Talk to an energy or climate wonk, and it's almost an article of faith that the electric car is the next big thing. It needs to happen to solve climate change; the prices for batteries are dropping; it's only a matter of time.
But will that transition become apparent in 2022 ... or in 2030?
The timing has weighty consequences for a warming climate, and for how every person gets from here to there. And it depends on factors ranging from public attitudes to battery costs.
Here are some of the critical questions that will determine the trajectory of electric vehicles this decade.
When will an EV cost the same as a standard car?
All watchers agree that EVs will become an irresistible force once they can be made as cheaply as a car made with an internal combustion engine. But projections for when that day will arrive vary wildly.
Unfortunately for EV advocates, expectations for a quick transition have been dimming over the past year.
The key consideration is the battery, which is the largest and most expensive part of an electric car. It is generally agreed that a lithium-ion battery pack must reach a price of $100 per kilowatt-hour to achieve parity with a gas engine. Today, prices stand between $175 and $200.
After heady drops late in the 2010s, the battery cost curve may be flattening out, meaning it might take longer to reach the $100 mark. A couple of recent meta-studies make that clear.
One report by Columbia University last month examined multiple studies to gauge what percentage of the global vehicle fleet will be electric by 2040.
It found that in the last year, the most optimistic forecasts had moved the $100 target date. In 2018, number crunchers estimated the crossover would occur somewhere between 2020 and 2022. Last year, those forecasts stated a more sober date of 2023. The median of other studies put it at 2025.
Another massive report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative in 2019 came to similar, and bracing, conclusions.
A standard electric sedan with a large battery "will likely remain upwards of $5,000 more expensive to manufacture than a similar internal combustion vehicle through 2030," it said.
This price uncertainty is one of many things that makes it hard to predict the length and steepness of the EV adoption curve. Others are the size of the future vehicle fleet, how fast the global economy and population will grow, and whether drivers will turn to EVs even if they cost more.
"There is no agreement on whether EVs will be a niche car or whether they will dominate vehicle sales by 2040," wrote Marianne Kah, the author of the Columbia report (Energywire, Dec. 20, 2019).
Is this the decade when drivers get excited about EVs?
The 2010s were the decade that launched the production electric sedan, like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Bolt, and, on the sexier side, high-performance cars like Teslas.
As the 2020s dawn, a much larger compliment of cars and even trucks have arrived in showrooms, or soon will. With nearly every global automaker spending billions of dollars on converting factories to produce EVs, a giant question is still unanswered: Will drivers want them?
The challenge is that most Americans simply haven't been thinking about EVs at all. A 2018 study found that even in California, where most of the country's EVs are sold, "households by the millions are simply not engaged in any transition" to EVs, with next to no knowledge of what vehicles are available or that a charging network exists.
That attitude is widespread. The global director of electrification at Ford Motor Co., Ted Cannis, wrote last September that one of the main misperceptions it hears is that people think an EV needs gas to operate.
Raising awareness has to this point been the lonely work of EV advocates, through such get-behind-the-wheel efforts like National Drive Electric Week. But with automakers having more skin in the game, it's possible that will change.
In the last few months, several automakers not called Tesla are offering models that are designed around speed and the luxury lifestyle.
The Audi e-tron and the Jaguar I-PACE, both performance cars meant to compete with Tesla's Model S sedan, are now available at dealerships nationwide. And in November, Ford got headlines when it unveiled the all-electric Mustang Mach-E, pegged for sale late this year.
All are playing up the intense speed that an electric car can summon, with its instant torque.
Meanwhile, another kind of vehicle that harnesses that torque — the electric pickup truck — has in the last few months surged toward the showroom.
The contenders are surprisingly numerous. Rivian, a startup based in Michigan, claims that its signature truck, the R1T, will be for sale late this year. General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra said its first electric pickup will be ready by late 2021, while Ford is teasing an all-electric F-150, delivery date unknown. Midwest startups Lordstown Motors Corp. and Bollinger Motors claim to have models on the way, and Tesla got loads of attention when it unveiled its Cybertruck in November.
All of this activity suggests that the most powerful force in vehicle marketing — the automakers themselves — might for the first time try to persuade the public to go electric in earnest.
That would be a big change for electric cars, which with the exception of Tesla always have been sold on their environmental credentials.
