Auto Show revved up electric cars; lawmakers can accelerate market

If you've ever been to the Chicago Auto Show, odds are you would tell your friends it's a lot of fun. Shiny new car models are everywhere with manufacturers showing off the best and most innovative they have to offer. This year was no exception and automakers also touted the newest roster of electric vehicles, too.

You don't have to be an environmentalist to love electric cars. They're clean, quiet, tech savvy and fun to drive. For many models, the acceleration feels more like a rocket ship than an automobile. Even the Super Bowl this year featured expensive ads on EVs from three carmakers.

While electric cars tend to be slightly more expensive upfront than gasoline-powered cars, they're cheaper long term because of savings on gas and maintenance. EVs are better for the environment than traditional cars that run on fossil fuel. But the driving experience equals the benefits for the planet, and that's why most drivers will want to buy them.

The prices for EVs are coming down and the range is going up, making them a more viable option for suburban drivers. Car manufacturers are selling a wider variety of electric cars that are more affordable and have batteries with longer range than the earliest models. For example, the all-electric 2020 Chevrolet Bolt has a 259-mile range on a single charge and starts at $36,600. In addition, EV buyers are eligible for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits, depending on the model.

But we still need state and local elected officials to take steps to help the market develop. Legislators should fund the buildout of a robust EV charging infrastructure so drivers can reliably recharge at public places and along highways. Employers should consider adding charging stations to worker parking lots. And we need apartment owners to install stations.

The good news: all these efforts are already underway in Illinois.

• Last June, the Illinois legislature earmarked $70 million from the Build Illinois Bond Fund for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to use for transportation electrification infrastructure projects, including development of EV charging networks.

• The Illinois EPA has designated a portion of the $108 million Volkswagen Settlement funding for electrification. This includes funds for EV school buses and charging infrastructure.

Chicago and Illinois lawmakers are offering other legislative solutions that include:

• Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner introduced a "Right to Charge" EV bill in January that would require new construction or renovation of condominium buildings have 30% of the parking spaces with electrical wiring included in the infrastructure to easily install charging stations. A similar bill introduced by Rep. Robyn Gabel also includes rental buildings.

• Chicago Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) recently reintroduced a city ordinance that requires new condominium buildings with more than 5 dwelling units to have electrical wiring for EV charging stations available for 20% of onsite parking spaces. The same 20% availability would be required for new commercial parking lots with 50 or more spaces.

These initiatives and others like them are essential to encourage more drivers to switch to clean EVs. As more people seek to reduce their personal impact on climate change, we need to make it easier to own an EV.

Some of us still remember thinking, who would ever buy a cell phone? Now they're an essential part of everyday life. We're used to going to the gas station and filling up, but really, is that better than coming home from work and plugging your car into a charging unit overnight?

Moreover, the computer system in your car will figure out when it's cheapest to charge and do the work for you. The Chicago Auto Show was the perfect opportunity to check out these great new cars. It showed the future is already within reach.

Rob Kelter is senior attorney for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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