The dream of the automobile on the open road has long been integral to the US psyche. For many low-income and underrepresented groups, though, automobiles have been symptomatic of decades of inequality — different systems for loans and borrowing, suspicion and contempt from law enforcement, and generational inability to transfer wealth. As the era of the electric vehicle (EV) enters mainstream US society, however, automotive inequity need not continue.
In fact, in the same way that consumer demand is reshaping the automotive industry through heightened expectations, so, too, can the transition to EVs recreate what it means to purchase, own, and drive on US roads across demographic groups.
Such a cultural shift needs to start with examining the ways that cars have always been accessed, sold, and regulated. Incremental changes have the potential to produce wide-ranging results.
For the first time, the average monthly auto loan payment is over $700, which does not include insurance or maintenance costs. Subprime lending and longer loan terms of up to 84 months have resulted in a doubling of auto loan debt over the last decade, and a notable surge in the number of drivers who are “upside down”— owing more money than their cars are worth.
But the pain is not evenly distributed. Financing companies often charge nonwhite consumers higher interest rates than white consumers, as do insurers. Moreover, despite widespread criticism of the flimsy pretexts used to justify traffic stops and the increasing availability of cellphone or police body cam videos, the most recent data shows that the number of deaths from police-driver interactions is almost as high as it has been over the past 5 years.
A nationally representative 2022 survey of 8,027 Americans shows that across all racial demographics, overall interest in purchasing electric vehicles is high. Among those surveyed, 33% of white respondents, 38% of Black respondents, 43% of Latinos, and 52% of Asian Americans say they would “definitely” or “seriously consider” purchasing or leasing an EV as their next vehicle. The survey was conducted by Consumer Reports, with input from GreenLatinos, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and EVNoire.
For such EV ownership to expand across all racial demographics, automotive inequity needs to be acknowledged, assessed, and addressed.
Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt, and Carcerality by Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross examines how the costs of car ownership and use are deeply intertwined with racialization and poverty. They describe how US consumer lore has held the automobile to be a “freedom machine,” securing the autonomy of citizens. The authors also argue that, paradoxically, the car has entrapped and immobilized the poorest people in the US.
Wait, you exclaim. That’s hyperbole. It’s an overstatement, too convoluted to play out in actual data analysis. Right?
Cars and Jails is based on peer-reviewed research — written by experts and reviewed by several other experts in the field before the findings were published. The authors chronicle how auto debt, traffic fines, over-policing, and automated surveillance systems work in tandem to snare and outlaw poor people.
They describe how transportation systems take their toll on populations who often cannot turn to public transport and must take out loans for cars, thus exposing themselves to predatory and often racist policing.
Violations of civil rights via the automobile, the authors state, have historically included:
- loopholes used by police officers to circumvent bars on profiling and searches;
- the uses of traffic citations to generate funding for local governments;
- the ability of debt collectors to manipulate the court system; and,
- the illegal deceptions employed by car dealers to ensnare consumers.
Newer violations in the digital age point to:
- the tyranny of the credit score;
- the expansion of data mining and scrutiny of individual conduct by government and corporations;
- the surveillance technologies built into cars; and,
- the road warrior culture of a highly militarized society oriented to fossil fuel extraction and its procurement.
Actions that Can Reduce Automotive Inequity
Livingston and Ross aren’t entirely negative in their investigation, however. The “obvious pleasure” that poor and underrepresented groups “derived from their cars” doesn’t need to any longer co-exist “with an acute awareness of the perils of driving them.” The authors examine promises of the “mobility revolution” and offer ideas for overhauling transportation justice, traffic policing, and auto financing.
Promises inherent within transportation electrification include apps, cloud-based solutions, car sharing, and autonomous driving. A supplemental New York Times article by the authors outlines how industry boosters push technological advances like on-demand transport and artificial intelligence-powered traffic cameras. Such tech proponents say that these innovations will smooth out the human errors that lead to discrimination.
The authors commend the Biden–Harris administration for the “real reductions in emissions” that are likely to happen as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act, but they also say it includes “essentially no direct incentives for public transit — by far the most effective means of decarbonizing transport.” They’re also concerned about the lack of “comprehensive policy efforts to eliminate discriminatory policing and predatory lending.”
Norms must change so that dealerships, local municipalities, and courts treat diverse EV drivers fairly, respectfully, and equitably. Otherwise, the transition from internal combustion engines to electric transportation “will do nothing to reduce car owners’ ever-growing risk of falling into legal and financial jeopardy, especially those who are poor or Black.”
In the New York Times guest essay, the authors suggest the following social changes:
- Withdraw armed police officers from traffic duties, just as they have been from parking and tollbooth enforcement in many jurisdictions;
- Introduce income-graduated traffic fines;
- Regulate auto lending with strict interest caps and steep penalties for concealing fees and add-ons and for other well-known dealership scams;
- Crack down hard on the widespread use of revenue policing; and,
- Close the back door to debtors’ prisons by ending the use of arrest warrants in debt collection cases.
“Without determined public action along these lines,” the authors argue, “technological advances often end up reproducing deeply rooted prejudices.”
Final Thoughts about Automotive Inequality
Automotive culture needs to evolve through transparency, vision, voice, and agency.
As the Washington Post reports, any map of charging stations in the US has big blank spaces coinciding with Black and Latino neighborhoods. EV advocates call them charging deserts. “If residents of the city cannot participate equitably in the EV market, that would be a failure,” said Stefan Schaffer, a strategist for the American Cities Climate Challenge at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “You want to make sure all communities can participate in the economy of the future.”
It is critical to ensure that the transition to a cleaner transportation system is just and equitable. Since desire isn’t inhibiting EV consumer adoption within underrepresented groups, then, by default, it is the obstacles to EV ownership. By understanding what these are, we can then speak out about these barriers and advocate for policy that will close the gap in actual EV purchases.
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