Over the next few weeks, I’m going focus on electric vehicles (EVs) and examine some of the most popular fallacies being embraced by those who don’t believe we can build a cleaner future. This is a key battleground for fossil fuel interests and people who dismiss the seriousness of the climate emergency. Last week, I focused on the naysayers. This week, it's the reactionary rhetoric that attempts to create doubts.

A research paper published in a 2019 issue of Energy Research and Social Science examines how people’s views on electric vehicle (EV) range may be influenced by three categories of rhetoric described in Albert O. Hirschman’s book The Rhetoric of Reaction. Hirschman details how these categories were used to resist change during periods of great social reform.

The researchers don’t discount the technical and psychological factors related to EV hesitancy, but they identify a third and often overlooked factor based on reactionary rhetoric, “which holds that conservative forces and actors will often resist new innovations, social changes or threats through rhetoric centring on jeopardy, perversity and futility.”

A Canadian Automobile Association survey of over 16,000 EV drivers indicated the top five concerns were all range and battery related. Non-EV drivers have an even greater reluctance about replacing their gas tank with a battery pack, a hesitancy that is stoked relentlessly by ideologically motivated rhetoric.

Driving range and the subsequent impact on long trips was a primary concern, particularly in cold weather. Public charging was also cause for apprehension, including availability and queuing for superchargers.

An interesting result of the survey was how much these predominant concerns were alleviated by actually owning an EV. Range anxiety dropped from 67 per cent pre-purchase to 30 per cent post-purchase. Doubts about cold weather performance dropped by 25 per cent. Worries about long-distance travel dropped by 35 per cent.

Lance Noel and his team of researchers offer an explanation for why range anxiety is high among the late majority of EV consumers and even persists among early adopters. Those with EV-purchase hesitancy may be using range concerns as an excuse to avoid changing their behaviour. But nearly one-third of experienced EV drivers still express lingering concerns about being stranded by a dead battery.

Noel’s study suggests this is indicative of the impact of ongoing reactionary rhetoric. The first of Hirschman’s three categories of reactionary rhetoric is referred to as the jeopardy thesis, which is typically deployed early in the battle against innovation or social change.

The jeopardy thesis contends that today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. In terms of EV range and battery anxiety, jeopardy plays on people’s fears that innovation presents a danger to the individual (you will be stranded in a remote area in freezing temperatures) or their lifestyle (you will be endlessly waiting in lineups for public superchargers).

Zero-emission vehicles are a promising climate solution held back by persistent storytelling with an intentional focus on the concepts of jeopardy, perversity and futility, writes Rob Miller @winexus #ElectricVehicle #ChargingNetworks #Charging

A Statistics Canada analysis from the 2016 census reveals that the average long commute is 57 kilometres one way. The average distance was only 18 kilometres for drivers whose commute to work was under an hour. Noel’s team identified other studies indicating that even EVs with half the range provided by the latest battery technology will satisfy up to 95 per cent of consumers’ driving needs.

Electric Autonomy Canada reported last spring that the number of public chargers across Canada increased by 30 per cent since 2022, surpassing 20,000 charging ports at over 8,000 stations. More chargers are on the way. Telus recently announced a partnership with JOLT to build up to 5,000 new charging ports across the country. Another 4,000 charging ports are expected thanks to financing deals between Canada Infrastructure Bank, Flo Canada and Parkland Corporation.

The rapid growth of charging infrastructure is required to support greater adoption of EVs in Canada, but Noel’s paper cautions policy efforts to build out charging networks may not encourage EV ownership because jeopardy thesis fears can persist even when the likelihood of jeopardy is lowered.

The perversity thesis is the second of Hirschman’s three categories of rhetoric and it suggests that any action taken to solve a problem will end up making the problem worse. A typical example is the false claim EVs are actually more harmful to the environment than gas-powered vehicles. Although repeatedly disproven, this disinformation attracts attention and support by building a seductive thesis of perversity.

Noel’s study points to the perversity thesis as an explanation of why people overlook rapid improvements to battery range and charging infrastructure and ignore simple solutions to their concerns about taking an EV on long trips. For example, you can buy a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) or rent a gas vehicle for those extended road trips. EVs will always struggle to overcome the perception that it’s unreasonable to expect us to put a little more thought into our trip planning.

The third category of reactionary rhetoric is the futility thesis, which tends to emerge as late adopters enter the market. It argues that an innovation is pointless because it fails to solve the deeper problems in society.

Perhaps you’ve heard the argument that EVs are a terrible solution because society needs to stop driving cars and start walking, biking and using transit. Yes, those are all good things, but it’s a leap to conclude EVs, and their ability to reduce the global consumption of fossil fuels, will not benefit society.

