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Amazon’s big move on electric vehicles

By Matt Casale
Director, 21st Century Transportation Campaign

Image credit: Atomic Taco, Flickr.com


Last week, Amazon, the online retail and delivery giant, announced plans to purchase 100,000 electric delivery vans to go into service between 2021 and 2024. When I first read the news, I had to count the zeroes. Then I went to another source just to confirm it was right. 


I’m a clean transportation advocate. I’ve been calling for the transition to electric fleets for some time now. Still, I was surprised. When we’re talking about electric vehicle fleets, 100,000 is a big number. 


To put it in perspective, a little more than 500 electric buses are currently on the road in the U.S. . And that’s after a 29 percent increase in the last year alone. Of course, electrifying Amazon’s delivery fleet and electrifying our school and transit bus fleets involve some different challenges, but Amazon’s announcement highlights the differences in ambition and expectations. No transit agency or school district in the national has 100,000 vehicles in their fleet. The largest, New York Metro, has around 4,000 buses (to be fair to them, they have started the transition and committed to electrifying their entire fleet by 2040). If Amazon can pledge to have 100,000 electric vans by 2024, why can’t our transit agencies and school districts also pledge to electrify their fleets by the 2030s?


When it comes to personal travel, Americans are doing a little better adopting electric vehicles --  but not by much. There were 208,000 new registrations for electric vehicles in the U.S. last year, more than double the number in 2017. An estimated more than 350,000 new EVs will be sold in the U.S. in 2020 but that still only represents a tiny 2 percent of the cars in the U.S.


Why only 2 percent? One of the reasons personal electric vehicle adoption hasn’t been faster is because, in a lot of places, we don’t yet have the charging infrastructure necessary to accommodate larger scale adoption. Often, people want to switch to an EV, but they don’t know how to make it work because they don’t have widespread access to charging. In 2018, we released a report with Environment America called Plugging In, which found that American cities needed to drastically increase available charging infrastructure. 


These 100,000 delivery vans are going to require a lot of new charging stations. Amazon could make it a little easier for Americans to switch to electric vehicles if they install these chargers in convenient locations and open them up to public or semi-public use. I’m an EV owner myself, and while most of my trips are easily doable on my Nissan Leaf’s range, there are times when range anxiety is a very real feeling. Every new public charger out in the world makes a difference. 


That said, Amazon’s pledge reflects the urgency with which we need to be pursuing the transition to electric vehicles. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation. If we want any chance of addressing climate change and staving off its worst effects, then we have to speed up this process. Cars, trucks and heavy duty vehicles comprise the vast majority of the transportation sector’s carbon footprint. The internal combustion engine is literally driving climate change.


Vehicle exhaust isn’t just bad for the planet, it’s also really bad for human health. If gas-powered cars didn’t have complicated exhaust systems, the fumes we breathe while driving them would actually kill us. Instead of killing drivers directly, those fumes end up polluting our air. They cause widespread respiratory disease. They make childhood asthma worse, and they contribute to the skyrocketing cancer rates in the U.S. 


Amazon’s pledge is not insignificant. Amazon delivery vans drive an estimated millions of miles every year. The effects of those emissions are very real and are felt by all of us. Switching those to miles driven by zero-emissions vehicles is a huge net positive. That’s great, and Amazon deserves credit for that. 


But, here’s hoping Amazon will do even more. The company has taken a valuable first step, but they should also invest in public or semi-public charging stations. To fully lead on this issue, every bit helps.   

 

 

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