"We've sold cars through sex for decades," said Chelsea Sexton, a longtime advocate, "but we almost never see it with respect to EVs" (Energywire, Nov. 19, 2019).
Where will drivers charge?
America's system for charging EVs is still in its infancy. What sort of electric fueling network drivers need — and to what extent a network is needed at all — will start to become clear in the 2020s.
At present, the charging system is inadequate everywhere.
"We are short on charging infrastructure across the board in every state, even the states that are doing better. We are all playing catch-up," said Matt Stanberry, a managing director at the nonprofit Advanced Energy Economy, told the Pew Charitable Trusts this month.
The shortage is felt in California, which buys half of America's EVs. It has 22,000 charging stations but distributed unevenly. Huge rural regions still have none, while most big cities have far more but still too few. The state seeks to have 250,000 stations by 2025.
But the supply-demand problem also hinders states with relatively few EVs, such as Alaska, which is twice the size of Texas but can count 26 public stations, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Experts agree that most people will charge at their home garages — though no such solution exists for the millions of apartment dwellers who don't have a dedicated parking space.
A number of unknowns make it difficult to foresee how robust the charging-station presence need be. One is that the rate at which drivers will adopt EVs is unclear. Another is that building and operating charging stations isn't necessarily profitable, which is slowing their spread.
A third factor, many in the industry will admit, is that chargers being built today may be necessary now but not a few years from now. That's because new EVs are being built with hundreds of miles of range, eliminating the need for daily charging except on the exceptional long trip. Utilities and states are investing millions of dollars in chargers to create a feeling of security for those who are mulling an electric car purchase. But as more drivers come to understand that fueling an EV actually happens at home, it's possible that expensive public chargers will be little used.
California in particular is experimenting with how drivers and chargers will actually interact.
For example, Electrify America, the charging spinoff of Volkswagen AG that was created in the wake of its emissions scandal, is constructing charging depots intended for multiple apartment buildings.
In Los Angeles, the charging provider EVgo has partnered with Maven, General Motors' ride-sharing platform, to create a dedicated charging base for ride-share drivers (Electric Roadtrip, Oct. 28, 2019). And in San Francisco, a startup is building a parking lot where electric fleet vehicles charge with the help of robots (Energywire, Aug. 2, 2019).
Will state policies make a difference?
Federal support for EVs has halted under the Trump administration, which is pushing to roll back rules on auto efficiency. And while a future president may usher in a change, states and localities are likely to be the center of the action in the foreseeable future.
The biggest and boldest plan of 2020 is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a plan being crafted by a coalition of Northeastern states to put the brakes on emissions from cars, trucks and other conveyances.
Born of frustration with the Trump administration's inaction on climate change, it is in essence a trading system for fuels similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which has removed a large chunk of the region's carbon emissions from power plants since that program started in 2009.
In similar fashion, TCI would cap the carbon emissions from transportation. Trade in fossil fuels would fall under a system of carbon allowances that would become scarcer with every passing year.
The benefit would be a cleaner economy in the Northeast, which, like most regions of the country, now counts transportation as its largest source of carbon emissions. Revenue from the sale of carbon allowances would fund low-carbon options like mass transit, bike paths — and charging stations for EVs.
But TCI is destined to be larger, and more politically fraught, than RGGI. First, emissions from auto tailpipes are roughly four times what the Northeast issues from its power plant smokestacks. Second, the trading system is likely to raise gas prices, which is often a nonstarter with voters.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia are part of TCI. The group issued a draft memorandum of understanding last month, which is vague on details. The partner states aim to finalize the rule by the end of 2020 and have the trading system take effect by as soon as 2022.
These could take many forms, including build-outs of charging stations by utilities, rules issued by state utility commissions, rebates for the purchase of electric cars or home charging stations.
In California, state officials are pulling dozens of regulatory and policy levers in pursuit of the state's goal of getting 5 million EVs on the road by 2030. It's still a big lift; as of September, the state's drivers had bought 655,000.
Other actions by states, utilities and regulators are numerous, if smaller in scope.
A mid-2019 report by the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center found that 43 states were taking some form of action to spur the adoption of electric cars or to build out charging networks.
Some of the more prominent ones are proposed public investments in charging stations in New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Maryland — which is a partial list of the states that are also part of TCI.