How a Wave of Electric Trucks Could Create Millions of ‘Accidental Environmentalists’

Source: By Christopher Mims, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2021

Auto makers’ powerful new all-electric trucks and SUVs are attracting U.S. customers who wouldn’t otherwise shop for green machines; ‘Tesla to me is a yuppie vehicle’

Clockwise from top: Toyota bZ4X, Hummer EV, Rivian R1T and Ford F-150 Electric. Illustration: Gluekit

Bob Dykes speaks in the gravelly drawl you’d expect of a man who grew up in Wyoming and owns an oil-and-gas company. He’s 69 years old, calls himself a political independent and is agnostic about global warming. He’s also about to buy his first all-electric vehicle. Not one from Elon Musk, however. “ Tesla to me is a yuppie vehicle,” he says.

The 1,000-horsepower beast he preordered from General Motors is the new electric Hummer. It will be the third Hummer Mr. Dykes, whose family-owned company operates in 14 states, has owned and, at $112,595, the most expensive. He says what sold him were the ads. GM bought a spot featuring basketball superstar LeBron James in this year’s Super Bowl.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have preordered either the Hummer EV, the electric pickup truck from U.S. startup Rivian or Tesla’s Cybertruck. More have expressed interest in electric SUVs such as the Toyota bZ4X and Mercedes-Benz EQB, and electric versions of pickups such as the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado, a close relative of the Hummer.

These vehicles are advertised with promises of long battery range, high towing capacity, all the extras typical of midrange luxury vehicles—and hardly a mention of their eco-friendly bona fides. If previous electric autos were marketed to people concerned about climate change, these are pitched to people more concerned about surviving its aftermath. Ads for these vehicles, showing the great outdoors and gritty downtowns in equal measure, suggest that even if oceans rise and forests burn, you’ll be cruising to your bugout cabin on nothing but sunlight and self-satisfaction.

These aren’t your California cousin’s EVs. In fact, a growing number of economists, sociologists and psychologists say they could turn even guys who grew up on ’60s muscle cars into something they might not have identified as before: environmentalists.

Large vehicles are already the most lucrative segment of the domestic auto market. SUVs and crossovers accounted for half of all vehicles sold in the U.S. for the first time ever in 2020, and pickup trucks captured an additional 20% of the U.S. auto market.

By offering relatively wealthy consumers “green” vehicles and other goods that are better—by those consumers’ own measures—than their “brown” equivalents, America’s entrepreneurs and multinationals alike are creating a new class of “accidental environmentalists,” says Matthew Kahn, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California.

Magali Delmas, a professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles, says most people buy things based on five criteria: quality, cost, health benefits, status enhancement and emotional connection. She uses a related term: “convenient environmentalists,” for people who will make the green choice only if it doesn’t require sacrifice.

Climate activists are critical of economists who believe existing markets will solve for a tragedy of the commons like greenhouse-gas emissions. One reason is fear that people will think the climate crisis will resolve on its own. Economists and social scientists counter that research shows most consumers won’t be moved by shaming from activists. Support for legislation that would force people to make more climate-friendly decisions has been weak in recent years, and America still has yet to pass any substantial federal regulations on emissions.

As Bill Gates argues in his new book on averting a climate disaster, when people spend money on low-emissions products like electric vehicles, markets do their thing and investors pour money into the continuing development of the technologies that will ultimately get us to an economy with net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions.

If this argument is valid, then there are several reasons to think the bigger the EV, the better.

You could call Sagar Rambhia, a 26-year-old ophthalmologist doing his residency in Los Angeles, a convenient environmentalist. He says he’s “indifferent” about the emissions of his personal vehicle, but supports the shift to more renewable-energy sources. He bought a Tesla Model S, which he charges at home and at the hospital where he works, because it is low-maintenance, lets him access the carpool lane on L.A.’s notoriously snarled I-405 and is “by far the fastest car I’ve ever owned.”

But while Teslas are generally considered to be better for the environment than gas-powered cars, it’s an open question about whether an electric Hummer offers the same benefit. That might depend on whether the Hummer EV is replacing a combustion-engine Hummer, or if its electron-guzzling power and its ability to “crab walk” has lured someone who would otherwise commute via light rail. (According to some analyses, it may also depend on how the electricity that powers a given Hummer EV is produced. EVs that run on coal power are likely no better for the environment.)

