Since the first electric vehicle (EV) prototype was built in 1828, the central challenge has been making good on a lightweight, durable battery with adequate range. In its absence, internal combustion engines have dominated the automotive landscape since the 1920s, and the atmosphere has paid the price.
Luckily, there are now more than 1 million EVs on the road, and the difference in impact is remarkable. Compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, emissions drop by 50 percent if an EV’s power comes off the conventional grid. If powered by solar energy, carbon dioxide emissions fall by 95 percent. The “fuel” for electric cars is cheaper too. EVs will disrupt auto and oil business models because they are simpler to make, have fewer moving parts, and require little maintenance and no fossil fuels.
What is the catch? With EVs, it is “range anxiety”—how far the car can go on a single charge. Typical today is a range of 80 to 90 miles, long enough for most daily travel. Carmakers are closing in on ranges of 200 miles, while keeping batteries affordable.
The rate of innovation in EVs guarantees they are the cars of the future. The question is how soon the future will arrive.
first prototype…1828: DOE. “The History of the Electric Car.” Energy.gov. September 15, 2014; IEA. Global EV Outlook: Understanding the Electric Vehicle Landscape to 2020. Paris: International Energy Agency, 2013.
Edison and Ford…“Electricity is the thing”: Strohl, Dan. “Ford, Edison, and the Cheap EV That Almost Was.” WIRED. June 18, 2010.
William Morrison; Charles Kettering: U.S. DOE. “The History of the Electric Car.” Energy.gov. September 15, 2014.
1 billion cars: Voelcker, John. “Two Billion Vehicles Projected to Be on Roads by 2035.” Christian Science Monitor. July 29, 2014; Sperling, Daniel, and Deborah Gordon. Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
1 million electric vehicles: IEA. Global EV Outlook 2016: Beyond One Million Electric Cars. Paris: International Energy Agency, 2016.
Two-thirds of…oil consumption: IEA. Key World Energy Statistics. Paris: International Energy Agency, 2016.
Transport emissions: Sims R., R. Schaeffer, F. Creutzig, X. Cruz-Núñez, M. D’Agosto, D. Dimitriu, M.J. Figueroa Meza, L. Fulton, S. Kobayashi, O. Lah, A. McKinnon, P. Newman, M. Ouyang, J.J. Schauer, D. Sperling, and G. Tiwari. “Transport.” In Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
number of motor vehicles…2035: Voelcker, “Two Billion”; Sperling and Gordon, Two Billion.
compared to gasoline-powered vehicles: U.S. DOE. “All-Electric Vehicles.” https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/evtech.shtml; U.S. DOE. “Where the Energy Goes: Electric Cars.” https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/atv-ev.shtml.
emission[s]…of gasoline [vs.] electricity: U.S. EPA. “Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator—Calculations and References.” https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gases-equivalencies-calculator-calculations-and-references.
Sales volume; largest markets: IEA, EV Outlook.
Tesla…Model 3: Vlasic, Bill. “Tesla’s Model 3 Already Has 325,000 Preorders.” New York Times, April 7, 2016.
government car purchases: Shepardson, David. “Obama Orders Agencies to Cut Federal Vehicle Emissions.” Detroit News. March 19, 2015; “China Requires 30% of State Cars Use Alternative Energy.” Bloomberg News. July 13, 2014.
India…all-electric by 2030: “India Aims to Become 100% E-Vehicle Nation by 2030.” Economic Times. March 26, 2016.
electric buses…London: Liu, Cecily. “BYD Targets London's Iconic Double-Decker.” China Daily Europe. July 17, 2015; “End of the Road for London’s ‘Dirty’ Diesel Buses.” BBC News. November 30, 2016.
electric cars…range: Fleming, Charles. “Chevy Bolt EV Range is 238 Miles: Prime Time for the Electric Car?” Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2016.
network of charging stations: IEA, EV Outlook.
Projections [from] Bloomberg: Randall, Tom. “Here’s How Electric Cars Will Cause the Next Oil Crisis.” Bloomberg. February 25, 2016.
Correction: China has more than 170,000 electric buses.