Repurposed Journalist (Earth Day Edition): John Larson – Plugged In

Posted: April 22, 2021 in employment

From TV Reporter to EV Evangelist

John Larson describes himself as a journalist, a husband and a dog lover.

Larson is a multiple Peabody, Emmy, duPont Columbia award-winning Special Correspondent for @NewsHour. Larson is a former @NBCnews Correspondent and a #OneDoableThing#Climate Witness. I’ve known John for 35 years, since I was a young feature reporter trying to learn from the best. That’s John Larson. He is arguably one of the best reporters in the nation. Throughout the years, John’s been a mentor and a good friend. I’ve always valued his input on my career. In fact, as a young reporter when I first started negotiating with news directors, John was the journalist who always gave the best advice. Smart and compassionate. He was the first person I called after winning my first Emmy Award in Seattle in the late 80’s (before my mom and dad). It’s a friendship that has endured. In the last few years, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about national politics, NBA basketball and life after the newsroom. But lately I’ve noticed a change. Because John Larson is on a mission.

He will talk to anyone anywhere about virtually anything that has to do with electric vehicles (EVs). When he does, he comes equipped with the knowledge of a professor, the tenacity of a district attorney and the conviction of an evangelist. He doesn’t so much “sell” you a car as he makes you feel like you’re along for the ride, that you’re now part of his mission. And as you’ll find out in this edition of The Repurposed Journalist, that’s because when it comes to understanding this transformation in the automobile industry, John Larson is totally “plugged in.” With this being Earth Day, it seemed like a good time to celebrate those being good the planet. Here are some highlights from a recent conversation.

John Yeager: How has being a journalist helped fuel your interest in electric cars?

John Larson: Well, I’m a journalist. I’m mostly retired these days, but I follow a number of issues and write occasionally about them, I lecture occasionally about them, and right now I’m interested in sustainable energy and electric vehicles.

I was a daily journalist for many years, but then when I was in my 30s, I went to the network, NBC News and worked for Dateline. So that really was the end of my daily deadlines. There were some breaking news, you know, if Columbine blew up or, you know, a war in Iraq or something blew up, I’d have a daily deadline. But for the most part, it was long-form investigative stuff that we’d worked on for anywhere from a month to a year and a half.

Yeager: And the last time I saw you at least getting paid as a journalist was with PBS.

Larson: NewsHour. I suspect I’ll still do some sort of special correspondent, which means you’re freelancing. But one of the pieces I did for them, not that long ago, it was about electric vehicles. So, you know, that’s when I started to merge my real interests with what I was doing.

Yeager: John, you’re about to buy your fifth electric car. How did this passion for plug ins get started?

Larson: Electric cars are just fun. I had electric slot cars when I was little. If you ever had them, their acceleration was so extreme that you could literally accelerate them off your table into like the next room. And I thought, “Wow, look at what these things can do.” That was it.

Larson: And then I spent 10 years up in Alaska and I got a deep, “three-sided” education in the environment, and in the oil industry. So, that set the table for some things and maybe 15 years ago, I started to read and pay more attention to carbon dioxide emissions, to energy, and then probably maybe 2010, I started to read some world-changing books. Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer prize winner, wrote “The Sixth Extinction.” She’s fabulous. That was probably around 2008, 2009. And then you had Naomi Klein come in with a few books, “This Changes Everything” is one of her more recent ones. And then in 2019, David Wallace-Wells wrote “The Uninhabitable Earth,” which literally changed my worldview.

So, it’s been a long time coming, and electric vehicles are the fun side. And the other thing I’ll mention is I live in San Diego, so it’s really sunny. And so maybe, 15 years ago or so I put solar panels up on my roof. So, all of a sudden I had no electrical bills and then I realized, “Oh, wait a minute. I can buy an electric car and I’ll power it with my roof.” And now I have no gasoline bills. Then I realized, “Oh, you don’t have any maintenance on an electric car.” So I’ve gone eight years now driving electric cars. I have yet to pay one penny on any maintenance of any kind. There’s fewer parts in EVs.

