Updated Sep 28, 2019

How the world's cities will drive electric vehicle adoption

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The U.S. vehicle market could finally be going electric — and faster than you might think.

What's happening: While California and the Trump administration go to war over the state's right to set its own tailpipe emissions standards, large cities are taking steps to curb pollution and corporate giants like Amazon are launching their own green agendas.

Why it matters: EVs have been slow to catch on in the U.S. so far, and an anti-regulatory environment in Washington certainly isn't likely to change that. But in traffic-choked cities where greenhouse gas emissions are concentrated, momentum is building for cleaner urban fleets.

What we're seeing: Cities around the world are taking steps...

  • New York City is getting ready to impose the country's first congestion pricing program as a way to regulate traffic, control emissions, and raise capital for infrastructure.
  • London's congestion zone is also a clear air space, where older pollution-spewing vehicles are not allowed. Many companies have opted to upgrade their fleets rather than pay the charges.
  • In China, megacity Shenzhen passed a draft policy that will require all future ride-hailing vehicles be electric. U.S. and European cities could easily do the same.
  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's version of a Green New Deal would require 80% of vehicles to be electric by 2035. As part of the plan, the city's own bus fleet would go electric by 2030.
“With flames on our hillsides and floods in our streets, cities cannot wait another moment to confront the climate crisis with everything we’ve got.”
Eric Garcetti, in HuffPost

Corporate giants are getting more aggressive, too. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last week unveiled sweeping new energy and climate plans, including an order for 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian, a Michigan-based EV startup in which it is an investor.

  • “What Jeff Bezos did last week was one of the most important pivot points in tech and climate we’ve ever seen," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas tells Axios.
  • It will only put pressure on other companies to follow suit, he says.
  • FedEx is adding 1,000 electric delivery vehicles to its fleet, and UPS has deployed a similar number as part of a rolling lab for alternative fuel trucks.
  • "For years, sustainability was about doing the right thing. Now, by not doing it, you're losing business," Jonas adds.

Yes, but: Corporate commitments like Amazon's (or Google's biggest renewable power buy announced that same day) won't save the planet because climate change is happening too fast, Axios' Ben Geman writes.

  • A newly updated analysis of thousands of these efforts by states, cities and companies found they can help, but they don't replace the need for stronger national-level emissions policies.

They could help tilt the market toward EVs, though, especially in dense cities.

  • EVs make sense for corporate fleet operators in urban areas where routes are shorter and more predictable.

The bottom line: Fleets and cities will drive EV adoption more than retail consumers and federal standards, Morgan Stanley said in a note.

Go deeper: Volkswagen makes its move in the electric vehicle race

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