- Electric vehicle manufacturers promote EVs as a sustainable solution to climate change but face PR challenges due to growing concerns over the use of their batteries.
- Our media analysis found that the batteries’ environmental impact tends to spark controversies in the media, while many publications shed light on the risks associated with over-reliance on a single source or country for essential materials.
- In addition, numerous reports raised questions about the social responsibility of the EV industry and whether the push for clean energy should come at the cost of human rights violations related to the production of batteries.
Electric vehicle manufacturers often position EVs as a key solution to combat climate change and reduce air pollution, promoting them as essential for a sustainable future.
However, they face significant PR and communications challenges when it comes to EV batteries, as concerns over their environmental impact and supply chain transparency create scepticism and public apprehension.
To see how the EV batteries debate has been unfolding in the mass media, we analysed 676 English-language articles published in the last 12 months. Here are our main findings:
1. Batteries make the media question EVs’ eco credentials
We found that the media frequently scrutinised the environmental impact of EV batteries, highlighting the challenges associated with their production, use, and disposal. Central to the debate were concerns about the mining and processing of raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, which are crucial for battery production. Reports often delved into the ecological consequences of mining these resources, touching on issues such as water pollution and habitat destruction in some producing countries.
This is what made Environmental impact the main topic in the debate:
Another facet of the environmental impact discussion was the carbon footprint associated with the manufacturing process, as well as the source of electricity used for charging EVs. The media often questioned whether electric vehicles are truly environmentally friendly, considering the potential for emissions from fossil fuel-based electricity generation.
In response to these challenges, companies often leveraged public relations strategies to emphasise their commitment to sustainability and responsible sourcing. They often highlighted their efforts in developing more sustainable battery technologies, such as solid-state batteries, or investing in research to minimise the use of scarce or problematic materials.
However, we found that car companies that showcased their initiatives in recycling managed to gain favourable media coverage.
In our research sample, Nissan and BMW secured media exposure by demonstrating EV battery reuse in large energy storage projects, while Volkswagen established a new subsidiary, PowerCo, for the procurement of raw materials for the recycling of batteries. Meanwhile, Honda partnered with US battery recycling specialist Ascend Elements to secure a steady supply of recycled lithium-ion batteries for its electric cars that it builds in the US.
2. Supply chains and resource scarcity = geopolitical tensions
Media outlets often discussed supply chain and resource scarcity issues, focusing on the potential consequences of increased demand for raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Reports frequently explored the geopolitical implications, as countries with abundant resources can gain significant influence in the global market.
Furthermore, many publications shed light on the risks associated with over-reliance on a single source or country for essential materials, which can lead to price volatility and supply disruptions.
A number of journalists noted that although Japan’s Panasonic and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution have long been the leading suppliers, Chinese makers such as CATL have steadily won market share away from Korean and Japanese rivals and have grown to dominate the world’s supply – to the point that most of the world’s electric car batteries are now made in China. That concentration puts global automakers at risk of supply chain disruptions amid escalating geopolitical tensions between the US and China.
In that context, Tesla became the most influential company in terms of media impact as it ramped up battery production in the US, which many analysts perceived as upending the hierarchy of the industry for good.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
Some journalists remarked that for Tesla the capacity to make its own batteries contributes to its operational resilience, while the small group of businesses that dominate the world’s batteries now face the same type of disruption Tesla has brought to the world of electric cars.
Other automakers have also been trying to control more of the supply chain for electric vehicles, forging new partnerships with raw materials producers and investing in facilities that make chemicals for batteries.
In our research sample, General Motors and Volkswagen, which have already been spending heavily on joint-venture factories to ensure their own supplies of electric-vehicle batteries, secured media exposure for looking to expand further as they seek to lower costs, secure sought-after components and exert more control over battery quality and performance.
Meanwhile, Ford announced several new and expanded sourcing initiatives for battery capacity and raw materials to overcome supply chain challenges.
3. Human rights issues cast doubt on the EV industry’s social responsibility
The mass media frequently highlighted human rights issues related to the production of EV batteries, emphasising the ethical concerns arising from the extraction and processing of raw materials.
