Electric cars will one day push gas or diesel powered ones to the curb – but how soon? Sooner than you might think, according to researchers at the International Monetary Fund and Georgetown University. Based on how quickly horses and buggies disappeared in the early 1900s, the researchers argue, more than 90% of all passenger vehicles in the U.S., Canada, Europe and other rich countries could be electric by 2040. Along with a spate of recent commitments to electric vehicles by governments and car companies, the study offers hope about the prospects for weaning the transportation sector off carbon.
Of more than one billion registered vehicles on the road today, only two million are electric (with one million of those in China). But if EVs (electric vehicles) catch on as fast as the researchers project, it could reduce oil use by 21 million barrels a day and cut CO2 emissions 3.2 billion tons a year – equivalent to 60% of total U.S. emissions today.
Other studies project a slower roll out, although newer ones tend be more aggressive. Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently bumped up its estimate of the EV market share in 2040 from 35% of all new car sales to 54%. RethinkX, an independent think tank, is even more bullish, saying most U.S. vehicles will be electric by 2030. Can you imagine that 30% of vehicles in the U.S. will be electric by the late 2020s and 93% by the early 2040s?
If that sounds implausible, consider cell phones. In the 1980s, when cell phones were bulky, expensive, and had a short battery life, experts predicted that by 2000 the industry might sell 900,000 units a year. Actual sales that year were 109 million—and by 2014 another unexpected technology transition had happened: virtually all of those phones were smart phones.
Adoption of a new technology like electric cars may seem slow or look like it’s never going to happen, until it passes a threshold and then it just takes off.
Governments are joining in. Norway will ban the sale of fossil fuel-burning cars and vans in 2025. Governments in the U.K., the Netherlands, and France have promised the same by 2040. Germany, home of Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, is talking about a similar ban. China just announced it too will ban the sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles – though it has yet to set a timetable.
China is the world’s biggest car market, selling 20 million vehicles a year. It already has more than 40 different electric vehicles available, most made by Chinese companies.
India’s Energy Minister, Piyush Goyal, predicted to National Geographic that only electric vehicles will be sold in India by 2030 – even without a government restriction, because they are cleaner, quieter, longer-lasting, and will cost less.
In China and India but also in western Europe, air pollution is providing a big motive to go electric, says Bloomberg analyst Albert Cheung. Conversely, any reduction in government commitment to fight air pollution could slow the uptake of electric vehicles. So, could super-cheap gas prices and a lack of investment in charging infrastructure. But all in all, Cheung says: “it is looking harder and harder to apply the brakes to that electric vehicle bandwagon.”
Stanford economist Tony Seba pushes the vision of an EV revolution a step further. He says it’s coming in the 2020s, and it will be self-driving, and 95% of all passenger miles will be in autonomous electric vehicles by 2030. How is that even possible?
Seba assumes electric vehicles will be much cheaper to buy than today because of falling battery costs and the fact that they’re easier to manufacture and maintain – only 20 moving parts versus 2000 for gasoline or diesel vehicles. Today’s electric vehicles have gone over 200,000 miles and all they needed were new sets of tires. One Tesla S has logged 500,000 miles with the same battery.
According to the economist, the majority of vehicles will be owned not by individuals but by transportation companies. Commercial fleets are eager for electric vehicles – especially self-driving ones. Eliminating drivers could generate huge cost savings. Self-driving taxis and commercial vehicles are being tested in Pittsburgh, Phoenix, and Boston, as well as Singapore, Dubai and China.
Cost is what will push Americans out of their driver seats. Electric vehicles are four times more energy efficient and cheaper to fuel; autonomous ones could be even better.
Owning and operating the average gasoline-powered vehicle costs close to US$10,000 a year when driven 15,000 miles, according to the Auto Club AAA, and that vehicle is parked 95% of the time.
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