Driver, Writer, Activist, Explainer
John Voelcker ’77 gets paid to drive and write about cars—especially electric cars. He’s been a journalist since 1985 and now covers auto technology, energy, and climate as a reporter and analyst. His outlets include Car and Driver, Wired, Popular Science, and ,Tech Review, and he appears on NPR’s All Things Considered. John calls himself a mix of educator and analyst, explaining climate change and the global auto industry to multiple audiences. He spends much of his time on the road, driving more than 50 new cars a year. “It’s a pretty great gig,” he says with a grin.
By John Voelcker
October 7, 2021
October 7, 2021
By John Voelcker

I was a “lifer” at Harley. In the fall of 1963, my parents enrolled me in Harley’s Nursery program, taught by Miss Wadsworth. I went straight through until Grade 12, except for Grade 3, when we returned to London (where I was born) for a year. I think a lot of little boys like to dive deeply into a specific area and learn everything about it. The topic may be narrow, but it can be really deep. If it has numbers and diagrams associated with it, so much the better! A lot of boys dive deeply into sports, or dinosaurs, or fantasy worlds. Me, I got cars.

Classmates remember me drawing cars during slow parts of class. A few, including Sam Hampton ’77 — whom I’ve known since Grade 1—may recall the Morris Minor woody wagon my parents drove me to school in. That was probably the first car I remember focusing intently on, learning everything I could about it.

It wasn’t until 30 years after leaving Harley that I’d get paid to cover my passion. My so-called “career” has been all over the map. I was a systems consultant, I’ve been part of five venture-funded startups, and I’ve been a professional writer since 1985. I got my first editor job that year and built my first website in 1995. I’ve been very lucky to follow different passions throughout my life — “Become what thou art” — and to stay employed while doing it.

In 2005, I went out on my own as a full-time freelance writer. When I went solo, I knew I needed a specialty to set me apart—and, back then, there was no good reporting on hybrid or electric cars. They were seen by the auto press as weird, slow, stupid, and only driven by smelly hippies. That felt like a niche that needed to be filled. I ended up employed again, running Green Car Reports for nine years. In December 2010, soon after I started, the first modern electric cars arrived.

What a difference a decade makes. Now, the entire auto industry acknowledges that it will transition from cars that burn fossil fuels to those that get their energy from the electric grid. But electric cars still have a lot of myths to bust—for instance, the “coal tailpipe.” Here’s the reality: Even if they’re charged on the dirtiest grid in the U.S., an EV emits less CO2 per mile than the average new gasoline car, when you do the analysis properly. On cleaner grids, their carbon footprint is so low, it equals that of a 100-mpg gas-powered vehicle (if such a thing existed). And their CO2 per mile gets lower every time the grid decarbonizes —when renewable energy replaces coal, for instance. No gasoline car ever gets cleaner as it ages. These days, I’m excited that carmakers are building EVs that are desirable vehicles on their own, regardless of the electric aspect. Tesla knew this from the start; now others are catching on. The Ford Mustang Mach-E is sexy and has a legendary brand, and the GMC Hummer EV will prove that big, audacious, honkin’ trucks can be electric, too. They may not be your kind of vehicle, but the hard truth is that very, very few people consider climate or environment when they buy cars.

I headed to Stanford University for college. After 15 years in Rochester, I wanted to put some distance between myself and the life I knew. Plus, I visited in March, and even then it was sunny, with students biking around campus in T-shirts. After Upstate New York winters, that seemed appealing. Being in California let me buy, sell, and drive old cars during college. At one point, I had five at once, and I spent as much time hanging out at friends’ repair shops and San Francisco’s midnight drag races as I did getting my engineering degree. But it was good to get out of my comfort zone, and I enjoyed living in Silicon Valley when it wasn’t quite as crazy as it is today.

“In some ways, the Class of ’77 may have been the very last one to come out of the Sixties. I was too young to experience the civil rights marches of the early 1960s, but I vividly remember the Kent State shootings. For a privileged white kid, seeing that people could be attacked or killed while peacefully standing up for their beliefs really shook my world. Outside of work, I spent 10 years in my 30s as a street activist for HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ rights causes. It caused my parents some grief, but my friends stuck with me — and some even joined some protests. Harley taught me about social justice before the term was invented, and I like to think it left me with a passion for trying to make the world a better, fairer, more equitable place.”

The transition to EVs will take the rest of my life and beyond, but it’s no longer in question—although the U.S. runs the risk of falling behind the rest of the world in that respect. Today, I spend my time explaining the auto industry to utility executives, explaining the electricity industry to drivers, and explaining carbon emissions from transport to pretty much everyone. And that’ll keep me busy until I decide to quit and work full-time on my old cars.

So I’m the guy to ask for advice on what new car to buy and whether an EV is right for you. I can also teach peaceful, nonviolent civil-disobedience tactics, but I do less of that these days. These days, I mostly spend my time in the Catskill Mountains — and wait for that next new car to be delivered.