Electric vehicle adoption is likely to get a boost if either of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates is elected, but experts say some of the policy proposals from former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders are either not enough to advance the EV industry or not feasible.
Biden wants the U.S. to build 500,000 new public EV charging outlets by the end of 2030 and, if elected, would also restore the full federal tax credit for EV consumers and develop new fuel economy standards going beyond what the Obama administration put in place, according to his campaign website. Sanders wants 100% of new vehicles to be electric by 2030 and would also invest in research to reduce the cost of EVs, build a modern smart grid and invest in a nationwide EV charging network, according to his campaign website.
"In general, we think that whoever the Democratic candidate is … this will be a good step forward for the auto [original equipment manufacturers], the utilities and all of the EV infrastructure firms building out the transportation infrastructure of the future," said Philip Jones, executive director of the Alliance for Transportation Electrification.
The Democratic plans run in stark contrast to positions held by President Donald Trump, who has proposed eliminating the federal EV tax credit that gives consumers up to $7,500 and revoked California's authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards.
Biden's EV plans lack details and might not be a big enough push for the industry, whereas Sanders' plans could have a difficult time passing through Congress, according to experts. EV policies alone are unlikely to sway voters but could give the candidates a boost as part of broader platforms centered on environmental and climate change issues, experts said.
The Biden and Sanders campaigns did not respond to a request for comment.
Impact on automakers
U.S. automakers are spending billions of dollars to pivot their company strategies toward a future of electric and autonomous vehicles, and EV-related policies could help their plans, according to experts.
General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., who have announced upcoming EV models, said they could not comment on the candidates' specific policies. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents automakers operating in the U.S., did not respond to requests for comment.
Marianne Kah, advisory board member and adjunct senior research scholar at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, said both Biden's and Sanders' policies would help automakers by funding charging infrastructure.
"That would help auto companies sell EVs," Kah said in an interview. "There is currently a chicken-and-egg problem where consumers may be afraid to buy them because there isn't sufficient charging infrastructure, and the private sector won't build infrastructure without more EV sales."
For automakers still focusing on gas-powered cars, however, Sanders' policy of eliminating internal combustion engine vehicles sooner rather than later would "freak automakers out," said Mark Rom, associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University.
On the other hand, Biden's plan will please car companies, Rom said.
"He'll call for gradual, stable transitions," Rom added. "The kind of transitions that automakers are used to and comfortable with."
Implementing the policies
Experts say that while the leading Democrats' policies could help boost EV adoption, they face a tough road to actually implement those plans if either is elected.
"The key thing in Congress is, will the Republicans maintain control of the Senate," Rom said, noting that a Republican majority would make it more difficult to further expand policies promoting EVs and to increase energy-efficiency standards.
Congressional Republicans have pushed for stricter enforcement of the federal EV tax credit while also introducing legislation to end the credit altogether and add a fee on electric-car drivers to help fund public roads. Republicans are also unlikely to enact proposals from the president of the opposing party.
If more Democrats are elected to Congress, then Biden or Sanders would have more leeway for getting their policies passed, Rom said.
Too modest or 'wildly impractical'
Democrats, however, could view Biden's plans as too modest, with Sanders' policies seen as "wildly optimistic or wildly impractical," Rom said.
"Biden's plans look inadequate to the task of moving us more quickly to a carbon-neutral economy," Rom said. "Just calling for additional charging stations and additional tax credits for electric vehicles, that sounds pretty puny to me."
Yet Sanders is calling for the kinds of policies that are beyond what Congress has even considered in the past, according to Rom.
"[Sanders' plan] requires such major changes in consumer behavior, in producers' behavior and in federal spending that it's just hard for me to wrap my head around the size of that ambition," he said.
David Popp, professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University, said he is "highly skeptical" of reaching 100% EV sales by 2030.
"There are a lot of questions about whether consumers actually want them" he said. "By trying to increase sales, one issue is whether you're forcing particular technology on to consumers."
Everything needs to work together, he said, adding that there should be research and development to get costs down and for adding charging infrastructure so people want to buy the vehicles.
"These sorts of things seem more likely to get passed through Congress," Popp said. "Biden's plan stops at that, and Sanders wants to go beyond that."
It is difficult to compare Biden's and Sanders' EV plans because of the lack of details in Biden's plans, Kah said.
"If you look at what Biden is proposing, it's not as detailed, but he does want to accelerate the shift to cleaner cars and trucks," she said. "The main way he talks about getting there is by restoring the tax credit for electric vehicles."
The tax credit for consumers phases out once an automaker sells 200,000 electric cars, a cap that Tesla Inc. and General Motors have both hit.
"The electric-vehicle tax credit is not very helpful right now," Kah said, referring to the fact that consumers buying Teslas and GM EVs are no longer able to claim the credit.
Trump, meanwhile, has tried to frame his potential opponents' views as more radical, tweeting March 10, the same day as Michigan's primary election, that Democrats want to "get rid of cars as quickly as possible, especially if they are powered by gasoline."
Tackling emissions, EV ownership
Biden's plan appears less aggressive than Sanders' policies toward combating CO2 emissions, according to data from energy and climate policy firm Energy Innovation.
The former vice president's plan for 500,000 EV chargers by 2030 would reduce CO2-equivalent emissions by about 50 million metric tons in 2030 and 130 million metric tons in 2050, according to the firm, adding that achieving this level of charger deployment would result in approximately 30% of vehicle sales in 2030 being electric, compared with Sanders' target of 100%.
In comparison, Sanders' 100% EV sales by 2030 target would reduce emissions of CO2-equivalent by approximately 300 million metric tons in 2030, and by about 500 million metric tons in 2050, the firm said.
If current policies and regulations continue, Energy Innovation expects roughly 15% of vehicle sales will be EVs in 2030.
The U.S. would fall behind in the competitive global market of EVs if Trump is reelected, according to Anna Stefanopoulou, director of the University of Michigan's Energy Institute.
"Rolling back the vehicle fuel efficiency standards will unfortunately keep U.S. behind in this competitive field," Stefanopoulou said in an email. "The rest of the world is moving ahead recognizing the needed changes and plan to position themselves in leading this technology."
EVs as an election issue
Although the broader issue of climate change and clean energy is garnering more attention, experts say EVs alone are not high on voters' lists of priorities in this election. It is easier for people to support wind or solar energy because it is clean yet does not affect anyone's daily life, Popp said, adding that telling people what kind of car to buy does have an impact.
Some EV-related issues, including charging infrastructure, can also be handled at the local level instead of federal, Popp said.
"It would progress more slowly, but maybe an advantage of that is doing something at the state level allows experimentation to see which policies do and don't work," he added.