Yeager: What was the last internal combustion engine you owned?

Larson: A Volkswagen Tiguan. Let me see, that’s been a long time now. We’ve had two electric cars essentially for eight years. And now with this COVID pandemic, one of them went off-lease and we’re not driving anywhere so we’re driving one car right now.

Yeager: What was your first car? Wasn’t it a Nissan Leaf? Bought in 2013?

Larson: Nissan Leaf. I loved that car. What a great little car. And by the way, it’s been widely outpaced now by a whole bunch of electric cars, but this year they’re coming out with finally a brand new updated Nissan, I think it’s called Ariya. Great range, cool electronics. They’re finally kind of back in the game, which I’m really glad to see.

The Evangelist

Larson’s current electric vehicle, the 2016 BMW I-3

Yeager: You talk about electric cars with the zeal of an evangelist. Is that a good way to describe you?

Larson: When I was thinking about doing a blog, the first thing I thought was evangelist, E-V-angelist. But yeah, if it’s something you truly are passionate about and really see the deep moral ethic of it, and then you’re excited and have fun, that’s evangelistic.

I have a really bad habit of talking to people in parking lots at grocery stores. My wife just rolls her eyes. She goes, “Oh my God, here we go again.” So, you know, someone will see that I’m driving a certain electric car, and they’re curious and they’ll pull up and say, “Hey, how do you like that thing?” Twenty minutes later, we’re still standing there.

But I think I’ve probably personally sold 30 people on buying electric cars, some just from standing in a park. A lot of people ask me and then we’ll exchange emails and then we’ll talk about it. And then sure enough, a month or two later, they’ve got a Chevy Bolt or Tesla or something like that.

Yeager: I was wondering if there was a milestone, a mile marker, if you will, that told you that this was inevitable. When did you pass that?

Larson: Well, I would say maybe three years ago, I realized it’s going there. It’s all gonna shift. Now, the speed at which it’s shifting from gas to electric is breathtaking. So, I would say maybe three, four years ago. I fell in love with the ethic before that, and I looked at it and said, “This is a no-brainer.” The basic challenge before the world right now is reducing CO2. It’s simple. And it’s gonna dawn on people economically, politically, stability-wise. And as soon as that shifts, it’s going to tip really fast. It’s tipping really fast right now. Now the world leader in EV’s and technology is an American company. It’s Tesla.

Larson’s first BMW I-3 2016 with his dog Niv “behind the wheel”

Yeager: Do you feel like you’re on to something that your friends and maybe former colleagues need to know more about? Do you think everybody knows it by now?

Larson: Some do, some don’t. They think EV’s are not “fully baked” yet, or they think they (electric vehicles) are too expensive, or it’s too hard to do, or just, you know, habits die hard. One cool thing? The “butts in the seats” argument. I’ve never seen anybody, and I’ve done it with more than one hundred people, I’ve never seen anyone get into the seat of an electric car and drive it and not go, “Holy crap,” because they’re silent and they’re fast.

No Turning Back

Showing off a new 2021 Tesla Model Y

Larson: And once that happens, then they’re on the road. There’s no turning back. As a matter of fact, four doors down from me, one of my neighbors, who’s been one of my long-time EV targets, he just got one a little while ago, and he says, “I can’t believe I haven’t gotten an EV until now.”

Yeager: Another soul saved.

Larson: Yes. You know, the thing in the United States is that EV adoption is gonna happen for a number of reasons. Electric cars are gonna grow because they’re really fun, and they’re cheaper to operate.

About two years ago, a fancy Tesla Model 3 sedan became less expensive to own and operate over a five-year period than a Toyota Camry. All of a sudden you have these converging lines – and since then, its costs (cheaper batteries, less maintenance) have continued to drop even more.

Yeager: And incentives are being included as well.

Larson: Yeah. As a matter of fact, the Biden administration looks like they’re gonna bring back this electric vehicle federal tax credit stuff this year, which will give anywhere from $7,500 to $10,000 to all car companies per car.

