The technology behind electric vehicles is advancing. Tesla’s new Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt both have ranges well over 200 miles — in 2015, the world’s top-selling electric car only had a top range of 80 miles.
But for all the hype, electric vehicles make up only 0.2 percent of passenger vehicles worldwide. We are seeing those numbers creep up, but slowly.
“For all the enthusiasm for electric vehicles in the news, actual progress in the market is still taking some time to emerge,” says MIT Sloan professor David Keith.
Thanks to some new policy changes, those numbers are going to get much bigger within the next 20-plus years. Last month, both France and the U.K. banned the sale of gas and diesel cars and vans starting in 2040 in response to rising levels of nitrogen oxide in the air posing a public health risk. (Air pollution is estimated to cause up to 40,000 deaths in the U.K. each year.) Norway and India have both pledged to make the change even sooner, in 2025 and 2030, respectively.
But while 2025 is only eight years away, 2040 may still seem like a long way off. However, in that time, adoption of electric vehicles has to go from a very small amount to 100 percent — and there are many barriers to adoption that have to first be overcome.
While nearly all car companies are developing or already have products in the electric vehicle space, we need more variety in the number of vehicle models available. Currently, most electric cars are small, midsize, or compact, so consumers wanting pickup trucks or SUVs are mostly out of luck (unless they want to shell out $80,000 or more for a Tesla Model X).
But all that is starting to change. Various carmakers have announced plans to produce more models of electric vehicles, and Volvo is going all in; its entire lineup of vehicles introduced starting in 2019 will be either hybrid or electric. Right now, though, as a whole, electric cars are expensive, the range is not great in most models, and they take a long time to recharge — and that time can vary greatly depending on the charging standard each EV uses.
Another hurdle to overcome when it comes to electric vehicle adoption is the infrastructure currently available. While people driving gas vehicles can go on long trips secure in the knowledge that they will be able to refuel quickly en route, for electric vehicles drivers, the same trip requires researching the location of charging stations along the way, and setting aside time to charge up. (This same issue does not necessarily apply to local delivery trucks, Ubers, taxis, police cars, or service vehicles that don’t drive long distances.)
To change that, we have to get the infrastructure around electric vehicles up to speed — and it is going to be a big job, Keith says. “We need charging of electric vehicles to be as easy as driving a gasoline vehicle today. That means building the actual charging stations themselves, and then having an electricity grid that can support this additional demand for electricity. If we want fast charging, that means we need to provide a lot of electricity, often in locations where the grid may not necessarily be built for it today. It also means having mechanics who know how to fix electric vehicles — building out the whole ecosystem is critical and that is going to take a long time.”
Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to adoption is that most people just don’t think about electric vehicles when they are buying a new car. “For 100 years we have driven cars the same way. Electric vehicles challenge our long-held norms and practices about how we use our vehicles,” Keith says. A big part of this meant knowing that we had a car in the driveway with a full tank of gas.
Additionally, most people have never ridden in an electric car, contributing to the fact that buying electric isn’t even on their radar. Keith says that as more people start to see increasingly more electric cars around them, it will act as a sort of social contagion, increasing the number of electric cars even more.
So will overcoming all these barriers and making electric vehicles the norm be enough to reach the U.K. and France’s stated goals of reducing air pollution in cities?
Keith says that electric vehicles are a step in the right direction — they give off no emissions, so cities themselves will be cleaner. But he also points out that the energy we are using to charge our electric vehicles matter. If consumers are recharging their vehicles with coal or natural gas, the plants that provide that energy are still giving off emissions, it is just happening outside of cities. “Electric vehicles help, but in the long run, electric vehicles need clean electricity in order to maximize their environmental benefits.”
In addition to those benefits that will happen down the road, Keith says that these policy changes do have an immediate impact. “What they do is provide is a clear and long-term signal to automakers that dramatic change in the technologies we are using to power our vehicles is required, and that they are going to have to respond to that.”