Electric Cars: Where are they, where have they been, and where are they going?

Author: Alison Goldstein

These days, every device we own seems thirsty for electricity: our computers, our phones, lightbulbs, dishwashers. And yet most of our transportation still relies on other sources of fuel. Airplanes use jet fuel. Most locomotives use diesel fuel. Cruise ships use gas, diesel, or a combination of the two. And then there are cars.

History of the electric car

Historically—and in fact all the way up to today—cars have been predominantly powered by gasoline. The very first cars that were manufactured in the late 1800s and early 1900s were powered by electric batteries and steam, but these cars were either dangerous and difficult to operate (in the case of steam cars) or limited in range (in the case of electric cars; Melosi, n.d.). With improvements in the internal combustion engine, plummeting costs of gas and oil, and the birth of Henry Ford’s mass-produced low-cost Model T, gasoline quickly became main fuel source for our favorite mode of transportation.

Interest in alternative fuel sources—like electricity—did not re-emerge until the 1960s and ‘70s. Geopolitical conflicts with the Middle East drove up gas prices, causing countries, particularly the United States, to look for ways to decrease their dependence on oil. Around this time, automakers like General Motors started creating their first electric vehicle prototypes; however, these cars had many of the same limitations as their much earlier counterparts—namely that they didn’t go very fast (topping out at 45 mph) or very far (most could only travel 40 miles before needing to be recharged; Matulka, 2014).

By the 1990s, the oil crisis was no longer pushing drivers away from gasoline; now, climate change had taken up that mantle. In an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions, governments began to pass legislation incentivizing the auto industry to improve electric vehicle technology. Finally, at the start of the 21st century, two viable cars arrived on the market. One was a hybrid electric vehicle, the Toyota Prius. A hybrid car is a cross between a gas-powered car and an electric car. It uses an ordinary internal combustion engine, which runs off of gas, along with one or more electric motors that are powered by energy captured from braking. The Prius was not the first hybrid car, but it was the first one to be mass-produced, which made it more affordable and commercially available (“History of the Toyota Prius,” 2015). The second car to significantly advance electric vehicle technology was the Tesla Roadster. Released in 2008, this was Tesla’s first completely electric car: a sports car that could travel over 200 miles before needing to be recharged (Gregersen & Schreiber, 2019). However, its $109,000 USD price tag made it unaffordable for most consumers.

Electric cars on the road today (and tomorrow)

Now, over a decade later, there are more than 20 all-electric vehicles on the market, ranging from about $24,000 USD to $104,000 USD and with the ability to travel as far as 335 miles on a single charge (Evrater.com, 2019). There are even more hybrid options. The International Energy Agency estimates that there were 3.1 million electric vehicles in use in 2017 (including fully electric vehicles and hybrids; DiChristopher, 2018), and while that represents a mere fraction of the more than 73 million total cars that were produced in 2017 (International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, n.d.), these cars are gaining ground—albeit slowly. Worldwide, their numbers saw a 54% increase between 2016 and 2017 (DiChristopher, 2018), and in the United States, electric vehicle sales increased 81% between 2017 and 2018 (Pyper, 2019)—which seems like a lot until you realize it only amounted to 361,307 cars. Given that more than 17.2 million vehicles were sold in the U.S. in 2018 (Statista, 2019), electric vehicles only made up 2%. Europe’s figures are not much higher: of the 15.6 million cars sold in 2018, only about 6% were fully electric or hybrid (Kane, 2019).

Ultimately, the future of the electric car may lie in the hands of one of the world’s most populous countries: China. More than 1 million electric cars were sold there in 2018 (Huang, 2018), and according to a report by Bloomberg, “China will lead the transition from internal combustion engines to electric cars, with EV sales accounting for almost 50% of the global market from now to 2025 and 39% in 2030” (Kou, 2019, p.4). The report estimates that in twenty years, China will have 200 million electric vehicles traversing its roads (Kou, 2019).

In the meantime, you’ll be most likely to run into an electric car in Los Angeles, Shanghai, or Beijing and most likely to find a public charging station in those latter two Chinese cities. However, if you’re looking for an unoccupied charging station, your best bet will be a major city in Norway or the Netherlands, where the station-to-population ratio is considerably more favorable than in China or the U.S. (Sisson, 2017).

Environmental impact of the electric car trend

Given that, on average, vehicular traffic has been found to be the biggest source of air pollution around the world (Karagulian et al., 2015), and air pollution contributes to climate change (Nunez, 2019), switching to an electric or hybrid vehicle is a contribution to the planet’s future. How great a contribution? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a typical passenger vehicle produces 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, along with methane and nitrous oxide (which are emitted in lesser quantities but have a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide). Electric vehicles, in contrast, produce no tailpipe emissions, meaning no carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, or methane. Hybrid vehicle emissions are trickier to calculate because they vary by make and model, but due to the fact that these cars require less gasoline to cover the same mileage as gas-only cars, they consequently produce less emissions (Roos, 2010).

Besides lessening or eliminating tailpipe exhaust, there’s another environmental benefit to cars that use less (or no) gas: if gas doesn’t need to be extracted and processed because cars don’t need it to run, then all of the emissions that go along with extracting and processing that gas are eliminated, as well. Admittedly, hybrid and electric vehicles—and particularly their batteries—require more energy (and therefore fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases) to produce than conventional cars (Roos, 2010), so when you first walk onto a car lot, a typical gas-powered car is actually the “greener” purchase. However, as soon as you drive out of that lot, the equation flips. Over the long term, gas vehicles emit far more greenhouse gasses, canceling out any production differences and making electric and hybrid vehicles the overall better environmental choice.


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