Earlier this month at the Detroit Auto Show, Ford announced an $11 billion commitment to develop 40 electric vehicles, BMW said it will sell half a million electric vehicles by 2019 and the long serving head of Fiat Chrysler told colleagues they have less than a decade to adapt to massive changes in the automotive industry, including widespread electrification.
These are just the latest bits of news in a long running trend toward electrifying the transport sector. This is a process that will disrupt old business models and invite attacks on electric vehicles, including the argument that they are not really any better for the environment. Yet the data is clear — electric vehicles are simply better for the planet, and the trend will extend beyond cars to include buses, trucks and even planes.
The shift to electric automobile propulsion began with Toyota hybrids in 1997 then accelerated with Tesla electric vehicles in 2008. With their Roadster, Tesla demonstrated that electric vehicles need not be boring econobox city cars. With the Model S, it proved that full range luxury electric sedans with high performance were possible. In fact, in 2015 Consumer Reports declared the Model S “the best car they ever tested.”
The success of electric vehicles will not only be driven by policy but also by performance and cost. Electric vehicles are in fact better cars – fewer moving parts, weight ideally distributed front-to-rear below the car’s center of gravity, big crumple safety zones up front, near instantaneous torque response, and full torque from standstill. Battery costs are falling rapidly and range is increasing, addressing two of the main problems of early models.
Tesla’s Model 3, along with the Chevrolet Bolt and many other models soon to be released, are bringing electric cars into the mainstream. All the auto majors are now rushing to electrify their fleets.
This long-term trend is very disruptive to auto manufacturers and their supply chains, with hundreds of billions of dollars in potentially stranded assets — plants and equipment used to manufacture internal combustion engines that are no longer needed. The oil and gas industry is also facing major issues from electrification.
Future reductions in petroleum demand should keep per barrel prices low, making it harder for the industry to recover from current doldrums. Analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that electric vehicles are expected to displace two million barrels of oil a day by 2028.
These disruptions are inviting attacks on the practicality of electric vehicles and their potential emission benefits from vested interests like the oil and gas industry, which are then trickling down to the mainstream press. One of these claims is that they do not really reduce emissions but shift them from the exhaust pipe to the electricity plant.
Electric vehicle emissions are clearly dependent on the electricity source. With a theoretical all coal electricity grid, they would emit more greenhouse gases than today’s gasoline cars. With natural gas electrics fare much better, and with renewable electricity better yet. The average new U.S. car that gets 29 miles per gallon has total emissions of about 400 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Today an electric vehicle using an average mix of U.S. power generation sources — coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables — emits roughly 300 grams per mile, or 25 percent less. With more nuclear or renewable carbon free electricity, net emissions can fall to 100 grams per mile or less — and that’s including upstream emissions used in the manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines and the vehicles themselves. This would mean cutting emissions from ground transportation by 75 percent.
On some of the world’s cleanest grids, such as Sweden, a full transition to electric vehicles could reduce these emissions by up to 85 percent.
Of course, there are challenges ahead for full electric adoption. Charging vehicles at night at home is possible with existing infrastructure — charging on the highway on holiday weekends may require new power lines. Central bus depots with 200 or more buses will need new infrastructure with big cables. As the industry grows, we believe there is a major opportunity for investment in charging infrastructure, along with battery manufacturing and retooling of existing car plants.
Cities have been using hybrid electric busses for some years — better batteries for all —electric buses now appear to be poised to displace these hybrids. Urban transport is an area where fast adoption of electric vehicles is likely in order to improve air quality: think Los Angeles, Beijing, London and Paris where citizens already support strict limits on air pollution. We expect many more cities to follow.
Electrification, along with light weight carbon fiber, is starting to influence aviation as well, with small vertical takeoff and landing electric planes from companies including Zee.Aero and Joby Aviation, and hybrid regional planes from firms like Zunum all currently in development.
Electric transport is coming in a major way — it’s already much better for the environment and one of the keys to addressing climate change. With nine million deaths per year globally linked to air pollution, the benefits to public health are immense. Technology development underway on improved batteries and autonomous vehicles will make future electric vehicles even better, safer, and more efficient. Coupled with increased renewable generation, greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions will decline dramatically.
Jim Lyons is a senior technology adviser at Capricorn Investment Group, an investment fund founded to demonstrate investment potential in breakthrough commercial technology. Capricorn holds shares in Tesla and other companies developing electric transport technology. He is the former chief engineer at General Electric’s corporate research and development center.