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Electric Vehicles Poised to Go Mainstream

October 23, 2017

The bumper sticker on the back of Scott Wilson's car reads, "This is what the end of gasoline looks like."

And what does that car look like? A sleek, sci-fi experimental vehicle? A $100,000 Tesla luxury car?

Nope. It's just a Kia Soul EV, the battery-powered version of the Korean automaker's boxy hatchback.

Once the domain of concept cars and hobbyists, electric vehicles are no longer so exotic. And sales are picking up. A record 150,000 of them sold last year in the United States.

"It used to be I knew everyone I saw that was driving an electric car," said Wilson, the vice president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington, D.C. "Now, I don't."

There are about to be a lot more strangers in EVs on the roads, many experts say.

Big carmakers, big plans

Volvo says every car it makes in 2019 and beyond will have an electric motor. General Motors says the company "believes in an all-electric future." Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predicts that in just over two decades, EVs will make up more than half of all vehicles sold.

Other analysts have more modest expectations. But even Exxon Mobil sees EVs topping 10 percent of the market by 2040.

Automakers hit a significant milestone in the past year. In December, General Motors launched the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the first car with a price tag under $40,000 and a range of more than 320 kilometers.

Automakers hit a significant milestone in the past year. In December, General Motors launched the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the first car with a price tag under $40,000 and a range of more than 320 kilometers.

That range is "basically double anything else that's available at a comparable price," said Chevrolet spokesman Fred Ligouri. Those figures "do wonders for getting beyond" what's known as range anxiety, potential buyers' fear of draining the battery before reaching their destination.

One-third of buyers have never owned an electric vehicle before.

"They went from (an) internal combustion engine vehicle right into pure electric," an encouraging sign, Ligouri said.

The Bolt's performance has impressed critics as well. Motor Trend magazine named the Bolt the 2017 Car of the Year.

The Bolt beat industry upstart Tesla to the mid-priced market. A modest 15,000 or so have been sold so far. But nearly a half-million people have ordered the Tesla Model 3, the company's entrant into the mass market, despite long waits and slow production.

"Those are signals that there's unmet demand for some of these new technologies," said the World Resources Institute's Eliot Metzger.

Electrification is cheaper than ever as the price of lithium ion batteries plummets faster than analysts expected. As costs come down, experts are moving up the date when electric vehicles can compete with internal combustion engines on price. BNEF puts that date in the second half of the next decade.

"We're much further along than most researchers (and) industry insiders would have projected just two or three years ago," said Nic Lutsey at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

China syndrome

Another reason the industry is moving fast: China.

Officials in the world's biggest auto market will require carmakers to meet an electric vehicle quota starting in 2019.

Beijing aims to increase EVs' share of the market from 1 to 2 percent today to around 4 percent in 2020.

"That's a very large scale up within just several years," Lutsey noted, but automakers say they can do it.

The push for electric vehicles is part of the government's plan to clean up the toxic air in China's major cities. Chinese officials are considering a ban on gas- and diesel-powered cars.

But it's not just China. Pollution concerns in France, the United Kingdom, and India have officials there considering bans, too.

In the United States, the Trump administration aims to relax vehicle emissions standards, though state policies will likely complicate those efforts.

Without a push from government, experts say electric vehicles will have a hard time making major gains as long as gas prices are relatively low.

But as electric vehicle driver Wilson points out, that can change at any time.

"After the next crisis, when gas is $5 a gallon, then there will be waiting lists for cars like this," he said.

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