Speeding Up Electric Vehicle Adoption in the US

March 28, 2019

The transportation sector is the fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S., accounting for 28.7% of total carbon dioxide emissions in 2017. According to a 2019 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, GHG emissions from transportation surpassed that from the electric power industry for the first time in 2017, making transportation the leading GHG emissions contributor of all economic sectors. Over half of the GHG emissions from transportation can be attributed to combustion of petroleum-based fuels used in passenger cars and light duty trucks. Shifting to electricity-powered mobility has great potential to decrease transport-related GHG emissions, especially with growing market shares of wind and solar photovoltaic electricity generation (and correspondingly, falling renewable energy prices).

While plug-in (battery and hybrid) electric vehicle sales have shown consistent growth since 2010, the market share in the US lags far behind other countries. As of 2017, the number of electric vehicles on the road exceeded 3 million worldwide, with the most advanced market shares in Norway (39%), Iceland (11.7%), and Sweden (6.3%). In contrast, the electric vehicle market share in the US stands at 1.2%, lagging behind China (2.2%) and Germany (1.6%). To achieve significant environmental benefits, electric vehicles need to grow beyond a niche market and become mainstream.

There exists a rich body of research examining the factors which influence electric vehicle market share at the country, state, county, city, neighborhood, and individual household levels. While the effect of some factors emerge as mixed (such as age, gender, education attainment, income, household composition, and managed lane access), provision of financial purchase incentives and public charging infrastructure consistently show positive impact on electric vehicle adoption. Research from our lab  using both Department of Motor Vehicles registration data and a state-wide vehicle preference survey in Virginia also echo these other studies. Our analysis shows that both federal and state tax incentives positively impact preference for electric vehicles and the provision of public fast charging infrastructure is especially key for increasing adoption of battery electric vehicles (and slightly less important for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which can operate in hybrid mode using gasoline once the all electric range is depleted). Indeed, with the highest density of charging stations per square mile and longest history of state incentives for electric vehicle purchases, California leads all U.S. states in electric vehicle market penetration.

In light of all the evidence supporting the importance of purchase incentives and charging station provision in increasing electric vehicle market share, it is discouraging to continually see legislation being introduced to remove federal tax credits for the purchase of plug-in electric vehicles. Doing so would certainly erode growth of electric vehicles in the U.S., putting us further and further behind in the worldwide electric vehicle market. The U.S. Department of Energy is prioritizing research to drive down the cost of batteries, and experts predict when battery costs are at or below $150 per kWh (projected by 2025), there will be parity between life cycle ownership costs of electric and internal combustion engine vehicles. But until then, federal and state purchase incentives for electric vehicles remain critical in the decarbonization of the transportation sector.

Certainly, mass market penetration of electric vehicles is not the only lever we can pull on the operational board to achieve a sustainable transportation system with lower GHG emissions, but it can be a significant one (and one that has already proven successful in countries and regions with the right policy incentives). Other strategies include promoting less energy-intensive modes of transportation (pedestrian and bicycle transportation, ridesharing, public transit, etc.), increasing energy efficiency of internal combustion engine vehicles, and decreasing overall travel demand through smart growth policies (such as mixed land use zoning) and transportation taxes which reflect use intensity (such as vehicle miles traveled fees and congestion-based tolls). We should, of course, pull on all of these levers. But investments in increasing electric vehicle market share and charging infrastructure provision is also beneficial in readying our transportation system for future mobility trends, which many experts forecast to emerge at the convergence of shared mobility, electric propulsion, and autonomous driving technology. Such a paradigm shift in transportation will fundamentally change the movement of people, catalyzing innovation in all components of the transportation sector that we have not witnessed since the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908. The U.S. led the transportation revolution then, are we ready to lead the next one?

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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