In some ways, this is a follow-up piece to another recent article I did, where I make the argument that autonomous vehicles don’t need to be mandatory to get the safety benefits. As I was writing that one, I started thinking about efforts to make EVs mandatory, like Washington State’s recent law mandating all new vehicles to be electric starting in 2030.
I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who supports widespread EV adoption asking whether we really even need to make EVs mandatory. Sure, this question often comes in a disingenuous manner from people who are seeking to hold it back for various reasons (oil companies, people funded by oil companies, etc.).
When I ask this question, and make a case against making it mandatory, I’m not saying I don’t want to see a transition to EVs. We desperately need to get a lot more EVs on the road and we need to remove a lot of the gas and diesel vehicles from the road. Pollution, both in the forms of greenhouse gases and noxious gases that cause more immediate health problems, needs to go down. We can’t afford to wait a lot longer to get there.
My argument here is that we don’t need to make EVs mandatory to get wide adoption, because economic and technological trends will lead to nearly everyone adopting them without the government making them do it.
The Cart Of Law Can’t Be Ahead Of The Horse
Let’s do a little thought exercise: What if governments had mandated electric vehicles in 1950?
Leading up to 1950, the situation wasn’t that good for EVs.
While electric vehicles were a big thing from the late 1800s to about 1920, gasoline vehicles won out when battery technology couldn’t compete with the range of gasoline. The last holdouts were people in cities, who liked the silent running and ease of operation, and didn’t need to go as far. Women in particular didn’t want the hassle of hand-cranking a gas engine to get it started, as that required a lot of muscle.
The invention of the electric starter motor changed all that. By running a small electric motor very briefly at high capacity, the starter took the hard work out of starting a gas-powered vehicle. The first vehicle to get an electric starter was a Cadillac in 1912. After that, only relatively expensive luxury cars came with starters. Over the next few years, everything got an electric starter. After a couple of years with hand cranks, even the affordable Model T got one.
With little advantage to these early EVs left, they died out.
It wasn’t disinterest in battery technology that led to their demise at this point. Thomas Edison, in particular, invested a fair amount of money trying to get EVs to become the standard, but didn’t have any luck coming up with a better battery that didn’t wear out after not that many charge cycles. Also, given that EVs aren’t the only use for decent battery technology, there was plenty of work going on throughout the 20th century to get battery technology to the point where it could power an EV.
By 1950, that hadn’t happened, though. Decent use-and-toss alkaline batteries didn’t hit the market until 1959, and rechargeable ones were still quite expensive. The Space Race helped NiMH batteries get better, but they weren’t affordable for anything but expensive space applications until the 1980s. The same was true for lithium-ion batteries.
Automakers all continued to experiment with electric vehicles here and there, but battery technology meant either short range, short longevity, or both. The motors were ready, but the batteries weren’t there yet.
If the government had mandated electric vehicles in 1950, it wouldn’t have worked out. You can’t mandate the impossible, no matter how badly you want that law. Even if they had passed such a law, the technology for decent range just wasn’t there and wouldn’t be for decades. It would have killed the automotive industry (some readers might think that would have been a good outcome in favor of transit, but that’s beyond the scope of this article).
If it didn’t kill the industry, you’d likely have seen people exercise the same ingenuity they did keeping their older cars running during during World War II when everything from cars to tires were out of production until the government gave up and rescinded the policy.
The earliest such a thing could have possibly worked was the 1990s, but the cost of batteries would have driven up the price of all cars significantly. California ran a successful mandate, but they only called for a small percentage of sales to be electric, and not all vehicles.
Governments today aren’t doing what California did in the 1990s. They’re seeing that the industry has latched onto EVs and made it not only possible, but a realistic outcome. Now, they are trying to look innovative and take credit while riding Elon Musk’s coattails.
Dropping Battery Prices Will Make EVs The Best Financial Choice By 2030
Meanwhile, trends are underway that will make it happen with or without mandates. It’s already true that electric vehicles are cost-competitive when you consider fuel and maintenance costs, but their prices continue to fall and will reach the point where the purchase price of an EV and the purchase price of a gas-powered model will be the same. Later, EVs will get cheaper.
Sometime between now and 2030, and probably by 2025, the point where EVs are the same out-the-door price as the gas vehicle will come. When that happens, it will be a no-brainer to buy the EV. Not only is it the same price (or cheaper), but it cost way less to fuel and maintain. Sure, many people will continue to buy what they’re used to buying, but as they get even cheaper than the gas car, even the most die-hard of traditionalists will get to the point where they can’t justify spending more for the gas version.
At that point, or soon after, the industry will reach a tipping point. The adoption of EVs will take off even in backward/corrupt states that are trying to slow EV adoption down. They’ll become unstoppable.
The Few Niche Gas Cars Will Be Too Few To Matter
Just like when EVs faded away in the 1910s and 20s, there will obviously be holdouts. Some people are just set in their ways and will refuse to purchase an EV, no matter what it costs them. Even in 2021, you can still buy a “feature” phone, so clearly there will always be some demand for gas-powered cars.
But really, how often do you see a phone now that isn’t a smartphone? Nobody forced us all to buy smartphones. They have comparatively awful battery life, they’re a lot more fragile than older phones, and they’re more expensive, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages enough that only a small percentage of people opt for the “dumb” phone today.
Did Uncle Sam tell us that we have to buy a smartphone, or else? No. Did the phone manufacturers stop making them? No. Without any coercion, only a few diehard traditionalists and elderly people are buying them now. It’s common now even for homeless people to have a smartphone (even if it’s an older model).
Electric cars are likely to do the same thing. Sure, a few holdouts and enthusiasts will buy gas-powered cars, but the number will shrink to a small percentage not that long after the advantages of EVs heavily outweigh the disadvantages.
Even the most aggressive gas car bans don’t ban the sale of used gas cars, nor do they mandate that people who still have one in the 2030s switch their old car out. We know that people can keep a car on the road for decades, and restore abandoned or wrecked ones. Despite new sales bans on gas cars, expect to see some people drive them until the day they die. For some of them, that will approach the year 2100. Even after that, expect to see enthusiasts continue to operate them well into the 22nd and 23rd centuries as toys the way that some people still ride horses for fun.
Speaking of horses, there are still some Amish and Mennonite people who ride a horse to Walmart, prompting one Walmart store to designate a tie-up spot for their horses. The US military, with all of its vehicles, still uses horses on occasion. So, yes, people are still using horses for not only fun, but for transportation, but it’s rare enough that manure cleanup isn’t a concern like it once was.
The small minority of people who will want a gas car 15-20 years from now won’t produce enough of an environmental impact to bother with banning gas cars completely, and allowing new sales of gas cars in the 2030s and 2040s wouldn’t add enough gas cars to the road to really matter. Like “dumb” phones and horses, only a small minority of people will still want one, and they won’t be enough to matter.
Featured image: An airman participates in pack animal training in Emmett, Idaho, Feb. 9, 2020. Service members use pack animals, including horses, donkeys and mules, during missions where normal methods of transportation are restricted. Image by Air Force Airman 1st Class Taylor Walker, public domain.
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