In terms of range anxiety, the futility thesis implies that policies to develop charging networks will fail because they can’t be rolled out fast enough to keep up with growing EV adoption and chargers will suffer technical issues, impairing their availability. In other words, solving range anxiety will only exacerbate charging anxiety.

Examples of all three categories of reactionary rhetoric are dominating media and political discourse around EVs. This reinforces the research paper’s assertion that “the rhetorical construct of range anxiety can be connected to a political goal that is hampering the [adoption] of EVs in general.”

The paper also notes that oil companies may use these effective forms of rhetoric to reinforce consumer resistance and encourage anti-EV sentiment. There may be some merit to technical and psychological concerns about vehicle range, but Noel’s exposure of reactionary rhetoric in the EV discourse highlights the potential for corporate and political interference.

Technical issues affecting EV range are being solved through improvements in battery performance, greater availability of public charging and systematic elimination of early defects.

Psychological issues around range anxiety are also being addressed through better education and advertising, increased customer experience and greater market penetration.

Countering the impact of EV range rhetoric may be more challenging because it masks deeper identity issues that are threatened by EVs. Zero-emission vehicles are a promising climate solution held back by persistent storytelling with an intentional focus on the concepts of jeopardy, perversity and futility. Although this delay is frustrating in the midst of a climate crisis, Hirschman’s historical examples reveal reactionary rhetoric was unable to stop the change that was emerging.

Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action, but any opinions expressed in his work are his own.

Keep reading

A much needed article....and EV owners also need to speak up and provide real information on the benefits of an EV.

We have an electric Kona and haven't had to buy fossil fuel for the last 4 years. It feels good to do day trips knowing we aren't contributing to global heating.......and it's heating we're facing this summer in many parts of Canada. We received a ten year warranty on our battery when we bought the car.......and didn't have to pay extra for that warranty....so not only is that an indication of the faith Kona has in its battery, last summer when we had a minor issue with one of the battery cells and Kona replaced the battery........AT 0 CHARGE TO US.

Tell me what ICE vehicle has such faith in any of its over 1000 moveable parts??

And then there's the lack of maintenance. EV's need far less....so pose a real threat to the automobile dealers who make the bulk of their profits repairing ICE cars., For the owner, its another cost saving.

Finally.........we need to talk more about the charging you can do from your regular electric plug. It's the slowest form of charge, so it is preferable to get a Level 2 charger installed........but we know folks who simply use the plug they used to use to keep their ICE engine running in the winter (not a problem with an EV). When we're visiting friends in the country, we plug in overnight and in the course of 15 hours or so....we add 100 km to our battery. We do the same summer camping with the plug provided for massive RV machines.
People mostly using a car to get to work, can easily get by with a standard electric outlet........supplemented by a local Level 3 for long trips.

In short, the fears about EV's are mostly bogus.....old white guys without the dough to invest in the future trashing the future, in my radical opinion. That, and people with EV envy doing the 'all or nothing dance' about getting rid of all cars. As if that's going to happen in Canada!!!

The good news is, we are starting to meet other people at the charge stations now....and they're all happy with their EV.
The bad news is that the reactionaries keep coming up with new arguments. Have you heard the latest one about EV's being 'too heavy for our roads'?? They didn't worry about all those long distance trucks we replaced train transport with, but now, OMG, the road repairs EV's are going to necessitate!!!!

Time to start laughing at them........time to put your name in for an EV....and save a little cash while you're waiting. That's what we did. By the time the car arrived, we were able to pay cash.......thereby once again, saving money.
EV's are the future. Not for everyone, but part of the just transition? For sure.

I myself have not bothered to put in a charging station, we just charge our car from a normal 110V plug in the car port. Yeah, it's slow, but with a regular habit of plugging in when we get home, it's rare not to be at 100% in the morning. And the slow trickle charge is easy on the battery.

Oddly, for practical purposes we actually have LESS range anxiety than we did with our previous ICE car. Thing is, we're not rich--not poor, and now that the place is paid off and the kids are grown up, fairly comfortable. But still, with the old car we tended to just put a few bucks into the tank when it was empty, rather than fill up full. So then in the morning we'd be commuting to work and worrying about whether there was enough left in the tank and did we have time to stop at a gas station. My wife in particular would get quite anxious about it. But with the electric, it's always full in the morning and we never need to stop for refueling. So much more relaxing.

Meanwhile, I certainly don't miss the cost of gas. The cost difference there is insane.