In particular, reports often focused on the mining of cobalt, a critical component of many EV batteries, in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour, hazardous working conditions, and exploitation of workers have been documented. These reports raised questions about the social responsibility of the EV industry and whether the push for clean energy should come at the cost of human rights violations.
For instance, Tesla faced accusations that it tried to destabilise the Bolivian government to gain greater access to its large supply of lithium. In an infamous tweet, Musk wrote that they are going to “coup whoever they want.”
Other car companies made their commitment to ethical sourcing and labour practices central to their comms strategy – for example, General Motors, which aims to challenge Tesla‘s current EV dominance, gained positive media attention by saying it’s trying to ensure that none of its suppliers uses child or forced labour.
4. The price tag raises doubts over EVs’ benefits
As batteries are the most expensive component of EVs, many journalists discussed the costs and affordability of these vehicles, emphasising the high upfront costs and the potential impact on consumer adoption. Media reports often compared EV prices to those of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, highlighting the price disparity and questioning whether the benefits of EVs justify their premium price tags.
Additionally, the media addressed concerns about the long-term costs of EV ownership, such as battery replacement and maintenance expenses.
In their comms efforts, some car producers accentuated their measures to reduce battery costs and make EVs more affordable. They often showcased research and development investments aimed at enhancing battery technology, increasing energy density, and improving manufacturing efficiency, all of which can lead to cost reductions.
In fact, CEOs of car companies have directed their communications efforts towards addressing the costs associated with EV batteries. Responding to the affordability challenge made Mary Barra, Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, the most influential corporate spokesperson in the debate:
Mary Barra was widely quoted as saying that her company aims to control the cost of its EVs by producing its own batteries through its joint venture with LG Energy Solution.
The second most influential spokesperson, Ford Motor CEO Jim Farley, was cited as stating that he does not expect the costs of raw materials for the company’s electric vehicles to ease in the near future, marking the latest signal that automakers will continue hiking prices for their new EVs.
Meanwhile, Carlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis, used his CES 2023 speech to warn that more car factories might close if high EV prices drive consumers out of the market and sales drop to pre-pandemic levels.
5. Hydrogen cars emerge as competition
The media often discussed hydrogen as an alternative energy source for EVs, comparing its potential advantages and drawbacks with those of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) were frequently presented as an attractive option due to their fast refuelling times, longer driving ranges, and the potential for producing hydrogen using renewable energy sources, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions.
However, journalists also highlighted the challenges associated with hydrogen infrastructure, such as the limited number of refuelling stations, high production and storage costs, and the fact that most hydrogen is currently produced from fossil fuels, raising questions about its environmental advantages.
Since 2015, the hydrogen conversation has been dominated by three prominent car companies – Hyundai, Honda, and Toyota. These companies have strategically focused their public relations efforts on communicating the benefits and potential of hydrogen as a sustainable alternative, emphasising ongoing research and development to improve fuel cell efficiency, reduce costs, and establish sustainable hydrogen production methods, such as electrolysis using renewable energy.
Of these companies, Toyota has been the centre of media attention in 2023, as it unveiled its first new hydrogen car in a decade. Some commentators predicted that new CEO Koji Sato, who took the helm at Toyota in April 2023, would pivot the company away from hydrogen vehicles towards BEVs, and he has indeed already announced that the automaker would launch ten new EV models by 2026, as well as around another ten after that date.
But Sato also said that Toyota will continue to back its hydrogen programme, despite a growing consensus that for passenger cars, at least, BEVs will be a clear winner on cost, infrastructure and efficiency.
BMW is another vocal proponent of hydrogen, operating a joint venture with Toyota. Earlier in 2023, it unveiled a hydrogen-electric, X5-based prototype called iX5 that was built for a pilot project. BMW told several news outlets that hydrogen is best suited to bigger cars, but it also noted that the technology would work well in heavy equipment like ships and airplanes.
In the meantime, Ford recently entered the hydrogen conversation by spearheading research into the potential for hydrogen as an on-board energy source for its acclaimed E-Transit vans.