Buttigieg: Biden administration must 'demystify' electric vehicles

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Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a Tuesday interview that accelerating electric vehicle adoption will provide American consumers with long-term protection against oil price shocks.

Buttigieg, speaking on the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast, was asked about high oil prices exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He said his agenda is to reduce American vulnerability by providing more alternatives to driving and more access to electric vehicles (EVs).

“If we’re gonna talk about gas prices we gotta talk about ... how do we build a transportation and energy system that doesn’t leave Americans vulnerable to these ups and downs?” Buttigieg said. “And that’s why having U.S. energy independence in the context of sustainable renewable energy is such an important national objective. The sooner we get there, the less we’re gonna be having these kinds of conversations whenever there’s some kind of global shock to the system.”

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks at the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg at the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference on March 14 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“We want to be a completely energy independent country with the energy mix of the future that’s driven by renewables,” the secretary added. Transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions — which cause climate change — of any sector of the U.S. economy.

Acknowledging that electric vehicles are typically more expensive than cars and trucks with internal combustion engines, Buttigieg said his department is working on making them more accessible. And he urged Congress to pass President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which includes significant tax incentives for EV purchases; the bill has stalled amid opposition from two moderate Democratic senators.

“We are aggressively encouraging steps that will make the use of electric vehicles easier and more affordable for everybody, to drive EV adoption,” Buttigieg said. “These electric pickup trucks that are coming out from ... Detroit, ... those start in the neighborhood of $40,000. Now, $40,000 is still too much for a lot of American families, which is exactly why we have proposed, through a system of tax credits and incentives, a way to reduce that up-front price to bring it into, effectively, the high 20s.”

Buttigieg also mentioned that his department is raising fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, to reduce the cost burden of gasoline. “We also know that most people don’t have an EV and from a climate perspective, as well as a savings perspective, things like fuel economy for internal combustion engines, that’s gonna matter throughout this decade and beyond,” he said. “The cars that are being [bought] right now that burn gas are gonna be on the road for a very long time.”

To boost consumer confidence that drivers will be able to easily recharge an EV, Buttigieg touted the Transportation Department’s current effort to build vehicle charging stations under the large infrastructure funding bill passed by Congress last year. “We need to make EVs more affordable and to put out that national charging network, because we know that if a family can afford to take advantage of EVs, they never have to worry about gas prices again,” he said.

He also shared his own personal story of switching to an electric vehicle.

“The first electric vehicle that Chasten and I ever had was a Ford C-Max,” Buttigieg said, referring to his husband and their family sedan. “We got it used, but not that used, and it cost us about $14,000. And we plugged it in the regular wall plug in our garage in South Bend, Indiana. And it was a plug-in hybrid, which meant that, you know, for most of our driving around the city, we never had to use gas. If we took a road trip, then we had to buy gas.

“And so, I think another thing we have to do is just demystify EVs — that they’re not all these super-high-end luxury vehicles,” he added. “While fast charging is something we gotta do a lot of work on, if you’re fortunate to live in a single-family home, you already have charging infrastructure for these things. It’s called the plug in your wall.”

Of course, electric cars aren’t the only way to give up gasoline and reduce the carbon footprint of transportation. Buttigieg has made expansion of mass transit service a priority. But it’s a challenging time for public transportation systems, which have seen huge drop-offs in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An electric vehicle is seen parked at a charging station. A sign next to it reads: EV charging only. Four hour limit.
An electric vehicle’s battery is recharged at Crissy Field on March 9 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Our transit systems have taken a big hit,” Buttigieg said. “I made a point of taking the Metro to get to the meeting of the transit association a couple of weeks ago here in Washington. It seemed weird to drive to a public transit meeting, even though that’s usually the protocol for how Cabinet members get around. And on one hand, I noticed that Metro was as clean and efficient and effective and user-friendly as it was back when I was taking it every day. And on the other hand, I noticed that Gallery Place and Metro Center, these big hubs where people change, did not look nearly as packed as I was used to them being at rush hour, which is when I was going through them. And this is happening across the country.”

Buttigieg argued that rail transit systems will need further investment to make sure they are appealing to potential riders. “The subways and the light rail options are gonna be more important than ever in the decade ahead, in order to accommodate the kind of growth we’re seeing in a lot of the cities, and because there’s simply no way that we can do what we have to with regard to climate if we haven’t created great options for people to not have to drag 2 tons of metal with them everywhere they go,” he said. “And that means having superior transit as a country.”