Yeager: But we’re a nation built on the automobile, especially out West. Look at all suburban development, the nature of the suburb is because of the car.

Larson: Yeah. It really is. And now, you’re starting to see really progressive thinking about how you design your cities. All of a sudden, especially here in California, all of a sudden, “Oh, we’re not gonna build more suburbs.” First of all, there’s increasing fire danger. By the way, I live in San Diego. I have insured my house with the same insurance company for 20 years. They just sent me a notice four months ago saying, “We’re no longer insuring your house because of fire risk.” Welcome to climate change.

Yeager: So, five years from today, describe the scenery on this road. Just give me an idea of how many of us do you think will be in a car that’s plugged in?

Larson: Well, it will depend on your state and the speed at which this transforms. Five years from now, I’d say 30% all-electric, but going fast. The Tesla became the most popular car sold in California last year. Remember, California is the biggest car market in the United States. So it’s happening. It’s coming fast.

(editor’s note: Washington State just passed a law banning all gasoline new cars by 2030)

Yeager: You always taught me that, and I impart this lesson to young journalists, whoever I talk to, whenever I talk to them about this, I always try to boil something down based on what you told me. You always asked, “What’s this story all about?” And so, if you were looking at your story regarding electric cars, what’s that story all about?

Service to the World We Love

Larson: It’s about service to the world we love. That’s what it’s about. Once you start to understand it, then it’s about taking care of this amazing gift. And this carbon dioxide emission thing. If you’re not real close to it, you should start to pay attention. We always think carbon dioxide emissions as, “Oh, it’s part of the industrial revolution. It’s coal, it’s like back in Britain 120 years ago and factories.”

Well, over 50% of all of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere by human beings is in the last 30 years. It’s our lifetime. I mean, the Brits and the Industrial Revolution didn’t do it. I did it, my dad did it, my son’s doing it. So all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, it’s imminent. It’s right now and it’s spiking right now.” So that’s the dark side of it. The light side of it is, we get to do one of the most important, progressive things in human history … right now. And there’s so many wonderful solutions all over the place. The thing I feel really optimistic about is, you look at the technologies needed to shift this thing. We have this. We can do it. Now, will we do this? That’s a different question. But we got this. We know how to do this.

One of the difficulties is that the oil and gas industry is not only incredibly powerful politically, economically, but they’ve created so much wealth. And when wealth is part of a problem, that’s a sticking point. In other words, you’re gonna have to give up something, you’re gonna have to give up easy money, Texas. Now, the good news is all of a sudden people are realizing, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much money to be made in these new emerging industries,” but we’re going to have to break a habit.

Well, you’ve been in an electric car with me. As a matter of fact, when you said, “John, you know, we can probably talk about 15 minutes in the morning,” and I said, “Well, that’s going to be a problem because, as my wife will tell you, 15 minutes, that’s just a warmup.”

For people who are thinking about electric cars, I mean, there’s 10 great ones coming this year, brand new ones. And Nissan is going to have a new one called Ariya, Hundai Ioniq 5, which is really cool. Tesla’s got a couple of really new, cool things, Chevy Bolt just redesigned the whole car and it’s really a cool little car. VW has come out with the ID 4 and ID 3, and these are very cool cars. A lot of times it just happens to be which ones you like when you look at or when you sit in. On the small side, Mini Cooper’s got an electric car now. And the trucks are starting to come out. Ford Rivian, General Motors is gonna make one, Tesla is gonna make one, so it’s coming. It’s coming.


John Larson tells me. “It’s rare when we see a huge, established industry being disrupted right in front of our eyes.” He says,”It’s happening very quickly and accelerating. And for the right reasons. It’s exciting.” John often shares pictures of friends’ electric vehicles and the revelation that one of them has just discovered a free charging station. These are friends who’ve come to him for help buying an electric vehicle.

In fact, I think I’m next.

Follow John Larson for stories about climate change and EV reporting on Twitter at @2JohnLars

P.S. No animals were harmed in the production of this story.


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