Exactly. I suspect that EV envy is going to replace that old canard P***nis envy any time now. I've thought for awhile that short term penny saving was preventing lots of people from benefitting from the long term advantages of both roof top solar and EV driving...up front they cost money....but the savings you reap help with the payments.

Rob Miller: "Perhaps you’ve heard the argument that EVs are a terrible solution because society needs to stop driving cars and start walking, biking and using transit. Yes, those are all good things, but it’s a leap to conclude EVs, and their ability to reduce the global consumption of fossil fuels, will not benefit society."

No actual argument there. Here is mine:
I have no issue with consumers switching from ICE cars to EVs if they so wish — on their own dime. But I object to EV subsidies.

Despite EV's far bigger footprint in the manufacturing stage, I accept that EVs have a smaller lifetime footprint than ICE cars. That is not my issue. The drive train — what makes the wheels go round — is not my main concern.
In terms of environmental and public health, the relevant comparison is between the car and public transit.
Cars, car culture, and sprawl are the problem. BOTH EVs and ICE cars are hopelessly unsustainable. EVs exacerbate these problems, while endless sprawl further sabotages the solutions (transit). In these respects, what makes the wheels go round makes no difference.

EVs make the problem (sprawl) worse — and make efficient transit impossible. The decisions we make now about urban design set the blueprint for generations to come. Cars drive sprawl, and sprawl forces people to drive.
Delay makes the challenge even harder. Kicking the can down the road puts solutions out of reach. Sprawl makes efficient public transit impossible. There is no road from more private cars and more sprawl to better public transit.
The time to invest in transit — and switch over to transit — is now. Not decades hence, when our cities are even more sprawled. Sprawl is next to impossible to unwind.

Decades down the road, why would car drivers living in super-sprawled cities switch to transit? There is no better time to start on urban design and public transit than now. Why wait? Why make the problem worse?
Doubling down on cars (EVs) makes already difficult problems intractable and puts solutions out of reach. Forever.

EVs are the yuppie response to climate change. Not for nothing that most of the first EV models were luxury cars beyond the reach of most citizens. Wealthy progressives want EV subsidies so they can salve their guilty conscience over their outsize footprint without having to make any real change in their unsustainable lifestyles.

EVs are not progress. Opposition to car culture and sprawl is not reactionary.

Cars and car culture are an environmental and human catastrophe even without a tailpipe. The energy extravagance of billions of people using private vehicles in sprawled cities is obscene. Billions of people commuting hundreds and thousands of kilometres per week is an environmental nightmare. Such a system will never be sustainable.

Obscene energy expenditure. Lost productivity, sedentary lifestyle (and health problems), millions of deaths and injuries, roadkill, and social isolation.
Urban sprawl, disintegration of community, loss of green space, endless freeways and traffic jams, inefficient public transit, strip mall blight, mega-mall culture, parking lot proliferation, accidents, and property damage.
Insanely long commutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Sprawl multiplies congestion, energy consumption and waste, time and productivity loss, emissions, and footprint.
Both propulsion types leave non-drivers -- the poor, the disabled, the old and the young, and the marginalized -- out in the cold. On the social equity index, both cars fail.
Car culture will never be sustainable. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Using two or three tons of metal to transport a 150-lb human being is an ecological non-starter.
A one-Earth footprint cannot accommodate an energy-intensive lifestyle where people drive everywhere they go -- or an urban model relying on millions of cars to transport millions of people.

Eight billion people on the planet and counting. If half the population commutes hundreds and thousands of kilometres per week in two- and three-tonne metal behemoths, energy use and ecological footprint go off the scale. The lifestyle and unlimited mobility North Americans feel entitled to were unimaginable for most of history.

Should we buy an EV or an ICE car? Wrong question.
The question to ask is: Should we invest scarce public dollars in personal automobiles or public transit, cycling, and walking?

Why continue to subsidize and perpetuate that grossly unsustainable model when the real solution is already at hand?
Once consumers with political power — middle- and upper class voters — are happily ensconced in their automobiles, there is no shifting them. There is no incentive for governments to invest in and improve transit if the vast majority vote for cars and EV subsidies.
We have a choice: the public good — or private benefits for the few, while perpetuating the same ills that car culture has inflicted on society for decades.

Public investment in public goods, like transit and bike paths, beats investment in private automobiles, hands down.
Environmentally and economically, mass transit beats private vehicles on every possible score.

Aggregated, $5000 EV subsidies per household can move many more people on transit. We can move far more people on transit for less cost. Fiscal efficiency matters.
$5000 per household for EV subsidies is $5000 per household not funding transit, cycling infrastructure, and sidewalks.
Scarce tax dollars should be invested in real solutions, not stop-gaps like EVs.

