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Electric Vehicles: Where Are They Now, and Where Are They Going?

One of the hottest topics in technology these days is the electric vehicle. It seems like everyone either thinks the industry is on the verge of a worldwide disruption, or that all the buzz has no substance. If you’re not sure what to think, here’s a primer so you can follow the conversation and decide for yourself.

The First Electric Boom

This isn’t the first time electric vehicles have had traction in the United States. They were introduced to the market in the late 1800s and, near the turn of the century, nearly 34,000 electric vehicles were registered in the country. However, they were largely impractical luxury items for the wealthy. It wasn’t long until the powerful internal combustion engine defined the status quo for the average consumer.

Modern Electric Vehicle Terminology

There are some important distinctions to make when talking about the electric vehicles. Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) charge a battery during the braking process and require gasoline to get going. Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) can run either on gas or an electric charge, but their batteries are charged from an outlet. All-electric vehicles or “battery only” (BEVs) don’t have a gasoline tank or an internal combustion engine. They operate entirely from lithium ion batteries and electronic motors.

Although HEVs have been around for a while, most of the current excitement and discussion is about PHEVs and BEVs, because they can operate entirely without fossil fuels. From here on in the article, the term “electric vehicle” will be used to indicate PHEVs and BEVs.

The Current State of Affairs

In the last 5 years, sales of electric vehicles have risen from 17,800 in 2011 to 157,181 by the end of 2016. That’s an 883% increase in 5 years! However, despite the seemingly astronomical growth rate, those sales only made up 1.39% of the market for new cars in 2016. The growth is promising, but electric vehicles still have a long way to go.

Another way of looking at the current situation is to evaluate the electric vehicle infrastructure. According to the Department of Energy, excluding private stations, there are 15,727 electric stations with 41,790 vehicle charging outlets across the US. Compare that to just under 105,000 gas stations in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Considering the low market share of electric vehicles, that’s a lot of charging stations. Some interpret this as an optimistic outlook for the technology.

The Future of Transportation?

Proponents of electric vehicles often tout the convenience of charging a vehicle in one’s home as well as cost savings from switching away from the relative volatility of oil-based gasoline to domestically-produced energy. Convenience and reduced costs aren’t the only predicted benefits though. Manufacturers of electric vehicles are heavily investing in and exploring self-driving technology. This has lead to much speculation of (nearly) accident-free roads, faster transportation times, and cities without the need for parking lots.

Although battery prices are falling, which will lead to more affordable models, electric vehicles are still significantly more expensive than their gasoline-powered counterparts. The federal tax credits that were designed to offset this cost have limits that are running out ¾ with no renewal in sight. Additionally, emissions standards for cars may become more leinient in the near future, disincentivising manufacturers from pursuing more electric vehicles.

Most experts seem to agree that electric vehicle technology has proven itself far too practical to disappear again. However, market adoption will likely be slow, and the utopian future free of parking lots may only begin to appear as our great-grandchildren reach driver’s ed. Lucky them!

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