As Electric Car Movement Gains Strength, Naysayers Continue Anti-EV Attacks

By · July 14, 2016

Affordable long-range electric cars, like the Tesla Model 3, are on the way. And analysts see an approaching tipping point, when EVs will become a sizable portion of global car sales.

It’s all too easy for electric car advocates to get embroiled in squabbles about which electric car is best or which company deserves the most credit for the EV movement. What’s being lost in these internecine arguments (e.g. Tesla versus General Motors) is the broader advance of electric vehicle technology, its prospects for helping solve environmental challenges—and a realization that opposition to electric cars is not going away.

According to a recent report by Wood Mackenzie—a data-driven energy consulting group based in the UK—electric cars could reduce US gasoline demand by as much as 20 percent over the next two decades. That would require an optimistic surge in EV market share from less than 1 percent today to about 35 percent by 2035. But even if the growth in electric car sales is more modest, reaching 10 percent in the next two decades, we could reverse gasoline usage patterns, sending them down by about 5 percent by 2035, according to Prajit Ghosh, the report’s author.

Stricter fuel efficiency laws will practically ensure a shift to EVs. A report that came out in late June from the World Energy Council—a UN-accredited entity—shows how the United States (as well as the European Union and China) will need a much faster EV ramp-up just to keep up with fuel economy standards. The World Energy Council said that the US will face a so-called “EV Gap” of 0.9 million electric vehicles in the US in 2020. That’s the number of additional battery-powered vehicles that will be needed to hit fuel economy targets. Among the report’s recommendations, it calls for vehicle manufacturers to quickly shift their product portfolios to meet regulatory demands and avoid penalties. Based on published plans for new electric cars, the industry is already heeding that call.

That EV gap will be filled faster than many analysts predict—if a February report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) is on target. The BNEF report indicated that, in a matter of only about five years, electric cars will become cheaper than conventional cars. In other words, the total cost of ownership a battery-electric car will dip below those of internal combustion vehicles by 2022—even with gas-powered cars improving fuel efficiency by 3.5 percent every year. That tipping point will push EV adoption to about 25 percent of global car sales by 2040 (if oil prices remain low) or as high as 50 percent (if electric cars become widely used in fleets and ride-sharing programs, as anticipated).

Naysayers Persist

Automotive forecasting is tricky and any of these numbers could be off. But the strong upward trend is undeniable to most—although not to Richard Muller, a professor of physics at UC Berkeley, who argues that EVs are destined for failure. “I predict that the electric cars are a fad that will fade,” he wrote last week in a widely published opinion piece.

Despite solid evidence to the contrary, Muller believes that EV costs (mostly from batteries) are actually not getting cheaper; that internal combustion technology will soon produce 100-mpg gas cars; and that EVs have “little to no environmental benefit” because most electricity (especially in China, the world’s biggest auto market) comes from coal.

Muller specifically targets Tesla. He said the company shows no profit, produces overly expensive vehicles for wealthy people, and makes cars for “techie nerds…who mistakenly think that such cars are a big benefit to the environment.”

These specious arguments gain support when the likes of John Holdren, a White House science adviser, give speeches about how movements to keep fossil fuels in the ground are “unrealistic,” as he did in his keynote address at this week’s annual conference held by the Energy Information Administration. His blanket statement that “we are still a very heavily fossil-fuel dependent world” was apparently backed up by Lindsey Geisler, a White House spokeswoman, who commented by email that “it’s not practical or affordable to replace the huge, fossil-fuel infrastructure with nuclear and renewables overnight, no matter how badly we may want to.”

These kind of statements dominated in the media when electric cars first went on sale in 2010. It’s striking that six years later—as the future of the technology seems more promising than ever and the need to reduce the environmental impact from the transportation sector remains critical—that opposition to vehicle electrification is alive and kicking, and showing no signs of letting up.

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