Electric Vehicles: Pros and Cons Through a Distributive Justice Lens

It’s obvious that electric vehicles (EV) are an inevitable part of the future of transportation. In fact, it’s predicted that EVs will replace gas vehicles by 2040. At first, it may be hard to imagine what’s not to like about electric vehicles: better mileage, less maintenance, better for the environment, less money spent on gas, an increase in charging stations, and the list goes on. These are all great reasons to love electric vehicles, but unfortunately, the positives may outweigh the costs, quite literally, for certain vulnerable populations. 

When thinking about how certain aspects of society might impact a vulnerable group of people, this is called using a distributive justice lens. An understanding that opportunities, access to resources, and rights and liberties are equitable is a key proponent of distributive justice. In the case of EVs, a huge population of the U.S. is often forgotten: those living in poverty. 

First, check out the graph below that spells out how households with varying levels of income spend money on vehicles₁. Keep in mind that the poverty line for a family of four in the U.S. is $26,500 in household income. Another important thought: one cannot apply for assistance through social support programs if you are above that income. 

Notice how much of a percent of income is spent towards transportation for families that are making less than $25,000 annually, and even between $20,000 and $50,000. From the graph above, it’s easy to see that households with more money have both more money to spend on a vehicle and end up spending less of their annual income on a car. For example, the average purchase cost of an EV is estimated to be $10,000 more than a gas vehicle; that is a price tag that is much too high for people living in poverty. 

To make it abundantly clear that electric vehicles are more concentrated amongst those with the highest income, consider that the amount of households that own a Tesla is 15 times higher in the top 20% earning zip codes than the bottom 20% earning zip codes. While tax cuts and reimbursements are a positive incentive, it is not feasible to families living in poverty, who cannot wait to have that money reimbursed or do not have the money to spend up front regardless. 

What’s more, while annual costs are less to charge an electric car than to fill a gas tank, this isn’t always necessarily the case. First of all, while charging stations are generally more expensive than charging at home, many people simply cannot afford the spike in electric bills. Plus, this cost difference depends a lot on where you live. For example, those who live in colder or rural areas and own EVs will need to account for temperatures affecting battery life, poorly operated electricity grids that rely solely on fossil fuels for power, and equivalent prices for electric charging and gas. The heaviest concentrations of this disparity are in the Midwest, Alaska, and Hawaii, while households that are both impoverished and in these areas will likely end up spending more on electric vehicles when all is said and done. 

However, there is some hope in regards to making electric vehicles more accessible and affordable to all types of people. Though, this is quite far off, as researchers don’t see EVs average purchase cost decreasing significantly until around 2030 or beyond. Still, there’s hope that EVs could actually become more affordable than their gasoline counterparts for at-purchase costs. By this time, there is hope that there will be more entry-level electric vehicles rather than the current dominating luxury class, as well as used EVs that will be on the market. Additionally, while it’s clear that pollution is worse in areas that are impacted by poverty, adding more EVs to these areas could ultimately benefit these populations by decreasing the amount of greenhouse gasses and polluted air over time. 

While there’s certainly hope for EVs to change our world for the better, it’s imperative that this type of transportation becomes accessible to all, and quickly at that. 

  1. Bauer, G., Hsu, C.-W., & Lutsey, N. (2021). When might lower-income drivers benefit from electric vehicles? Quantifying the economic equity implications of electric vehicle adoption. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/EV-equity-feb2021.pdf