It’s always been in the background of the nation’s ongoing transition to electric transportation, but now a significant reality has been brought to the forefront by some data-crunching journalists: There’s a strong regional divide in our willingness to adopt EVs.
Not surprisingly, electric vehicles are much more popular on the coasts than in flyover country, as Bloomberg recently quantified. Add this contrast to the regional polarization that defines many other things in America these days – some economic, others cultural and social, an increasing number political.
It’s a difference that isn’t likely to be bridged soon no matter how many TV commercials for EVs ran during the Super Bowl on February 13, which featured such ads for General Motors, BMW, EV startup Polestar and others.
But in the heartland, where we as consumers so far don’t share the coastal fascination with Teslas and Rivians and Lucids, a highly complicating factor has arisen in the relationship with the electrification of transportation. And this one might just make inland denizens warmer toward putting EVs in their garages, too.
It comes in how companies are suddenly planning to dot flyover states with new mega-factories for making electric vehicles, the batteries that power them, and even the chargers that keep them running.
The unprecedented capital investments and thousands of jobs they plan to create could help transform the industrial bases of several states. Throw in the expected footprint of the Intel microchip factory in Ohio, and you’ve got the potential for nothing less than a technological revolution in the nature of the regional economy.
The Bloomberg analysis of the varying geographic embrace of EVs came as the Biden administration is pushing adoption of electric vehicles, with the goal of making them account for half of new-car sales in the U.S. by 2030. This push also comes with funding from the infrastructure bill for a network of EV-charging stations across the country. On both counts, the heartland is a key part of the government’s strategy.
The problem is, more than 76% of EV sales last year were in states that Joe Biden carried in the 2020 presidential election, according to Bloomberg. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has focused on the rural-urban divide that is certainly part of this equation, tweeting that “the Americans who stand to benefit most from EVs are those who drive the most, often rural drivers.”
But Bloomberg’s data also underscores a sharp regional divide in EV sales between the heartland and the coasts — not just a difference between rural areas and cities. Bloomberg’s map of where EVs are popular and where they aren’t shows a vast swath of red and pink between blue bands alongside the Atlantic and Pacific, indicating for the most part that Biden’s states in 2020 love EVs, and Trump’s states, not so much.
Another way of seeing the map, of course, is that flyover country hasn’t warmed up to EVs, while seaboard buyers are lapping them up.
In any event, this finding troubles some observers. “I fear that America’s political tribalism risks poisoning the traditional domestic auto industry’s efforts to catch up with Tesla and the rest of the world and get real about reducing carbon emissions that are cooking our planet,” wrote Jamie Butters, executive editor of Automotive News.
But the regional fracture on EVs is understandable, for a number of reasons.
First, consider the historically conservative nature of flyover culture toward nearly everything, including automotive stuff.
Its wariness of EVs on one level is little different than what I recollect from the early 1980s, when Ford was introducing the sleekly designed new Thunderbird sedan. Ford executives watched a map indicating an embrace of the new Thunderbird begin on the coasts and only slowly close in on the middle of country until, in the end, there was about a 100-mile strip on either side of the Mississippi River of consumers holding out against the radical new rendering of the venerable nameplate.
Second, consider the heartland enmity toward those on the coasts — such as California-based climate warriors and environmentally obsessed policymakers in Washington, D.C. — who already have tried to obliterate our fossil-fuel industries at every turn. They have made decades-long efforts to put coal miners in Kentucky and Ohio and West Virginia out of work and more recently have plotted to decimate the oil- and natural-gas fracking business from North Dakota down to Texas.
When this same posse comes along and tries to impose EV mandates on one of the most important and personal purchases that we make, our automobiles, the resistance is going to be natural. There’s just something they don’t appreciate about coastal finger-waggers in flyover country, there’s just something we don’t appreciate about coastal finger-waggers. Climate change is one thing, but attacking an economic way of life based on hydrocarbon extraction is another.
A third reason heartland denizens tend to be skeptical of EVs is that, on a practical basis, they’ve seen little so far to make the new mode attractive. Most EV models (think Tesla and the new Mercedes-Benz ESQ, for instance) have been aimed at the sports-car set, or at the other end marketed toward urban commuters in the form of feeble nameplates such as the Nissan Leaf.
To a half-nation full of consumers who tend to favor SUVs and pickups to accommodate their work, families or lifestyle, vehicles which so far depend almost entirely on internal-combustion engines, EVs just haven’t yet risen to the level of a serious competitor.
As an automotive journalist, I’ve driven most of the all-electric, plug-in and hybrid models that have come along so far, and I think many of them perform well for regular driving. The instant torque they provide also can make them really fun as a sporty proposition.
But when it comes to hauling construction materials or bags of fertilizer, or schlepping a family of six to a baseball game, or providing the comfort of a tank full of gasoline for a cross-state trip to Grandma’s house — in contrast to the hope that there will be a charging station somewhere along the way — EVs just haven’t provided a true option yet for most people in the inner half of teh United States.
Maybe the fleet of new EV models will change that. For example, Ford is excited to begin producing the F-150 Lightning pickup truck which, the company says, will offer the full workaday capabilities of its traditionally powered F-150 and provide some extra benefits from electrification, including an onboard generator.
All the news about manufacturing investments will also begin changing hearts and minds in the region. These plans include traditional automakers attempting a huge transition to EVs while sinking tens of billions of dollars of new investments in places including Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana. They include Tesla’s building a pickup-truck factory in Texas and Rivian’s truck plants in Illinois and, soon, in Georgia.
The electrification of the region’s industrial base also includes plans by other heavyweights such as Airstream, which makes RVs in Ohio, and foreign companies such as Tritium, which has pledged to put a factory for making EV-charging stations in Tennessee.
These developments have added much to the sense of inevitability that electrified vehicles now enjoy. In the United States, we haven’t yet reached the tipping point in mainstreaming of EV sales that has been achieved in places like China and Europe. But as EV sales continue to about double every year in this country, it won’t just be customers on the coasts buying them.
Another factor layered on top of all of this is the role of unionization in the auto industry, which has been restricted to the Detroit Three automakers and their major suppliers. EVs on average require about 30% less labor than making internal-combustion-powered vehicles, but that’s still way better for employment than no production at all. UAW leadership’s endorsement of the new EV era could help sales of these vehicles in the heartland.
Which brings us to Elon Musk. For political purposes, Biden is pushing hard for further federal subsidization only of EVs that are made by union workers — not those made by non-union workforces such as Tesla’s. This in particular has made Musk, the world’s richest human, apoplectic.
But in a strange way, the evolution of Elon Musk might end up helping the popularity of EVs even in the heartland. Clearly, he is sui generis. But he also is the guy who just plopped the Tesla pickup-truck plant in the shining Flyover state of Texas and who continually grumbles about the hostility to his business in California. Musk also is the guy whose libertarian impulses and mockery of coastal idiocy and elitism are making him increasingly popular with folks across the heartland.
So whether it’s the jobs raining down on flyover country from all over, or the jabs from Musk, expect America’s divide on buying EVs to ease.