The myth that the future belongs to electric cars is one of the original misconceptions of the modern energy era, dating back to the introduction of the very first passenger vehicles. During the industry’s first two decades, electric cars appeared to have great promise; in 1899, an electric car was the first to break the 60-mile-per-hour barrier. By the 1930s, however, improvements in gasoline engines had pushed electric cars off the market.
But the myth that electric vehicles are the future of transportation refuses to die. The resurgence of the electric dream began in the 1990s, when several models were introduced at exorbitant prices and with very little success. The most recent wave of electric cars ranges from the Tesla Roadster, which sells for $109,000, to the GM Volt, priced more reasonably at about $41,000. Enthusiasts, ranging from Hollywood celebrities to promoters waiting for more government subsidies (Volt will get about $7,000 per car!) foresee a rapid conquest of the global car market by the electrics.
I advise caution: Do not be surprised if electric cars do not follow the trajectory of personal computers and mobile phones. Leaving aside the prohibitive prices, the infrastructure needed to support wide-scale use of electric cars is nonexistent. How readily will the requisite millions of batteries be available when manufacturers are quick to unveil new, bold electric car plans but slow to commit to massive battery orders? And how will people in large cities, where 30 to 60 percent of cars are parked curbside, charge their vehicles? Mass construction of charging stations must precede mass ownership of electrics outside of the suburbs, where vehicles could be charged in garages. This is why researchers at IHS Global Insight put the share of pure electrics at just 0.6 percent of world sales in 2020, and why any claim that electric cars will soon take over the market is utterly unrealistic.
“Flipping the switch” and going electric will not solve America’s automotive dependence on imported oil, either in the near- or long-term. A far better use of resources would be to focus on the development of more efficient gasoline-powered engines; there is no reason the U.S. fleet should not average 50 mpg rather than today’s average of less than 25 mpg.
Vaclav Smil is author of Energy Myths and Realities and is a distinguished professor in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba.