Dr. Rangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Electric Vehicles
By Mark Hughes, Spring 2018 Fellow
It’s no secret that electric vehicles (EVs) have come a long way. Gone are the days of prohibitively-priced sub-100-mile range vehicles: Affordable 200+ mile range EVs have arrived and charging station availability has increased more than 100-fold in the last decade (link). All signs are pointing to an EV revolution – except, in the United States, EV sales are pedestrian. Why?
My first job post-undergrad was with General Motors as a battery cell engineer for the Chevy Bolt EV. I excitedly thought myself an ambassador of the impending EV revolution. However, as I asked people their opinions on electric vehicles outside of the lab, the story started to come together.
“I would buy one, but I can’t go on road trips”
“They seem like good options, but I like powerful cars. EVs aren’t as powerful as combustion vehicles”
“I don’t have a charging station nearby, so I don’t think it would be very practical”
“Electric cars? No thanks, they’re ugly.”
Other than the idea that EVs aren’t powerful (the 0-60 in 1.9 seconds all-electric Tesla), these concerns are legitimate and largely unaddressed by the oft-quoted benefits of owning EVs. Charging infrastructure development has been grinding along slowly. As nice as 200-mile range sounds, it won’t make road trips shorter. And while energy efficiency is nice for your wallet, it won’t make the car prettier.
The common theme that threaded these arguments was the assumption that the EV would be purchased today for themselves. However, according to a 2016 NREL Consumer Survey, 60% of American households own two or more vehicles. It’s within these households, and many like them, where there’s a wholly underrepresented generation of drivers whose use case is a perfect match for EVs: 16- to 18-year-old first-time drivers.
The electric vehicle isn’t the perfect car, but it might be the perfect first car. That 200-mile range? More than enough for predictable daily routes to and from school, with the occasional trip to the mall with friends. EVs also have significant advantages in terms of maintenance. No oil changes, flooded engines or air filter changes can dramatically reduce the anxiety of owning your first vehicle. The edge case of long road trips can be avoided: no need to take the electric vehicle. Most importantly, transportation has overtaken electricity generation as the number one contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. Replacing 1 gas-powered vehicle with an EV represents a necessary trend in the reduction of our carbon footprint.
Along with the ease of owning an EV, the cost benefits are significant. If you drive an average of 15,000 miles per year, you could save yourself nearly $900 per year on fuel costs alone. Add in regular maintenance and likely engine problems and the savings can reach thousands within a few short years.
The timing makes sense to introduce the youngest generation of drivers to electric vehicles. The options available for EV shoppers are about to grow exponentially as the biggest and most popular automakers in the world have pledged to either expand their EV network or fully electrify their vehicle fleet. Daimler (owner of Mercedes-Benz) plans to introduce 10 all-electric vehicles and 40 hybrid vehicles, Volkswagen plans to introduce an all-electric vehicle platform by 2020, and General Motors plans to introduce 20 new electric vehicles by 2023, just to name a few. With battery costs falling to $100/kWh, one can reasonably expect these vehicles to be competitively priced with gas-powered vehicles upfront while being dwarfed in terms of maintenance costs.
Policy initiatives at both the state and federal level are also encouraging widespread EV adoption. The Obama-era agreement by US automakers to double their fleet-wide average fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025 demonstrates a commitment to EV sales. In California, PG&E has aggressively expanded their charging infrastructure programs to make it easier for residences and businesses to build and maintain charging stations, both privately-owned and maintained by PG&E themselves. The hand-in-hand development of EV-friendly policy with the buy-in of private companies ensures the EV movement is something that is taken seriously and arriving at a rapid pace.
Of course, the “EV revolution” isn’t something that can or will happen overnight. This is mostly because electric vehicles are not going to serve as a replacement in kind, but an efficient, low-cost, low-maintenance alternative to commuting with a reduced carbon footprint. By introducing the first-time-drivers generation to EVs, it could alleviate a significant portion of the anxiety associated with getting a new car while also ushering in a new era of electric vehicle adoption.
Mark Hughes, Jr. is an Engineer for Sila Nanotechnologies and a Spring 2018 Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellow.