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This could be the impact if China's affordable EVs were sold in the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Cheap electric vehicles made in China are steadily rolling out all over the world. So far, though, they are not cruising down U.S. streets. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports on why the federal government is keeping these cars away.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Earlier this year, NPR listeners sent in their questions about EVs, and we got one that I've heard from many car shoppers before.

ARVIND SRINIVASAN: Why aren't more automakers offering smaller, cheaper electric vehicles?

DOMONOSKE: That's Arvind Srinivasan, a recent college grad and a frustrated car buyer. EVs are cheap to operate, and prices are falling, but he's totally right. There just aren't many small, cheap options, at least in the U.S., where bigger, more profitable vehicles reign supreme. I called up Srinivasan. He explained he wanted an EV to save on gas but was on a budget. He looked at new and used cars and ultimately reluctantly bought a new Chevy Bolt - less than 24,000 after a tax credit.

SRINIVASAN: It was like, OK, this car isn't great, but it's cheap. No one sells anything remotely close to its price target.

DOMONOSKE: Even that option is vanishing from lots because Chevy's not making more Bolts right now. Meanwhile, lots of Chinese-made EVs sell for 25k or less in other parts of the world - not here. I asked Srinivasan, how do you feel about that?

SRINIVASAN: I mean, personally, I'm kind of conflicted, right? Like, cheaper car - you know, as a consumer, yeah, I would buy a Chinese EV probably without question. But as a person who cares about the country, in that view, I feel like no. We should either tariff or ban them.

DOMONOSKE: The U.S. has put a tariff on these cars, a big one - 27.5%, which has been keeping them out. And bans have been proposed, too. Democrats and Republicans share Srinivasan's concern because how can a car, a good car, cost just 10 grand? That's the price tag in China for the BYD Seagull. Economist Sue Helper recently took one for a test drive in the States.

SUE HELPER: Only in a parking lot 'cause it's not street legal in the U.S. But, you know, it's impressive. It's cute. There's some places where it's clear they've saved some money, but there's also some, you know, nice features.

DOMONOSKE: Now, it would cost money to make it meet U.S. safety standards, but you could double the price, and it would still be a deal. So how's it so cheap? Helper points out, first of all, it's a very small car, a rare beast in the U.S. these days. And China has economies of scale and clever design. But also...

HELPER: The third thing is, you know, explicit financial subsidies. Then there's the whole issue of labor suppression and various parts of the supply chain that are, I think, almost certainly using forced labor.

DOMONOSKE: Human rights groups have been sounding the alarm on forced labor in China, with many companies implicated. And that's all economics, not getting into national security concerns like whether car technology could spy on Americans. Current tariffs may not keep these vehicles out forever. Volvo will sell a new Chinese-made EV in the States this summer. And if Chinese companies make cars in Mexico to ship them north tariff-free, a chorus of voices warns it could be disastrous for U.S. jobs. That is why Srinivasan, the frustrated car buyer, is so torn. Chinese automakers could hurt a key American industry.

SRINIVASAN: At some point, if we don't support U.S. auto manufacturers, they're just going to come in, undercut it. Then we're dependent on China for cheap EVs.

DOMONOSKE: That's a risk of letting Chinese EVs in. But there may be a risk to the climate to keeping them out, one I heard about from another car shopper, Bonnie Dixon, who's a scientist.

BONNIE DIXON: What I am aware of is just the great urgency of needing to reduce carbon emissions.

DOMONOSKE: She's got an older gas pickup she'd love to swap for a zero-emission car. She's wary of used cars so looking at new ones, but she works part time and is on a tight budget.

DIXON: I would have bought one if there had been an obvious EV good choice, but there wasn't really, so...

DOMONOSKE: For the sake of the planet, Dixon's first thought was, shouldn't the U.S. welcome these cheap EVs? Some climate experts say maybe not.

DEANNA NOEL: You know, it might be better for climate mitigation solutions overall to give U.S. automakers a little breathing room to compete for just a few years.

DOMONOSKE: That's Deanna Noel from the progressive group Public Citizen. She's been a climate advocate for a decade. She argues letting Chinese EVs in might cut emissions short-term, but if it shuts down factories, it could hurt long-term goals, like cleaning up the U.S. auto industry and building public support for climate action. So the climate argument for Chinese cars - it's complicated. Bonnie Dixon, the climate-minded car shopper, understands all that.

DIXON: Definitely the best solution would be if we could build them in the U.S. I mean, that's what I'm hoping - that the U.S. car manufacturers will get their act together and produce these more affordable EVs that we need.

DOMONOSKE: Automakers say they are working on it. In the meantime, their cheapest rivals are blocked out. So Dixon - she's driving her old gas pickup around. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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