Plug-in America: Why 1 Million EVs By 2015

[Editor’s Note: In our newest column, we invited Chad Schwitters of Plug-in America to write a piece about what it will take to get to 1 million electric vehicles by 2015, which was one of President Obama’s talking points during his State of the Union speech. Plug-in America is an advocacy group promoting the need to get battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road in a quicker timeframe to help make the environment a better place.]

Getting to 1 million plug-in electric vehicles

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015.   Note that plug-in vehicles aren’t themselves the end goal–the real goal is for America to burn less oil.  While plug-in vehicles aren’t the only way to approach that problem, any strategy has to address transportation (over 70% of our oil usage) to make a notable dent.  And the tactic of encouraging plug-in vehicles is promising because it is one of the few technologies that can be put in to place for transportation right away.

image via Nissan

So what’s standing in the way of selling a million, or better yet, even more than a million:

  • Capacity to build more cars (we have enough for a million, but not a lot more than that yet).
  • Changed perceptions about plugging in.  Most Americans don’t even know somebody that has driven a plug-in vehicle.  They understandably have some concerns about how it works; the fueling procedure is quite different (at least for full-electric vehicles; plug-in hybrids are very familiar, but that’s another question many people have).  As more cars get on the road, more people will get to talk to owners and get their questions answered.
  • Comfort with the technology and its reliability.  As various vehicle technologies have been introduced (the internal combustion engine, automatic transmissions, airbags, ABS, hybrid drive, etc) many have had concerns about how safe and reliable it was.  It often takes a few years before it is accepted and adopted by the mass market.  But those of us that drive older electric cars have no fears!  There are hundreds fewer moving parts in an electric vehicle.

What things might look like in 2015

The economy will be in better shape than it otherwise would have been.  A million cars, even with the extremely conservative assumption that gasoline will remain at $3/gal, spend about $1.5 billion a year on gasoline—almost all of which leaves the country and contributes heavily to our trade deficit (oil is about half).  Instead, we will have spent less than $500 million on electricity, where the money and jobs stay local.   And our national security will be better.  We will be importing less oil, so our military and transportation will be that much less at risk in the event of a disruption in supply, or sudden price spike.  We will have less need to send aid and troops to the Middle East.   Our air will be cleaner, too.  How much cleaner depends on where the cars or purchased, or who purchases them.

A significant percentage of current EV owners use clean sources of electricity, like solar or wind—that is an enormous win.  But even if we make conservative assumptions that buyers are evenly distributed across the United States, all plug in to the grid, and the grid doesn’t get any cleaner—total pollution from these cars will still be reduced by about half.   We’ll be on our way to meeting our carbon emissions goals, as well.  Those numbers are similar to the pollution numbers.

What will we have given up?

Will our freedom to travel be impaired?  Absolutely not.  60% of US households have multiple cars AND a garage–that’s a market MUCH bigger than one million, and they sacrifice nothing by replacing one of their cars with a full electric—in fact, they will soon find that the EV is their first car, not their second.  Electric vehicles are quieter, cleaner, smoother, more reliable and easier to fuel; that’s why my wife and I ended up with two—we got tired of fighting over who got to drive the electric car.  Single-car households, or any others that have worries about range or recharge time, can get a plug-in hybrid instead—despite displacing oil with electricity for the vast majority of trips, it can be used exactly like a gasoline car for that rare long trip.

Chevrolet Volt, GM

image via GM

Will it cost more?  No.  EVs are famously more expensive up-front, but almost all Americans lease or buy on credit.  By the time you subtract fuel and maintenance savings from your monthly payment, the costs are very similar.   Will it be smaller, slower, less safe or silly-looking?  An electric drivetrain can be put in to any existing vehicle; in fact that is Ford’s approach to the market.  Size and safety will be identical.  As for speed—like with a gasoline engine, it depends on what size motor you put in to the car.  Cars like the Tesla Roadster show that the car can be as fast and good-looking as you like.   Will we run short on lithium, or be reliant on foreign rare earth metals, or poison ourselves with toxic materials?  The answers are all no.

How can we do more?

What I’m describing is better than what we have now in every way.  And it’s not at all hard to attain; in fact, if gas prices rise significantly in the next few years, it will probably be very easy.  The only problem is that it is not enough—we can use way more than a million cars that don’t burn gas.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.