EV subsidies are an extremely high-cost way to reduce emissions. Investment in public transit and cycling gives us far more bang for our climate buck.
EV subsidies reinforce social inequity. Handing out EV subsidies to wealthy people who don't need them while ignoring the transportation needs of people who cannot afford cars or choose not to drive is unjust.

If we had infinite tax dollars to play with, I could see a subsidize everything effort. But we don't.
People are free to buy an EV if they want one. Just don't ask taxpayers to help pay for it.

I understand the sentiment, but I live in an area where there is little/no public transit, and close to zero support for using tax dollars to expand it. ICEs are how people get to work. And they'll continue to do that until EVs are as cheap to purchase and charging is fast plus widely available. So subsidies can make them more attractive and drive demand for more public chargers. Not uncommon for subsidies to be used to grow adoption - solar panels a fine example of that.

"little/no public transit, and close to zero support for using tax dollars to expand it"

Support for transit might grow if society no longer permitted your neighbours to externalize the environmental and health costs of their lifestyle choices.
Market failure lies at the heart of most of our environmental crises. Full-cost accounting (e.g., carbon pricing, road tolls) work to address the market failure.

People are free to live as far from work and amenities as they want — but they must take responsibility for their choices. That means paying pay the full costs of energy- and resource-intensive lifestyles that damage the environment (our life support systems). They could no longer download those costs to the public purse, the environment, and future generations. Forced to bear the burden themselves, some of your neighbours might make better choices (e.g., live closer to work).
Public dollars are limited. Instead of subsidizing people who make poor/costly lifestyle and environmental choices, we should encourage people to make better choices and support those who do.

That said, mass transit is for the masses. Transit may not work for everybody. People who cannot function without a personal automobile are free to buy one. On their dime, not mine.
Public dollars should be directed towards the public good, not private extravagance. Finite public dollars should be allocated according to utilitarian principles: where investment will do the most good for the most people who stand in greatest need. To subsidize private vehicles while the marginalized, the old, the young, the poor, and non-drivers is simply unjust.

Correction: To subsidize private vehicles while the marginalized, the old, the young, the poor, and non-drivers go without is simply unjust.
[Where is The Observer's EDIT button?]

You're assuming we can make the kind of changes already under way in Europe in a decade or less...and it seems to me that you also assume one right way to the future. It's a Eurocentric way of thinking.

The future though, if we have one, is going to be much more diverse...we also have electric bikes, and use them a lot in the spring, summer and fall..........but our city is not very public transit friendly if you're a senior citizen. We can get around, NOW, without burning a gallon of gas..........and have done so for the last 5 years. We also have solar, since 2009.....and so are less reliant on fossil gas fed electricity. We'd like to see roof top solar subsidized....and subsidies to oil and gas eliminated.

When people live in houses that produce more energy than they consume, and drive vehicles that don't use fossil gasoline, demand will drop. At the same time, public transit and fast trains can be built....to move people more efficiently.

But the cities we live in now aren't going to be easily reconfigured. That too will cost buckets of money...and demand extractivist activity that is the major driver of emissions. In Canada, we've barely started that process.

@Mary: "You're assuming we can make the kind of changes already under way in Europe in a decade or less..."
Where did I make such a suggestion?
What I did say is that we must change course. Starting today.
Start moving in the direction we need to go. The task of urban design and public transit expansion will take decades, no doubt. If we do not make a start, it will take forever. The main objective should be not to make the situation worse. Don't make difficult problems intractable. Don't put solutions out of reach.
No reason for delay. If not now, when?

mary NOKLEBY: "you also assume one right way to the future"
I assume nothing. I presented an entire argument substantiated by facts. Car culture and sprawl are hopelessly unsustainable. Our sustainable future, if we have one, will depend on public transit in service of the public good and social equity — not the private automobile in service of private extravagance and personal convenience. Further, I decry politics that caters to the wealthy while leaving the marginalized to their own devices.

Its frustrating to see all these articles about the drawbacks of EV's, but they are easily spotted with the verbiage used in the title. Unfortunately many are on popular media outlets. Very rarely are the assertions backed up by any facts.

I bought an EV that has the exact same range as my old ICE vehicle (500Km at 80%), and i installed a level 2 charger. Its been great not having to go to a gas station or get oil changes. I love the driving experience as well, (one pedal driving).

I wish more articles would focus on the total cost of ownership being anywhere from 7 to 10 times cheaper to operate, along with the fact that many of them are safer to drive than ICE vehicles.

Regardless, I am really happy with the purchase and rarely have range anxiety.