Could the U.S. ever ban gasoline-powered cars?

This summer, France and Britain declared their intent to ban all sales of new gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, replacing them with electric or other zero-emissions cars. Scotland wants to do the same, but by 2032.

India has set an even more ambitious goal: getting rid of petroleum-powered vehicles by 2030. Norway, meantime, is really shooting for the moon, aiming to implement such a ban by 2025.

Could such a ban ever work in the United States? Doing so would create innumerable benefits: cleaner air, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions; no more relying on foreign oil.

But there are many reasons why banning gasoline-powered vehicles here is unlikely. Here are merely five:

The U.S. is much larger, geographically, than those other nations that declared future bans. We have places to go, distances to travel, and when we need get somewhere, the time is now. As Marc Rauch said in our 2014 documentary PUMP, “A large part of America’s love affair with cars is, it’s freedom.”

The gas-station network would need a massive retrofit. One thing the oil companies and refineries achieved during their century-long (and counting) monopoly is putting a station on every corner: There are about 168,000 of them in the country. By comparison, there are roughly 16,000 EV charging stations, with 44,000 individual outlets. But most of those are the slower Level 2 chargers that deliver 240 volts. There are only 2,172 fast-charging stations (with 5,992 outlets) like the Tesla Supercharger network that can deliver 480 volts. But even on those, “filling up” takes much longer than with a traditional gasoline-only car. Only if battery recharge times plummet, and outlets become as ubiquitous as fueling stations, will the level of convenience needed for widespread acceptance be reached.

The affordability issue. Any kind of ban would assume that a fleet of affordable replacement vehicles stands at the ready, and right now, electric vehicles (including plug-in hybrids) are priced outside the reach of many consumers.

There’s still no pickup solution. If you want to ban petroleum-based vehicles, get ready for a revolt from pickup owners. Last year Ford sold nearly 821,000 models of its F-series truck. The top five selling EVs (Tesla Model S, Chevrolet Volt, Tesla Model X, Ford Fusion Energi, and Nissan LEAF) sold a combined 102,000. Last year we wrote about the hurdles facing the EV industry in designing a pickup that truck enthusiasts will trust enough to take to the lake and back. We’re still waiting.

People like their cars. A recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company revealed that 30 percent of vehicle buyers surveyed said they had considered buying an EV for their next purchase. But only 3 percent actually did so. Earlier this year AAA tried to convince us that 30 million Americans “are likely to buy an electric vehicle for their next car.” We’ll see if that comes to pass. Americans take a long time to make that decision anyway, since the average U.S. automobile is now 11.6 years old.

For a ban to be effective, consumers would need to have a wide variety of choices to make up for the loss of those gas-powered vehicles. The only remedied being floated are EVs, which comprise just 0.9 of new car sales, and expensive hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (HFCVs), whose sales are minuscule, and which have even greater fueling infrastructure challenges.

These cars simply aren’t selling quickly enough. About 159,000 EVs were sold in the U.S. last year, up 37 percent from the year before. But a total of 17.6 million vehicles of all kinds were sold. And, as our interactive Cars in 2050 model shows, even if EV adoption takes off as quickly as some analysts predict, we’ll still be stuck with hundreds of millions of ICE vehicles in the coming decades, given how long cars remain on the road.

Until EVs (or other alternative-fuel vehicles) overcome their significant hurdles — high up-front costs; disappearing subsidies; persistent battery “range anxiety”; a charging infrastructure still in its infancy; and very limited variety — we will need to consider other pathways to reach our goal. One of these options is utilizing flex-fuel vehicles as a bridge to that zero-emissions future. FFVs run on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol, up to 85 percent, and the choices available include many popular SUVs like the Ford F-150 and Chevy Tahoe. Fueling pumps that sell higher ethanol blends are at existing stations, with the number of dispensers growing.

EVs are the future, clearly, but until we realize that Utopian future, we must live in the present. Americans won’t give up their big, versatile vehicles without a fight. But maybe they can be convinced to make them run a little cleaner.


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