E-bikes are the new EVs

posted: Novemer 19, 2022

tl;dr: The electric-powered vehicle that most will own in the future will have two wheels, not four...

At the risk of making predictions that will look stupid in ten to twenty years, I’m going on record now by stating that four-wheeled electric vehicles (EVs) will never be cheap enough or plentiful enough to be a direct substitute for the internal combustion engine (ICE) automobile. There is, however, an electric-powered mode of transportation that will become more ubiquitous than the ICE car: the e-bike.

This is not as bold a prediction as it may seem. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled The Hottest New Car on the Market Is an E-bike which stated that “last year [2021], in fact, Americans bought nearly double the amount of motorized two-wheelers than they did fully electric cars.” So I’m only stating that the status quo is going to continue. The reasoning behind my prediction, however, is more substantial than that.

Politicians, as is their wont, are pitching a relatively painless transition to a wonderful ICE-free future that is not too far away. California just banned the sale of new ICE cars by 2035, with other states expected to follow suit. Billions of dollars are being spent to subsidize new EV purchases and on charging station infrastructure. A U.S. senator from Michigan recently attracted attention when she described how she was able to avoid high gasoline prices by driving her new EV from Michigan to Washington, D.C. “A chicken for every pot and two EVs in every garage” is what they are promising. How realistic is this?

The driver's side profile of a futuristic, low-slung, gray, four door sedan with red tail lights built into the side of the rear of the vehicle, on a smooth, polished gray stone floor, with a gray wall in the background

A $300,000 Cadillac?

EVs in the United States all cost more than equivalent ICE automobiles. Furthermore, EV prices are currently rising faster than ICE prices, due to shortages of the key materials that go into EVs. Ford recently raised the price of its base model F-150 Lightning Pro truck from $41,769 for the 2022 model year to $53,769 for the 2023 model. Cadillac is working on a new top-of-the-line luxury EV that is rumored to cost $300,000. To put those numbers into context for future readers, who may be reading this after years of high inflation, median household income in the U.S. was $70,784 in 2021. The hope among EV advocates is that prices will come down (or rise less rapidly) as volumes increase. To be fair, most EV manufacturers are going after the high end of the car market first: the “EV for the masses” in the U.S. has yet to be unveiled. But there are fundamental issues with EVs that will prevent them from going down the same cost curve that computers and televisions have undergone.

Moore’s Law is the exception, not the rule: most technologies do not halve in price every 18 months. Battery technology advances at the pace of the materials science profession, not the computer science profession. Yes batteries are better now than when I was a kid, but nowhere near to the same degree that computers are better. Perhaps someone in the near future will invent a radically inexpensive, safe, energy-dense battery by mixing together two plentiful materials, such as sand and salt water, but it seems doubtful. In the meantime, to put two EVs in every garage, we have to extract huge amounts of the materials that currently go into lithium-ion EV batteries: graphite, cobalt, lithium, manganese, and nickel. Plus lots of copper, for the wiring inside the EV and the charging infrastructure. Plus lots of materials for whatever non-carbon-emitting sources are going to generate the electricity for the EVs: solar panels, windmills, nuclear, geothermal, hydropower.

The extraction industries are politically disfavored. Young people seem much more motivated to become environmental activists and lawyers to fight the extraction industries than to work in those industries. There’s no getting around the fact that mining is a dirty business that disturbs the local environment. Coal mining and fossil fuel extraction are particularly nasty because not only is the product mined from the ground but it is also burned and pollutes the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses. Yet even though copper is needed in EVs and the wires that deliver power to EVs, few people are clamoring to have a new copper mine open up in their town. A major new lithium deposit was recently discovered in Maine, but it may never be tapped because doing so in an economically-viable way would violate state law.

E-bikes, by contrast, are much cheaper than EVs because the batteries are so much smaller. We wouldn’t have to mine nearly as much material to put two e-bikes, or even four, into every garage. Yes, an e-bike does not have nearly the same utility as an EV, and can only be used in decent weather, so it is not a direct substitute. Given that, what do I think the future looks like if ICEs are outlawed?

The very wealthy will be able to afford multiple EVs, same as they can today with their collections of high-end ICE cars. The further down the income scale a family is, the less likely they will be a multi-car household. Many families will have to get by with one EV. That’s where e-bikes can provide transportation for shorter trips in decent weather. More people will be working from home, so there will be less need to commute. When the weather is bad, people will just stay in their homes until they can make a trip in the family’s one EV. Because EVs will be expensive, there will be more options to rent an EV for a longer trip or take an EV taxi for a short trip. Lots of people will have to get by without an EV. They will rely upon public transportation, e-bikes, and rented EVs for occasional trips. I’ll save my prediction on whether the EVs will be self-driving for another day.

Is this a dystopian future? Not at all. I just don’t think it is quite the rosy picture that our politicians are painting for us today.