Why do some people refuse to accept electric cars? Maybe it’s the way human brains are wired.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This pearl of wisdom is usually attributed to Upton Sinclair, but many other thinkers have made similar observations. “Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced,” was H. L. Mencken’s formulation.
Above: A parking spot reserved for an electric vehicle. Photo: Red Dot / Unsplash
This truism will be quite familiar to anyone who writes or reads about climate change and the technological responses to it. For many years, oil companies and their political representatives insisted climate change wasn’t real, even though their own internal research had concluded that it was. When this position became untenable, they shifted to arguments that fighting climate change is compatible with continuing (and even increasing) the consumption of fossil fuels. While the oil companies rebrand themselves as climate-change warriors, they also fund media campaigns and disingenuous “studies” that cast doubt on the green bona fides of electric vehicles and renewable energy.
So, the fraudulent arguments of fossil apologists may be morally offensive, but they are understandable. But what about the people who understand and acknowledge the peril of climate change, but who refuse to accept EVs and/or renewable energy?
I personally know many folks who fit this description, and I’m sure most of our readers do too. One European friend of mine is a great technophile—he always has the latest and greatest smartphone apps, and we’ve had many discussions about Tesla, solar panels, etc. And yet, when it was time for a new car, he bought an enormous gas-guzzling SUV—and is continually trying to convince me that its fuel economy rivals that of my Prius (in fact, its EPA-rated figure is 25 mpg).
Another gentleman of my acquaintance, who has a young daughter, is as liberal as anyone I know—a committed vegan and an ardent supporter of equal rights and environmental justice. And yet, when he recently bought a new home for his young family, he chose a suburban McMansion that will require a daily round-trip commute of almost 100 miles, driving—you guessed it—a gas-powered SUV.
At this point, our conservative friends may inject that these are examples of independent, critical thinking. My friends don’t buy into the electric car boondoggle—they realize that EVs actually pollute more than gas-burners, and that the best thing we can all do for the environment is to continue using fossil fuels (“low-carbon oil,” “clean diesel” and “clean coal,” perhaps).
However, the “EVs’ dirty little secret” argument, which seems to float by in the sewers of social media hundreds of times per day, doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. In a recent series of three articles (Debunking common anti-EV myths, parts one, two and three), I provide links to dozens of studies that have demonstrated the environmental advantages of EVs over legacy vehicles.
Can it be that my green-talking, SUV-driving friends haven’t read my works? Surely, before making a purchase decision, they considered all the available literature, and weighed the various pro-EV and anti-EV arguments carefully?
Well, maybe not. As a psychologist might tell you, we humans are naturally subject to certain biases that often cause us to make decisions without even considering any of the logical arguments for or against a particular choice. As a car salesperson might tell you, people make purchase decisions based on emotion, then use logic to justify them later (my friend who drives the “fuel-efficient” SUV provides a perfect example).
We humans are biased toward continuing to do things we’ve always done. Americans have become so used to spending two hours out of every work day sweltering and swearing in traffic that many of us, including my liberal commuter friend, fail to see that it’s insane.
Our biases cause us to see every new technology through the lens of the one it replaces. That’s why so many people seem to think that switching to EVs will require replacing all our gas pumps with charging stations. Many car buyers balk at going electric because they erroneously believe it will mean sitting around waiting for their car to charge. Policy-makers make bad siting decisions for chargers because they don’t understand that driving patterns aren’t going to be the same in an electric ecosystem.
Of course, the baleful effects of inherent human biases are seen not only at the micro level of individual car buyers, but also at the macro level of politicians and corporate leaders. Toyota, biased to believe that old ways are the best, is spending much money and prestige to convince G7 policy-makers to promote hybrids at the expense of EVs. A California agency that’s supposed to be promoting zero-emission commercial vehicles has instead been funneling money to a fossil fuel advocacy group, apparently believing that slightly cleaner diesel and LNG vehicles represent less risk than EVs. And of course, politicians in many countries love the idea of using hydrogen to fuel passenger vehicles, against the advice of most scientists and automakers—apparently because they’re biased to believe that fueling a vehicle has to involve pumping and burning something (and because they see a way to keep the fossil-fuel money flowing).
In a recent article, clean-tech consultant Michael Barnard examines several common human biases in the context of climate-change policy decisions. “Policy-makers, decision-makers and influencers on the core climate action file, where we will be investing trillions in transformation in the coming years and decades, need to have clearer eyes than the average person on the street,” he writes. “They need to work harder to understand their own biases and blind spots, and also ensure that they work with teams and advisors who have different biases and blind spots to ensure that groupthink doesn’t lead them down an unfortunate path.”
Barnard cites several examples of bias that lead individuals and leaders to make poor economic decisions. Humans tend to fear loss much more than they value gain, which leads people to be unenthusiastic about potentially transformative vehicle-to-grid technology (drivers fear losing control over charging their vehicle more than they value the money that they might earn from a utility). Americans are conditioned to believe that we live in “the best country in the world,” which blinds us to the fact that we have the least reliable electrical grid among developed countries. In fact, investment in upgrading and smartening the grid that we all depend on might deliver more environmental benefit than pouring money into public chargers that will only serve a small number of drivers. We also have “a dysfunctional myth of rugged individualism,” which may lead some to invest in overpriced battery storage systems, when a vehicle-to-home solution might make more economic sense.
Mr. Barnard also addresses the irrational enthusiasm for hydrogen as a vehicle fuel. A century of depending on liquid or gaseous fuels has left many “stuck inside the paradigm of burning things for heat...their bias due to long familiarity is that the only energy that counts is energy that you light a match to.”
Many in the transportation and energy industries became committed to hydrogen over the past couple of decades, and refuse to let it go, even as more recent research shows that, while hydrogen may find applications in certain industrial processes, it’s an inefficient and expensive way to power vehicles. “Their confirmation bias prevents their acceptance of data which contradicts their preconceptions, and means that they vastly over-rely on weak data that supports their preconceptions.”
Barnard has some similar comments about the atomic energy crowd, many of whom “reached this pro-nuclear conclusion in the early to mid-2000s, when it was truly uncertain whether wind and solar could scale, be reliable on grids and be cost-effective. They haven’t updated their priors on the subject. As a result, they ignore...empirical reality from the past dozen years that show clearly that nuclear is, at best, something which might be useful for the last 5% to 20% of electrical generation, not 50% to 80%. Many people are holding on to perspectives that they reached decades ago, and for a variety of reasons are not updating their data sets and analyses.”
Mr. Barnard acknowledges that he has his own blind spots and biases, and yes, dear readers, your favorite EV writer has them too. Having biases doesn’t mean we’re stupid—it means we’re human. Certain biases are hard-wired into our brains, and some of the strongest biases are those that hold us back from taking chances and trying new things. “Updating our priors” is one of the hardest things for us humans to do, but now the ecosystem that supports all life on Earth is threatened, and to make the kind of radical change required, we’re going have to confront some of these biases and overcome them.