The Future of Transportation Is Electric

April 24, 2019
Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns/Wikimedia Commons
David Reichmuth
Senior Engineer, Clean Transportation Program

It’s clearer every day: the future of transportation is electric. We should be cheering this transition—and encouraging it, because along with the benefits for drivers, electrifying transportation is going to be a critical piece of fighting climate change.

Unfortunately, for many observers, skepticism about electric vehicles (EVs) has become something like an article of faith. Mired in an obsolete set of facts, electric-vehicle naysayers are making the same arguments they’ve made for years even as technology speeds forward.

Take columnist George Will, who launched a broadside against electric vehicles last week. In casting doubt on the viability of EVs, Will is revealing that he hasn’t updated his understanding of the technology or the market in a decade. His argument relies upon outdated, misleading and just-plain-wrong evidence, undermining his thesis completely.

Here’s the truth. Electric vehicles are considerably cleaner than gasoline-powered cars, and this advantage is only increasing with time. Increasingly, coal-fired power generation is declining, and the share of our electricity produced by renewables is increasing. Indeed, Will inadvertently makes this point in his article. He points out that 27 percent of our electricity comes from coal power plants but leaves out entirely the fact that a decade earlier, coal was the largest source of electricity at almost half (48 percent) of all generation. We’re on the right path.

Coal-fired electricity generation has fallen significantly over the last decade, as natural gas and renewable electricity generation has increased. Replacing coal power plants with renewable sources of electricity will make electric vehicles even cleaner. Nuclear and hydroelectric power generation is not shown as they have remained largely unchanged at 20 and 7 percent of generation respectively. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

This move to cleaner electricity means switching from gasoline to electricity to power our cars and trucks will lower global warming emissions. Our most recent analysis (based on 2016 electricity generation statistics) shows that the average EV driven in the US produces global warming emissions equal to an 80 mpg gasoline car. And that number is even better in parts of the US, like California and the Northeastern states, where coal is lower and renewables higher in the mix.

In addition to being the biggest source of global warming emissions in the US, transportation is also a major source of air pollution that harms public health. Reducing the amount of pollution from tailpipes will have real benefits for people living in densely-populated cities or along major highways.

Electric vehicles are cheaper to operate and maintain than traditional gasoline vehicles. While the price of oil is volatile, the cost of electricity is low and stable, and in most cities driving electric can save a household hundreds of dollars every year. And as the market grows, the price of electric vehicles has fallen dramatically, with 80 percent of electric vehicles sold in 2018 having a base suggested retail price under $50,000.

An electric future is not just the hope of EV owners and engineers. Increasingly, both automakers and governments around the world are looking to an electric future as a way to cut oil use, reduce the risks of climate change and build a cleaner, more sustainable future. Major automakers including Volkswagen, General Motors, and Toyota have all explicitly stated their belief that the future is electric.

We’re headed toward an electric future—but it’s in our interest to make sure it happens fast, because the urgency of the climate crisis demands it, and because we can’t afford to get left behind as the world makes the shift to innovative new technologies. That’s why it still makes sense for the federal government to encourage electric vehicle adoption. We need to build a strong electric market and keep the US competitive in a carbon-conscious world.  Companies will prioritize research, development, and manufacturing where policies encourage electric vehicles. Pulling back on electric car incentives too early could harm both US manufacturing and drivers as these global car companies prioritize progress outside the US.

In insisting these incentives are unnecessary, Will uses outdated and misleading data. For example, he writes “after a decade of production, moral exhortations and subsidies, electric cars are a fraction of 1 percent of all vehicle sales.”  The truth is far different: In 2018 (7 years, not 10, after the debut of the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt), electric vehicles were 2 percent of new car sales in the US and 8 percent in market leader California. Sales are picking up and driving economies of scale in the EV industry, but the next few years are critical to have EV reach purchase price parity with conventional vehicles.

Mr. Will also picks up a favorite argument of the current administration: US cars and trucks are only a slice of global emissions, so why bother moving to a cleaner technology? Yes, our cars and trucks are not the only source of emissions, but they are a growing source in the US. And to avoid the worst impacts of climate change we need to greatly reduce emissions from all sectors, transportation included. The US is already seeing greatly increased costs from disasters linked to climate change, and the federal government warns that future costs of global warming to the US alone could be in hundreds of billions of dollars per year from extreme heat deaths, labor productivity losses, and coastal flooding damage. Implementing policies like extending the federal EV tax credit now to reduce emissions from transportation makes sense.

Finally, George Will also misleads with his discussion of the average income of those that benefit from the federal electric vehicle tax credit. The analysis he points only looks at the early electric car purchases (2014 and earlier) and crucially ignores leases of electric cars. Because many lower-priced electric cars were leased (and some available only for lease), the income data presented is skewed towards higher-income purchasers.

Will’s refusal to look at the latest evidence undermines his case against electric vehicle incentives. The real world has moved past his outdated arguments—and to refuse to update his understanding means he’s being dishonest with his readers.

About the author

More from David

David Reichmuth's work focuses on analyzing new vehicle technologies and advocating for policies that support the increased electrification of transportation. Dr. Reichmuth has testified at hearings before the US House of Representatives, the California State Legislature, and the California Air Resources Board, and he is an expert on California’s Zero Emission Vehicles regulation.