America’s automakers are going electric, but you shouldn’t. Not yet.
To be clear, if your lifestyle necessitates a car, you should plan to buy an electric car. Eventually.
Electric vehicles will eventually be equal to or better than gasoline-powered cars in nearly every way. Switching to electricity for our transportation needs will slow the horrors of climate change and even pay foreign policy dividends. And electric cars will be your only option before long.
But the longer you can wait, the better electric cars and the infrastructure to support them will be. And there are excellent arguments for the idea that the best thing you can do for the environment is to not contribute to building another car until you have to.
Also read: What California’s ban on gas cars could mean for you—even if you don’t live there
We’re in the early days, and the early days are bad
The first running, gasoline-powered car built in America appeared in 1893. By the late 1920s, the industry matured, with a mostly-stable set of manufacturers and recognizable technologies from car to car. You could drive from one city to another and rely on finding fuel and qualified mechanics who knew how your car worked.
In between? It was a mess.
Manufacturers came and went by the dozen every year. Automakers were often regionally famous — you could buy a Davis in Indiana, but if you busted the oil pan like Pa Joad while driving through Illinois, you were out of luck. They only had Coey-Mitchell and Eldredge automobiles there.
Cars ran on different fuels, which you couldn’t reliably find everywhere. Early gas stations required you to draw fuel from huge above-ground tanks and carry it to your car in a watering can.
Hand-cranked starters backfired and broke drivers’ arms so often that doctors called the injury a “chauffeur’s fracture.”
Things aren’t quite as rough for the owners of the first electric cars today. But there are significant parallels between that time and ours.
Check out: Four valuable lessons I learned taking a road trip in an electric car
The infrastructure will get better
Imagine if different car brands built gas-tank filler holes in different shapes. Imagine if each gas station had nozzles to fit into one or two brands, but no gas station had them all.
That’s what electric car charging is like at the moment. Tesla
plugs come in one shape. Hyundai
Ioniq 5 plugs come in another. Older electric Kia
Soul models use a third. Cars that use one type of charging station can’t use the other. Some Nissan
Leaf EVs even come with two different charging ports to maximize the chances their owners will be able to use more of the chargers they come across.
Those chargers are unpredictable, too. In one recent study, 72% of EV owners said they’d recently come across a nonworking charger.
But electric cars today make up less than 3% of the vehicles on American roads. That number is rapidly growing.
Adoption won’t be linear. It will snowball. One recent study found 5% is a crucial tipping point. Once 5% of new car sales are electric, 25% will arrive quickly.
Many of these problems will snowball as adoption does, forcing the industry to solve them. Chargers will grow more reliable as the user base — and the complaints — increase.
The industry may even be forced to adopt a single charging port. After all, every gas-powered car sold today uses the same gas pump nozzle. That didn’t happen until economies of scale made it necessary.
It hasn’t happened for EVs yet.
Read: The pros and cons of plug-in hybrids and your guide to buying one
The service will get better
If you buy a gas-powered Nissan, you know where to take it for repairs. You can bring it to a Nissan dealership or an independent repair shop. Either one can easily get the parts they need.
If you buy an electric Nissan Leaf or Ariya, Nissan’s nationwide dealership network can still handle repairs. But those independent shops? Few have invested the time and money in training technicians to service an electric car.
And what happens when you buy from an electric car startup without local dealerships?
Some, like Rivian
send technicians to you. But if you need a repair that the tech folks can’t perform in your driveway, they have to tow your car to the nearest service center, which can be hundreds of miles away. In Rivian’s case, they charge you for the trip, too.
Others are still working on a solution. Startup Lordstown Motors
hopes to use Camping World
stores as service centers.
All of this will get better. Some startups will go the way of Coey-Mitchell and the Davis Motor Company. Local repair shops will adapt to fix EVs as that skill becomes a competitive necessity. The parts delivery networks those shops depend on will eventually supply everything needed to fix an aging Kia EV6 SUV when there are aging Kia EV6 SUVs.
But not yet.
Also see: Does driving an electric car really save you money? A cheapskate runs the numbers
The cars will get better
Another thing about those early cars — they weren’t very good. It took a few decades for the market to sort out the best ideas and engineers to solve the problems that made cars inconvenient.
The same will likely be true of the early electric cars.
Already, newer EVs are dramatically better than just a few years ago.
For instance, first-generation EVs like the Hyundai Kona electric car were designed to handle a gasoline powertrain and retrofitted to work with electricity.
Second-generation EVs, like the Hyundai Ioniq 5, sold next to it in the same dealerships, were designed from the ground up as electric cars.
The Kona EV has a transmission tunnel down the center of the car, even though electric cars don’t use transmissions. The Ioniq 5 is more spacious because it has a flat floor.
What will third-generation EVs be like? They may make even more dramatic leaps. Toyota
and Nissan say they are a few years from perfecting solid-state batteries that charge faster, provide longer ranges, and weigh less than the lithium-ion cells of today’s EVs. If manufacturers perfect solid-state battery technology, today’s EVs will look like flip phones in the smartphone era.
Keeping your car may be better for the climate
Finally, there’s the environmental argument.
If you must buy a new car, buying an electric one will do more to fight climate change than buying another gas-powered car. But, must you buy a new car?
The carbon dioxide that comes out of your car’s tailpipe is just a tiny fraction of the CO2 created by your car. Most of the emissions caused by a new car come from the manufacturing process. Multiple studies have concluded the best way we can cut carbon emissions is to build cars as rarely as possible.
Buying an EV to cut your carbon emissions is like spending $10,000 on a program that will save you a dollar a week.
Going electric now means volunteering to own one of the early electric cars at a time when the infrastructure to support them is sketchy, and EV technology is experiencing growing pains. Buying one in just a few years could get you a better car when the infrastructure to support it is more mature.
Also on MarketWatch: U.S. tosses 300 lbs. of plastic per person annually. Why we’re getting worse at recycling.
You fund the production of much less carbon by keeping your existing car than by replacing it.
Going electric will probably make sense when you need to replace your existing car. But don’t do it before you have to.
This story originally ran on Autotrader.com.