Will President Biden permanently change America's relationship with the car?
His plans to decarbonise American society and speed up a high-speed rail revolution stateside could change the way Americans travel forever
Like many Americans across multiple generations, Joe Biden really likes his cars. The 46th President of the United States of America's prized possession is a gorgeous green Chevrolet Corvette, which he still refuses to give up despite not being able to drive it himself for 8 years whilst he was Vice-President under the Obama administration and not being able to yet again currently under his own presidency (US Presidents are not allowed to drive their own cars on the public road for security reasons). Whilst he may love his classic Americana, President Biden isn't dismissive of the future.
Whilst he may be perceived as a moderate in terms of American politics, his plans to decarbonise the American economy and particularly the American car industry are anything but. President Biden wants to get on the way to solving one of America's biggest problems; its addiction to incredibly polluting vehicles. Transportation produces more greenhouse gases in America than anything else (28.9%), followed closely by power generation (25.2%) and industry (22.8%). This is a stark contrast a lot of other western countries, where transportation typically produces far less greenhouse gas emissions than power generation and industry. Furthermore, only 2% of new cars sold in America last year were plug-in electric vehicles. This is opposed to 6.6% in the UK and 18% across the European Union. With vehicle miles going up and up in America (46% since 1990!) and EV adoption staying as low as it is, this could pose a real problem with greenhouse gas emissions stateside.
It's clear to see, then, that the land of the free has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to reducing emissions from vehicles on the road. Biden's massive $2 trillion American Jobs Plan includes $35 million set aside for research and development into "the full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis and position America as the global leader in clean-energy technology and clean-energy jobs". This would include new methods for reducing America's emissions and improving "climate resilience", as well as "projects for energy storage, carbon capture and storage, rare earth element separations, floating offshore wind, biofuel/bioproducts, quantum computing and electric vehicles". It's fairly safe to assume that at least some of those "electric vehicles" will be the next generation of American-made EVs being developed by Ford, General Motors, Tesla, Rivian and several other manufacturers.
Of course, you can't just push manufacturers to develop, manufacture and sell electric vehicles without having the proper infrastructure in place to make sure that going electric is a viable option for a typical American family. This is something that the Biden administration has thought of, as it's providing funding to create a proper electric vehicle infrastructure across America for the first time ever. A network of 500,000 charging points all across the country is being planned, something which theoretically could finally allow proper cross-country travel in America using electric vehicles and make owning an EV stateside a hell of a lot less of a pain.
Car manufacturers are certainly a fan of Biden's new electric vehicle proposals. Chief among those who are openly embracing an electric future is Biden's beloved General Motors, who in 2018 announced a future vision of "a world of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion" that didn't sit well at all with the Trump administration at the time. "All electric is not going to work . . . it’s wonderful to have it as a percentage of your cars, but going into this model I think is a mistake," Trump told Fox News at the time. 3 years later (and 9 days after Biden's inauguration), GM re-affirmed this stance by announcing a clear timeline that stated that it would cease production of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035. GM also has plans to turn Cadillac into an all-electric luxury brand to rival Tesla, something which we'll see the first fruits of in 2023 with the incredibly striking Lyriq SUV.
It's not just electric vehicles that have caught Biden's eye when it comes to making America's travel greener. Biden, as well as several of his inner circle including transport secretary Pete Buttgeig, is very keen on making high-speed rail travel mainstream in America. Whilst there already is some high-speed rail in the US and rail travel is fairly commonplace in the northeast (Biden himself used to regularly take a 90-minute commute by train to Washington, DC from his home in Wilmington, Delware when he was a US Senator), in many other parts of America rail travel is either woefully underdeveloped or completely non-existent. Many Americans have never even been on a train before in their lives, let alone have a passenger train line that runs through their town!
This is something that Biden's American Jobs Plan wants to solve, dedicating $85 million of its $2 trillion total to developing mass transit systems across America. This $85 million will absolutely include the development of new high-speed rail, although what exact form that high-speed rail will take is currently unknown. There have been talks of European and Japanese contractors coming on board to supply high-speed rail technology to America, as well as research into the viability of more radical methods of rail-based travel such as maglevs and the hyperloop system. "You and your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas onboard a high-speed train," Biden said at the launch of the American Jobs Plan to try and sell regular Americans to the idea of his high-speed rail revolution.
However, even in the post-Trump world, these new investments aren't without their detractors. Whilst Republicans are traditionally favourable to 'roads and bridges' investments in America's infrastructure, they are pretty vocally opposed to decarbonising America's economy, industry and transportation. Huge investments in electric vehicles and rail travel are not easy sells to congress, especially considering many of its members have very conservative attitudes to these proposed investments. "I’m going to fight them every step of the way, because I think this is the wrong prescription for America," America's Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said in regards to the American Jobs Plan. "That package that they’re putting together now, as much as we would like to address infrastructure, is not going to get support from our side." Ouch.
If everything goes ahead as the Biden administration wants it to, what would be the upshot of these investments in electric vehicles and high-speed rail in America? Well, it would completely change America's relationship with the car as we know it. An America which leans more towards rail travel for commuting and long-distance journeys and embraces a future that prefers electric motors to V8 motors would be a very different place. Whilst many aspects of American car culture would likely still remain, perhaps Americans would be more environmentally conscious about their choice of wheels or even, in a country where it could be easier to travel between cities by high-speed rail, become less enamoured with the prospect of car ownership altogether?
Of course, it's hard to say at this point. Predicting the future is notoriously difficult. What is for certain though is that the way Americans travel would change forever. A lot of Americans probably won't like it, but that's the case with any kind of major societal change in any country. We won't know how huge that change could be until we actually get to the point where it happens.