumer value on the basic aspects, together with a qualitative jump ahead on other aspects? A jump ahead that makes consumers want to join this alternative future?
– Speaking of which: does the cohort of early adopters like this product? Is excited by it?
– Last but not least: assuming the answers to the questions above are encouraging, what should we expect within one automotive generation (a decade or so)? Within two generations?
This is the type of questions we need to ask in order to understand where EVs are headed.
That’s why I was more excited than many other EV bloggers, to see the 107-mile Leaf and 53-mile Volt. Not because it’s the end-all and be-all, but because the two leading makers of affordable EVs have both succeeded in improving the most critical performance metric – electric range – by 50% over half a decade, while maintaining the same price point.
This, despite less-than-stellar sales, middling oil prices, internal conflict of interest (the vast majority of their revenue still coming from ICE models), and a very hostile press. I was even more excited to see Nissan bump its battery-pack warranty up to 8 years or 100k miles, indicating reliability parity with ICE even on the Leaf’s Achilles heel (and superior reliability everywhere else, of course).
Ok, now see if you can apply the principles I demonstrated here, to shut up the following common anti-EV canards:
- “EVs are too expensive and ordinary people cannot afford them.”
- “EVs lose their value too fast, no one should buy them!” (aside: hark the contradiction with #1…)
- “EV range is too short to make EVs relevant for ordinary people.”
- “EV automakers are desperate, they’re losing money.”
- “With all the hype, so few EVs are sold, because people hate them, they’re not real cars.”
- “EVs are a really government pet project. We will never be able to take them off the subsidies lifeline – they will wilt right away.”
- “EVs are lousy unsustainable products, because their batteries don’t last.”
- “EV battery-pack production footprint is so huge, that it drowns out all the potential environmental benefits.”
- “Where coal dominates the grid, EV footprint is worse than ICE.” (this one requires sophisticated use of the second fallacy)
Try *not* to answer by directly countering the specific content (even though usually one can find good answers that way too). Rather, rise above it using the “Never show a fool a work half-done” principle. Feel free to give your answers in the comments!
PS: in my language, the saying in the title is known as “One doesn’t show a half-job to a donkey”. Personally, I like donkeys.