Electric vehicles no longer seem like a futuristic fever dream, but they remain a rarity on most American city streets, accounting for less than 1 percent of the nation’s auto sales, according to the automotive website Edmunds.com.
Yet, when future auto historians look back, they may pinpoint 2017 as the year electric vehicles went from a promising progressive fad to an industry-wide inevitability.
The tipping point, experts say, follows three developments, each rippling outward with economic and cultural consequences.
- China’s flexing: In addition to setting aggressive production quotas for EVs, China plans to scrap internal combustion engines entirely as soon as 2030. By taking a lead role in the shift to plug-ins, the world’s largest auto market is forcing the rest of the international community to follow in its footsteps.
- The debut of Tesla’s Model 3: The company’s first mass-market vehicle has ushered in an era of excitement about EVs because of the car’s slick design and starting price of around $35,000.
- Major automakers announce plans for an “all-electric future.” General Motors finished 2016 as the world’s third-largest automaker, meaning its decision to create 20 new electric vehicles by 2023 is bound to have an impact on the global marketplace. Volvo, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Ford have also announced EV plans in recent months.
“You really do feel like this electrification thing is suddenly very real,” Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com. “There’s a momentum we haven’t really seen before. It’s coming from other countries around the world and from big automakers, and that’s forcing everyone else to comply.”
The all-electric future is still years away, experts say. But as EV momentum builds, we’ve listed five ways in which EV adoption is expected to play out:
The future of Big Oil:
Not so long ago, minuscule sales of EVs made it hard for Big Oil to take the threat of electric cars seriously. Now, thanks to growing demand in Asia and Europe, experts say, that’s beginning to change, even amid predictions that oil demand will continue growing in the developing world. The question facing experts is no longer whether EVs will take over, but when?
A Barclays’ analysis concluded that oil demand could
be slashed by 3.5 million barrels per day worldwide in 2025. If electric vehicle penetration reaches 33 percent, oil demand could shrink by a whopping 9 million barrels per day by 2040, Barclays concluded. Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance puts the number at 8 million barrels by 2040, more than the “current combined production of Iran and Iraq,” they note.
Urging caution about the impact of EVs on the oil industry, John Eichberger, executive director of the Fuels Institute, said he doesn’t expect to see significant changes in demand for another 15 years or so. “We don’t know how fast EV sales will pick up, but what we do know is that no matter how fast they pick up, the inventory in the market will turn over more slowly, and this will delay the impact on liquid gallon demand,” he said.
Eichberger noted that even optimistic sales growth estimates conclude it will take until the 2030s for EV sales to reach as high as 16 percent of the nation’s market share. Once that happens, he said, it will take even longer for people to start selling their vehicles and buying new ones, leading to widespread EV adoption.
“It’s the vehicles on the road that will determine gasoline demand, not the vehicles being sold that day,” he said.
Gas stations will change or disappear:
Some experts believe electric cars have sounded the death knell of the American gas station, but others aren’t so sure. Earlier this year, John Abbott, Shell Oil’s business director, revealed that the energy giant is already adapting.
“We have a number of countries where we’re looking at having battery charging facilities,” he told the Financial Times. “If you are sitting charging your vehicle, you will want to have a coffee or something to eat.”
Until charging times drop dramatically and superchargers become widespread, wait times for EV charging at gas stations could turn those stations into “hospitality-type venues,” according to Guido Jouret, the ABB’s chief digital officer, who noted that many gas stations make more money selling soda and food than they do selling gas.
“The idea is that for hospitality-type venues — restaurants, gas stations, coffee shops — electric vehicle charging could be an attractive way for them to attract customers the way WiFi was a decade ago, when it caused a lot of people to hang out at Starbucks.”
Depending on how electricity is produced in your region, plug-ins are from 30 percent to 80 percent lower in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Gina Coplon-Newfield, the director of the Sierra Club’s Electric Vehicles Initiative. If GM follows through on its plan to launch a new fleet of electric vehicles, Coplon-Newfield said, the reductions in carbon emissions and the improved air quality could be “hugely beneficial.”
“We’ve seen customers rave about cars like the Chevy Bolt and Volt,” she said. “Right now only a few thousand a month are being sold, so GM can significantly ramp up their production, and that’s going to have a significant impact on the market for consumers, the climate and public health.”
If GM’s 2016 U.S. sales — more than 3 million vehicles — were converted to EVs, the country would benefit in the following ways, according to an analysis provided by the Sierra Club:
- 6.5 million tons, or 13 billion pounds, of GHGs reduced annually.
- 35.6 million barrels of petroleum reduced annually, creating less of a dependency on foreign oil, further boosting demand on domestic electricity and keeping oil money spent in-state.
- 164.5 million pounds of carbon monoxide reduced annually.
- 11 million pounds of nitrogen oxides reduced annually, harmful to respiratory health and creates smog.
- 1 million pounds of particulate matter reduced annually.
- 9 million pounds of volatile organic compounds reduced annually.
The evolving future of auto mechanics:
One of the primary reasons that auto owners visit a mechanic is for an oil change, which raises a question: What happens when vehicles no longer rely on oil? It’s not that electric vehicles won’t require maintenance (they still have brakes, tires and windshield wipers, after all), but their engines are far simpler, experts say.
“Basically these things don’t break,” Tony Seba, a clean energy expert and the founder of RethinkX, a think tank that forecasts changes in the transportation industry. “They have 20 moving parts, as opposed to 2,000 in the internal combustion engine, and even those 20 are electromagnetic, which means they don’t touch and don’t break down and, therefore, are far cheaper to maintain.”
Seba pointed out that there are thousands of department store and dealer repair locations — as well as about 70,000 mom-and-pop repair shops — that will be significantly affected by a decline in business.
Powering the grid:
We tend to think of EVs as consumers of electricity, but some experts believe they’ll be more like “mobile energy storage units,” as Forbes recently noted. Widespread adoption, experts say, may allow vehicles to transfer energy back to the grid when costs and demand are high and charge the battery when demand has waned.
The proposal would allow car owners and cities to lower costs. “Imagine it’s a hot day, and you’ve agreed that in exchange for allowing the grid to sip a bit of your car’s energy, maybe you earn points or receive a monetary benefit,” Jouret said. “The utility can sip the battery juice and take a little bit from all sources and spread it around.”