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Biden Administration Wants Electric Vehicles To Replace Gas Guzzlers


The Biden administration has some ideas to get gas-powered cars off the road. The government could pay people to scrap old vehicles, which happened during the Great Recession in a program called Cash for Clunkers. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: President Biden has embraced Senator Chuck Schumer's idea to pay people to turn in gas cars and buy electric ones like Cash for Clunkers, battery-powered edition. And when Josh Linn first heard about it, he was surprised.

JOSH LINN: I thought all the research, including my own, had sort of killed the idea, but it's come back.

DOMONOSKE: He's a professor at the University of Maryland, and he's one of many economists who found out that the original Cash for Clunkers just wasn't that effective. It was supposed to be an economic boost for auto companies and an eco-friendly initiative to get rid of old cars with terrible gas mileage. Every check sent a clunker to the crusher and a customer to dealership floors, at least theoretically. In fact, it did cut emissions a little, but despite spending billions of dollars...

LINN: It probably overall didn't affect total new vehicle sales all that much. Many of the people who participated in the program probably would have bought a new vehicle anyway.

DOMONOSKE: So not much bang for the taxpayer's buck. And that's the big concern about trying this tactic again, that it just won't do very much, in which case, why spend hundreds of billions of dollars on it?

SEBASTIAN CASTELLANOS: You need to consider if that money could be used for something else.

DOMONOSKE: Sebastian Castellanos is the lead researcher at the New Urban Mobility Alliance. He says why not send that cash to public transit or bikes? On the other hand, maybe a cash-for-clunkers approach could be improved by giving it a laser focus on getting rid of the cars that pollute the most. In California's San Joaquin Valley, air quality is a huge problem. So the Valley Air District is trying to get the oldest polluting-est (ph) vehicles off the road. Jerome Mayfield used to drive one of those.

JEROME MAYFIELD: '89 Chevy Silverado truck - old truck. It was raggedy (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: It was a gas hog. It often needed a jump. And no, it did not pass California's smog test. But after 25 years, it still ran. Mayfield's wife heard about the program writing big checks to get low-income drivers to chuck old clunkers like that truck. So he gave it a look. He says his truck was actually smoking a little when he drove up to find out more.

MAYFIELD: They told me that they would give me $9,500 toward the down payment of an electric car. And I said, what?

DOMONOSKE: Mayfield hadn't ever thought about electric cars, let alone thought he could afford one. But a subsidy like that made a used Nissan LEAF not just affordable but irresistible.

MAYFIELD: I got it. And it was driving so good. I was passing up all the gas stations. I didn't have to put the oil in. And all I had to do was plug it up and it charged like a cellphone. I was so happy.

DOMONOSKE: Getting Mayfield out of his raggedy old truck was a big upgrade to his life. Having a reliable vehicle is huge. And his part of the local pollution problem went from significant to zilch. Five years later, that LEAF is still zipping.

MAYFIELD: That thing is a jet.

DOMONOSKE: The pilot program in the San Joaquin Valley was so successful that it was expanded. And Linn the economist says focusing on the cars that pollute the most could make a national program more effective at fighting climate change, too. Yes, he says the original Cash for Clunkers was not an efficient use of money, but instead of giving up on it, maybe we can learn from it. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENISCUS' "DATURAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.