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How Electric Cars Could Catch On--and Quick

The world's not exactly lacking for ideas on how to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from vehicles. We can ratchet up fuel-economy standards. Invest in public transit. Switch over to diesel. Invent some sort of non-crop biofuel. Cross our fingers and hope we get the three or four technological breakthroughs needed to make hydrogen-powered cars a commercial reality. (Okay, that last one's a long shot.) Realistically, greening the transportation sector will probably require a slew of different approaches.

But the most promising route for cutting transportation emissions involves electrified vehicles. First we go plug-in hybrid. Then full-blown electric. If everyone were riding around in a car powered by—oh, I dunno—wind turbines spinning during the nighttime, we could cut emissions in the sector by 60 percent or more, and pretty much stop worrying about automobile pollution. (Well, at least until we start running out of lithium for the batteries...)

So, for a lot of analysts, electrified transport is the great medium-term hope of climate policy. All the big automakers are pouring money into the goal. One of the most powerful arguments for bailing out GM was so that we could save its Chevy Volt project. China's working furiously to corner the EV market. And so on. But there's still the big question: How long would it actually take for electric cars to have a noticeable impact? Those first-generation Volts, after all, are expected to cost upward of $40,000—not exactly a mass-market option.

Here's one answer: A new study by Thomas Becker, an economist at UC Berkeley, projects that, by 2030, electric vehicles could make up 64 percent of all light-vehicle sales—and 24 percent of all cars on the road. Not shabby at all. But there's a catch: According to Becker, the only way electric vehicles will catch on so rapidly is if consumers don't have to pay for the batteries, which tend to be the priciest component of electric cars. Instead, consumers could buy a pay-per-mile plan from a company, which would supply the batteries and swap them out at charging stations around the country to extend driving range:

First, not having to pay for the battery upfront makes the purchase price of an electric car competitive with that of an internal combustion vehicle. Given current battery prices and the federal tax incentives for the purchase of electric cars, switchable battery vehicles are expected to be $7,500 less expensive than a similar gasoline-powered car when introduced to the market in 2012. The total cost of ownership of these vehicles is expected to be between $0.10 and $0.13 lower on a per-mile basis than gasoline-powered cars, depending on the future price of oil.

Second, electric vehicles with switchable batteries can have a driving range comparable to gasoline-powered vehicles. ...

Lastly, consumers must perceive electric cars to be as reliable as gasoline-powered vehicles. To achieve this, Becker again finds that the best solution lies in separating the ownership of the vehicle from the battery. By placing ownership of the battery in the hands of an electric car network operator, consumer concerns over the lifetime or durability of the battery are eliminated. Switchable batteries also allow the newest innovations in battery technology to reach drivers more quickly.

Now, the company most closely associated with this battery-swap idea is Shai Agassi's Better Place. Agassi's company is currently linking arms with Renault, which will manufacture the cars, while Better Place provides the juice. Mind you, Becker concedes that the upfront infrastructure costs involved in his scenario are hefty: $320 billion over the next few decades. But on the other side of the scale, you have $205 billion worth of health benefits from less air pollution. Plus, cutting back 3.7 million barrels of oil per day, equal to what we get from the Middle East and Venezuela combined. And the climate upside. The main thrust of the Berkeley study is that this sort of transformation would be economically feasible over a fairly quick timescale—and not just an idle daydream.

--Bradford Plumer