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I Think I Can Feel the Electric-Car Movement Finally Gaining Speed

Rest assured, however, the naysayers' lobby continues to talk down electric cars.

Jamie Kitmanwriter, photographer The Manufacturerphotographer

When speaking of electric cars, major media still seem to talk more about them in the future sense rather than in a present one, as if EVs are coming, but not here yet. Actually, though, they kind of are here: You might not know it, but sales of electric vehicles were up 81 percent in 2018. That's thanks mostly, of course, to Tesla getting its lower-priced Model 3 line up to speed. All of which still makes EVs less than 2 percent of the U.S. market. But it's strong growth nonetheless, with market share in California, a state with the nation's most vigorous EV mandates, approaching 8 percent some months.

Coming in the midst of an era of booming sales of internally combusted SUVs, the numbers might reasonably lead you to conclude that consumer acceptance of the electric car is growing meaningfully despite cheap gasoline, an industry that largely doesn't bother marketing the electric cars it does make, and the as-yet-to-emerge seamless charging infrastructure that's needed.

Rest assured, however, the naysayers' lobby continues to talk down electric cars, while government policy veers backwards to thwart EVs. A regulatory reset for internal-combustion cars from the Trump administration was made possible, we now learn, with funding and a little covert lobbying help from oil companies and the Brothers Koch. Coupled with threats by President Trump to cut subsidies to buyers of all electric cars—or is it just GM cars, he can't decide—it does cast a pall over the topic.

Nevertheless, all old-line carmakers are hedging their bets against a coming electric era by either having or pretending to have electric cars to roll out in big numbers over the next decade. Whether or not they want to develop these cars, the almighty stock market wants them to, because that seems like the future that ought to be coming, even if the Trump administration doesn't want it to.

The only problem is that markets also want the companies to maximize profits right now, so we have the anomalous, not to say disconcerting, sight of lower-profit car lines being axed right and left, and more and more higher-priced bruiser SUVs coming online, while electric cars and autonomy drain significant R&D money out of company coffers. The task hasn't been made any easier by Washington's sudden about-face on years of U.S. and international policy governing fuel economy and emissions, with existing regulations here being euthanized or quietly unenforced these days, but nobody really believing that it can go on like this forever. Or that even if it did, it wouldn't put the U.S. in regulatory conflict with other nations. One outcome might be that with Chinese and EU markets' stricter regulations and the economies of scale to be had by building one global version, we may well see that many cars sold in America will meet the tougher standards of abroad instead of the weaker regulations at home. I'd say this would be ironic, if irony weren't dead.

Despite—or perhaps because of all of this—I think I can feel the electric car movement gathering speed. Sure, it's true, I live in a bubble in a New York suburb, where East Coast liberals roam freely, happy to express their most intimate environmental thoughts with perfect strangers. But there's a lot of us and we're in a safe space for electric cars. That said, a couple years back, friends and neighbors would marvel at the Nissan Leaf or the electric Volkswagen e-Golf I had on long-term test for Automobile Magazine. But they'd never get very far into asking how they could get one for themselves. The 70-100-mile EPA-rated ranges seemed too skimpy to many, even as a second or third car, though I still found it quite plausible and pleasant to put 15,000 trouble-free miles on our 2015 e-Golf that year, which might go 110 miles or more with care. (The e-Golf has since been updated to cover 125 miles according to the government.)

Enter the 2019 Chevy Bolt and a range of around 250 miles in winter. I spent a week with one recently. This was after a neighbor bought one. So there were two in our shared municipal parking lot. And when I was testing mine—handsome in a near pastel known as "Cool Gray" in Chevy speak —my Pilates instructor, Jennifer Attebery of Nyack, New York, asked for a test drive and now is making plans to buy one. This after many years of wanting to replace her Mini Countryman but feeling uninspired by the options. That's anecdotal and this is too: When we went for a drive around Nyack complete strangers waved at us in the Bolt, three times during the course of our short drive, plus we got a couple of thumbs up. The gray was cool, but I'm telling you, electric cars are coming.