While the primary focus of discussion these days is how to decarbonize transportation and the pace of market expansion for electric vehicles, we must not forget that access to reliable and affordable transportation is a key factor for economic opportunity. To that end, one of the hurdles new transportation technologies must overcome is cost – not just of the vehicles, but in comparison to other modes of transportation. Today, the relatively low price of gasoline and robust used car market (40.8 million sold in 2019) provides an affordable option for personal transportation. For electric vehicles to reach mass adoption, not only will they have to present the best value they will have to seem more economically attractive than low prices at the pump.
The importance of money is dismissed by some as an argument of the wealthy and materialistic, but in reality, it is essential to survival – nothing is free, despite what this song says. The original version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” was released by Barrett Strong in 1959 and was co-written by Berry Gordy, founder of Motown. However, it has been covered more than 60 times (by artists like the Beatles, the Supremes, Buddy Guy and The Flying Lizards) since its release, because its message resonates. I guarantee everyone reading this has heard some version of this song.
The best things in life are free
But you can keep 'em for the birds and bees;
Now give me money, (that's what I want) that's what I want,
(That's what I want) That's what I want (That's what I want) yeah,
That's what I want.
I apply this song to the transportation market because it is extremely relevant. Over years of consumer surveys, NACS has found that price is the primary factor determining where a driver will refuel and the majority of drivers say they will go out of their way (i.e., drive up to five minutes) to save five cents per gallon. Price matters and the U.S. is well positioned for relatively low prices at the pump. This serves consumer their needs quite well as 99% of the vehicles on the road at the end of 2020 were liquid-fuel powered – gasoline, diesel, flex-fuel and traditional hybrid electric. Without fuel, these vehicles do not move – and due to a variety of factors, this fuel is affordable.
U.S. Energy Security Supports Affordabiltiy
The supply situation in the U.S. has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. In 2000, the United States imported more than 60% of the oil it processed through its refineries and about 50% of that came from OPEC. By 2020, imports represented only 41% of refinery inputs and OPEC’s share had dropped to 14%. Who took over the position of top oil supplier to the U.S.? Canada. During this time frame, Canada increased its oil exports to the U.S. from 1.3 million barrels per day to 3.6 million and increased its share of U.S. imports from 15% to 61%. During the first decade of the 21st century, one of the critical policy objectives was to become energy independent – it appears the U.S. made some pretty good progress and was even able to increase its exports of crude oil, gasoline and distillate fuel.
Pump Prices Have Been Relatively Low
Has greater energy independence significantly affected the cost of transportation fuels? If we take a look at crude oil spot prices over the past 20 years, it would appear there is some relationship between the increase in the U.S. supplying crude oil to the global market and a decline in the average spot price for crude oil. Whether this a causal relationship or coincidental is difficult to determine – there are too many variables that affect the price of crude oil and linking anything to just one can be very misleading.
But ultimately, the consumer does not purchase crude oil – they purchase gasoline and diesel fuel. Affordability of these products is critical to the economic wellbeing of the nation, but what price is affordable? This a very difficult question to answer because the variables of what is affordable for one consumer may be significantly different from those of another. However, through five years of monthly consumer surveys, NACS discovered that the price at which a consumer would feel compelled to dramatically change how much they drive or seek alternatives to driving was typically significantly higher than the price they were currently paying. This does not mean that the price they were paying was affordable, but it was rarely sufficient to force a significant change in behavior.
With that background, what has been going on through the first half of 2021? Oil prices have hovered around the 20-year average, rising slightly above this level around the middle of April. Retail fuel prices, both gasoline and diesel, however, have trended consistently higher than the 20-year average. This is likely the combined result of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown and the transition to summer grade gasoline, which always adds to the retail price of fuel.
The 20-year average hides the seasonal volatility in retail prices. When we look at the path of retail prices throughout a given year, the traditional seasonal variability becomes apparent. With only one notable exception, retail prices have historically increased during the first half of the year and then declined in the second half. The exception was 2020 when the pandemic caused a significant drop in demand and subsequent reduction in prices in the first half of the year.
New Options May Address Interests, but Must Be More Affordable
The U.S. is no longer as reliant upon foreign suppliers for the resources necessary to power its transportation fleet and retail prices have not compelled consumers to abandon their personally owned combustion vehicles, even when those prices are elevated. It would seem that the current transportation system is satisfying the mobility and economic needs of consumers. But governments and advocates the world over have turned their attention away from the economics of transportation to the environmental implications, hence the intense momentum behind the pursuit of a zero carbon transportation solution.
There are a variety of challenges standing in front of this effort, many of which are being addressed in the form of more affordable zero tailpipe emissions vehicles, more available and diverse options, expanding infrastructure and government incentives to encourage consumers to transition to new powertrain options. The remaining hurdle is compulsion.
Technology can evolve and government can encourage behavioral change and these new options may resonate with personal interests of some consumers, but unless the average consumer sees a dramatic improvement in their way of life or in their financial situation, they are unlikely to rush to a new vehicle platform. If the liquid fuels market is providing a convenient and affordable means of travel, their innate interest in trying something new may be insufficient to achieve the objectives of some leaders.
Your lovin' give me such a thrill,
But your lovin' don't pay my bills;
Money don't get everything it's true,
What it don't get I can't use;
For electric vehicles to really gain the attention of the consumer, they must provide equivalent convenience to the consumer and offer tangible and indisputable financial advantage. Both are necessary to compel the masses to adopt the new technology. And even if these new vehicles and their associated infrastructure are able to satisfy those needs and compel consumers to make the switch, it is going to take a very long time to replace 99% of the more than 257 million light duty vehicles currently serving the American population.
Until then, it is incumbent upon the government and industry to care for and manage the liquid fuels supply and distribution system to continue delivering reliable and affordable transportation energy to consumers in every community in the country – it is critical to support economic opportunities throughout the nation.
Well, now give me money, (That's what I want)
A lotta money, (That's what I want)
Wo, yeah, You need money (That's what I want)
Gimme money, (That's what I want)
That's what I want (That's what I want)
That's what I want.