MIT: 87% of vehicles could be electric today with no problem

August 17, 2016

Skeptics sometimes doubt whether electric vehicles will catch on. They compare them to gas-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs, bemoaning the fact that EVs have shorter driving ranges and higher sticker prices. However, a new study shows that the biggest obstacle standing between EVs and mainstream consumers may really be a lack of information.

The study was carried out by a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It reveals that 87 percent of vehicles registered in the U.S. could be magically converted to electricity overnight, and the country would be just fine.

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In numerical terms, that means that more than 226 million of the country's 260 million registered vehicles could go electric now, and we'd have the capability to pay for them, keep them charged, and get where we need to go.

To reach that conclusion, the team led by MIT's Jessika Trancik spent four years poring over a variety of statistics, including the distances that people drive in a given day. They looked at detailed, GPS-based data from drivers in California, Georgia, and Texas and conducted nationwide surveys about transportation habits. 

In doing so, not only did they discover that EVs would meet the needs of most motorists, but also that going electric wouldn't cost car owners any more money than if they were to keep driving their current gas-powered vehicles:

"[T]he team found that the vast majority of cars on the road consume no more energy in a day than the battery energy capacity in affordable EVs available today. These numbers represent a scenario in which people would do most of their recharging overnight at home, or during the day at work, so for such trips the lack of infrastructure was not really a concern. Vehicles such as the Ford Focus Electric or the Nissan Leaf--whose sticker prices are still higher than those of conventional cars, but whose overall lifetime costs end up being comparable because of lower maintenance and operating costs--would be adequate to meet the needs of the vast majority of U.S. drivers."

They also realized that there's not much difference between travel habits in different parts of the country. Trancik explains that, "The adoption potential of electric vehicles is remarkably similar across cities, from dense urban areas like New York, to sprawling cities like Houston. This goes against the view that electric vehicles--at least affordable ones, which have limited range--only really work in dense urban centers."

And of course, switching to electricity would dramatically reduce America's dependence on oil and its greenhouse gas emissions. Converting 87 percent of gas-powered vehicles to EVs would reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 60 percent and cut transportation-related emissions by 30 percent. (As the statistics suggest, converting the country's most pollution-prone vehicles--mostly those used for commercial purposes--isn't feasible yet.)

All that said, Trancik and her colleagues note that electric vehicles aren't always capable of meeting drivers' needs. On long road trips, or when extreme weather reduces a battery's driving range, motorists would need back-ups. However, those occasions would be rare, and needs could usually be met with a short-term car rental or ride-share.

Whether the report will convince more drivers to opt for EVs remains to be seen. Today, electrics account for less than one percent of cars in America. Compared to countries like Norway--where 24 percent of new cars sold are electric and the country is considering plans to ban gas and diesel car sales by 2025--we've got a long way to go.

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