The Future of Electric Cars

Henry Anderson
December 10, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014


Fig. 1: A Tesla Roadster at a charging port in California. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, environmental sustainability and economic stability have become increasingly controversial topics for debate in the U.S. One of the major factors in this debate has been the auto industry, with gas-powered vehicles causing issues for both the environment and the American economy. Not only do electric vehicles have considerably lower greenhouse gas emissions that conventional cars, but they also provide a cheaper alternative to gasoline. As a result, the government has spent a lot of time and money to fund the research and development of efficient electric vehicles. Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and all-electric vehicles (EVs) have the potential to help contribute to a more stable American economy and a sustainable environment in the future.

History of Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles have a long history in the United States, with an electric fleet of New York taxis showing up in 1897. By 1899, the US public held a general perception that EVs were cleaner, quieter, and easier to control than gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, more electric vehicles were sold in 1899 and 1900 than any other type of car. Soon, almost 1 in every three cars in America was electric. But electric vehicles had a shorter range and were much more expensive than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles. [1] In 1908, the introduction of Henry Ford's Model T popularized gasoline powered cars, which proved to be much more affordable than electric cars. As gas powered vehicles continued to gain popularity in the U.S. due to the ready availability of gasoline and the desire for more powerful cars that could travel long distances, electric vehicles had almost vanished. By the 1920s, electric car manufacturers were either bankrupt or developing cars with gasoline engines, and by 1935, the electric car industry was essentially dead. [2] Gasoline shortage during WWII prompted a resurgence of the electric vehicle industry. Environmental concerns in the 1960s and oil shortages in the 1970s also sparked public interest in EVs, but it wasn't until the late 1990s and early 2000s that the electric vehicle industry made a complete resurgence. A renewed interest in clean air and cutting down on pollution from traditional gasoline-powered cars led to a number of different stricter environmental initiatives and regulations. These directives "encouraged research in EVs and re-energized the development of environmentally friendly vehicles." [1]

The Future of Electric Vehicles

While electric vehicles have become more affordable, more efficient, and more available, experts remain split on the debate over the future of electric vehicles. Former chairman of General Motors, Bob Lutz, predicts that "by 2039, almost all private transportation will be done by electric vehicles." On the other hand, Kevin Riddell, the manager of powertrain forecasting at LMC Automotive, believes gas powered vehicles "will likely still make up 50 to 75 percent of the market." [3] As of 2014, only .08% of the 242 million vehicles in America are purely electric.

Achieving a more sustainable method of transportation is crucial, and EVs help reduce dependence on foreign oil by utilizing a relatively inexpensive source of electricity. Reducing our foreign fuel dependence means sending less money to other countries and keeping more money in the U.S. economy. Fueling a car with electricity is also much more economically efficient than fueling it with gasoline, as electric drivetrains are much better than internal combustion engines at turning energy into miles driven. EVs present numerous opportunities to save money, and they present potent opportunities to boost the economy in a variety of ways. With electric vehicles becoming more popular, economic experts expect job creation in numerous industries to support the manufacturing of the vehicles and R&D. [4] But maybe most importantly, EVs are crucial to lower carbon emissions in the transportation sector and help contribute to a greener environment as they do not produce any emissions while on the road.

Issues That Must be Addressed

In order for electric vehicles to take a larger percentage of the auto market share, increased funding is desperately needed. The US government has been investing in the electric vehicle sector by subsidizing the construction of charging stations. One study done by MIT researchers concluded that if funding remains at its current level, battery electric vehicles would reach only 3.7% of all vehicle sales by 2040. On the other hand, EV sales could jump to 50% of all vehicle sales by 2040 if more money is invested in the sector. So in order for electric vehicles to realize their full potential and become a mainstay in the US auto market, more money needs to be spent. [3]

Another important issue that electric vehicle manufacturers must address involves the power of the battery. More affordable electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric only travel around 80 miles on a full charge. While Tesla's Model S can travel around 300 miles with one charge, these luxury cars are expensive and buyers have to pay a lot more for the more powerful lithium-ion battery in the car. If battery costs drop, affordable electric vehicles may be able to travel several hundred miles within the next decade and EV sales could surge. In addition, with fueling times taking up to half an hour, researchers need to continue to find ways to speed up the recharging of car batteries. [3]

In the first half of 2013, EV sales in the US doubled compared to the same period in 2012. The cost reduction of batteries helped contribute to this sales boost, as "the cost of high volume EV batteries has fallen by more than 50% in the past 4 years." The reduced cost of batteries, better manufacturing efficiency, and higher production volume are all helping to lower prices of EVs. [5]

With more funding and R&D, electric vehicle sales could grow as researchers and automakers find ways to design an affordable vehicle that can travel just as far as one with a conventional engine.

© Henry Anderson. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. D. Anderson and J. Anderson, Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History, 2nd Ed. (McFarland, 2010).

[2] M. H. Westbrook, The Electric Car: Development and Future of Battery, Hybrid and Fuel-cell Cars (Inst. Eng. Technol, 2001).

[3]P. LeBeau, "It's Electric: Experts Split on the Future of EVs," CNBC, 18 Aug 14.

[4] J. Todd, J. Chen, and F. Clogston, "Creating The Clean Energy Economy: Analysis of the Electric Vehicle Industry," International Economic Development Council, 2013.

[5] L. Tillemann et al, "Revolution Now," US Department of Energy, September 2013.