Even if the production and use of electric trucks aren’t much better for the environment, their popularity could yield other environmentally friendly outcomes.

Dr. Kahn’s research shows that one green choice likely leads to another, whether that’s lobbying for more rapid-charging stations along the nation’s highways, or choosing to install solar panels. Dr. Delmas warns, however, that it could lead to unintended consequences: If the price of electric vehicles falls far enough, more people might choose to drive instead of taking public transit, the far more energy-efficient option.

After serving as chief financial officer at a health-insurance company, Rodney Swan made a dramatic career switch 15 years ago. He lives in Los Angeles, but now operates a cotton and alfalfa farm elsewhere in Southern California. A lifelong PC guy, he bought an iPhone one day and eventually switched over entirely to Apple products. Similarly, he says, he bought a Tesla a few years ago, and is now big on renewable electric power.

He has a bank of solar panels on the workshop of his farm, and a Tesla Powerwall at home, which covers him for the periodic power outages that sweep L.A. For his next green purchase, Mr. Swan says he is eager to replace the 10 gasoline-powered pickup trucks on his farm with the electric equivalent when they hit the market. Ford’s F-150 Electric is due in 2022.

The more electric vehicles people buy, the less expensive their batteries will become, says Dr. Kahn, because manufacturers will learn how to make them more cheaply and plentifully. The past 20 years has already seen a rapid drop in the price of batteries. Big vehicles aren’t just more popular in the U.S., they also require far more batteries, so their impact on the battery market will be outsize.

Once batteries are cheap enough that the total cost of ownership of an electric vehicle is lower than that of a comparable gasoline-powered one, some people will switch just to save money. Some analysts believe that the U.S. has already crossed that threshold, but for now it seems to depend on federal tax credits.

Getting America’s hundreds of millions of suburbanites onto renewable energy and into electric vehicles—whether it’s through energy-sipping e-hatchbacks or hulking e-SUVs—is key to changing the politics of clean energy in the U.S., says Dr. Kahn.

For years, environmentalists have lobbied for a carbon tax to push people to choose renewable energy—but it’s been a political non-starter. Proponents of such a tax, he says, would be better off first encouraging people to buy EVs and install solar panels. A change in political mind-set might follow: Once they’ve reduced their own carbon footprint, people would likely be more willing to tax others who haven’t made the switch.

While the Biden administration is pushing for the U.S. to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, a goal in line with the recommendation of more than 300 leaders of some of America’s biggest companies, much depends on the preferences of the consumer. Americans tell pollsters they are interested in electric vehicles, but have so far failed to show similar interest at dealerships. (Teslas are a different story, but they’re also still just a tiny fraction of U.S. auto sales.)

By bringing batteries to the biggest vehicles, in both luxury and affordable lines, auto makers could find a way to lure people who otherwise wouldn’t give a plug-in car a second glance.

The pandemic is giving a boost to demand for both SUVs and EVs, and for the same reason, says Andreas Nienhaus, a partner at Oliver Wyman specializing in the global automotive industry. People are switching from mass transit to personal vehicles, especially large ones, because they provide a feeling of safety.

Similarly, consumers’ renewed interest in protecting the environment seems linked to concerns about health and safety, he adds. In spring 2020, 34% of respondents to an Oliver Wyman survey said they would be willing to buy an electric vehicle; in March 2021, that figure was 51%. Similar increases were in evidence all across the globe, with interest in EVs roughly doubling in China, France, Germany and the U.K.

For his part, Mr. Dykes, the Wyoming oilman, plans to attach a snowplow to his electric Hummer and use it to get up and down the mountain road leading to one of his homes outside Denver. Despite nearly four decades in the fossil-fuel industry, a love of combustion engines and a skepticism of every previous EV on offer, he’s sanguine about the future of both renewable energy and electric-powered transportation.

“We all know electric cars are going to come,” says Mr. Dykes. “My grandchildren—I told ’em to get out of the oil business by 2050.”


Write to Christopher Mims at