Magical thinking drives optimism about EV adoption

We keep waiting for that moment when the public goes from admiring electric vehicles to purchasing them in large numbers.

There’s widespread optimism that a game-changing surge in EV adoption is about to happen. Often this is attributed to the falling price of batteries, or the big money car companies are pouring into EV research and development. But the revolution keeps getting delayed, and lately it seems as if magical thinking is pinch-hitting for hard evidence that the “EV future” is near.

A Forbes post last week detailed how Fitch Ratings “said developments in 2017 show how technological changes and greater product awareness could lead to annual sales of 10 million battery-powered EVs by 2025.” To compile its report, Fitch incorporated “conservative” EV sales estimates, but also ones “based on car companies’ own announcements.”

Looking further into the future, Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that by 2040 there will be 530 million EVs in use, and that they’ll account for 54 percent of new-vehicle sales.

It’s true that global sales of EVs — all-electrics and plug-in hybrids — have risen rapidly, going from 740,000 vehicles sold in 2016 to 1.1 million in 2017. But in the crucial markets of the U.S., Europe, Canada, Japan, and China, the market share for EVs was only 1.7 percent.

A Tesla charging station in California. In Q3 2017, the company delivered just 222 of its new “affordable” Model 3s.

The state of California, which accounts for about half of U.S. EV sales, is aiming for 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles (electric and hydrogen) on the roads by 2025, and 5 million by 2030. There are about 350,000 such vehicles in the state now.

Even though EV sales have grown significantly, there are many obstacles standing in the way of of reaching the levels needed to transform the global vehicle fleet:

Cost. A new Chevy Bolt starts at $35,478, the Nissan LEAF at $29,990, and the Toyota Prius Prime at $27,100. These are the affordable mainstream models (good luck finding that elusive “mass-market” $35,000 Tesla Model 3). Battery production costs indeed continue to fall, but for how long? Hyundai predicts that decline will level out starting in 2020, owing to the surging price of cobalt and lithium, metals needed for battery construction. Lee Ki-sang, senior VP of green vehicles at Hyundai Motor Company, said of battery economics: “Not a single ingredient is going in a positive direction in terms of pricing.”

Also, there’s still no viable electric pickup option, and scarcely any SUVs. These versatile vehicles are the kind being bought up in droves, particularly with fuel prices relatively low. One more thing: The $7,500 federal tax break EV buyers receive will start going away soon, as manufacturers hit the 200,000-units-sold threshold.

Charging infrastructure. California plans to invest $2.5 billion to build a network of 250,000 EV charging stations and 200 hydrogen stations. But that won’t solve the problem for apartment-dwellers, unless their landlords suddenly decide to splurge on charging portals. According to Inside EVs, 81 percent of EV charging is done at home, while 7 percent is at work, and only 10 percent at public charging stations.

The Shutterstock caption to this photo reads: “Loving my life to the fullest. Radiant young gentleman in casual smiling cheerfully while sitting outdoors and waiting for his eco friendly electric automobile charging in the background.”

Refueling time. Drivers want to fill up in a hurry, a mandate EV makers can’t yet satisfy. A New York Times story illustrates the conundrum perfectly: “The good news? Charging times will eventually shrink to little more than 10 minutes. The bad news: That won’t be for several years.” That’s the refrain with EV technology: Utopia one day, but not on the horizon. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles can be fueled in minutes, but according to our Find a Fueling Station map (powered by the Department of Energy), there are only 39 such dispensers in the U.S. — 35 of them in California.

The findings we laid out in our “Cars in 2050” report and interactive tool, unveiled about a year ago, still hold: Even if the most optimistic projections for EVs come to pass, the world’s light-duty fleet will still include hundreds of millions of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, the vast majority of which can only run on gasoline or diesel. Fuels have to get the same attention as engine tech if we’re to reduce emissions.

Some experts at least acknowledge the challenges facing mass EV adoption: The Center for Automotive Research predicted that “alternative powertrains,” including EVs and hydrogen fuel cells, will only account for 8 percent of new-car sales by 2030. Also this week, BP threw cold water on the notion that EVs would severely diminish oil demand anytime soon. “The suggestion that rapid growth in electric cars will cause oil demand to collapse just isn’t supported by the basic numbers — even with really rapid growth,” said BP’s chief economist, Spencer Dale.

EVs are the future, and we know it. It’s why we devoted a good chunk of our 2014 documentary “PUMP” to Musk and his vision of the future of transportation. Anything that displaces oil is cool with us.

But how we get to that future matters. And until we arrive at the point where Americans of all income levels, in cities and rural areas, can enjoy the benefits of EVs, we’ll need biofuels and other alternatives to get us through the transition.


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