Researchers have no idea when electric cars are going to take over

February 28, 2019. Picture taken February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song – RC143DAE38B0
February 28, 2019. Picture taken February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song – RC143DAE38B0
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song
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The only thing sure about electric cars is they will eclipse the internal combustion engine—one day. The timing, however, is the topic of fierce and wildly divergent speculation. At the moment, only one in 250 cars on the road is electric. Battery electric cars comprise 2.1% of new global auto sales (about 2 million passenger vehicles). Electric vehicle (EV) sales should hit 2.7 million in 2019 even as the broader auto market declines (paywall).

But guesses about the timing of gas guzzlers’ eclipse are all over the map. Quartz assembled several of the top projections to gauge the size of the discrepancy. Optimists such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) in its 2019 Electric Vehicle Outlook report see the total EV stock soaring to 548 million by 2040, or about 32% of the world’s passenger vehicles. Bears, such as ExxonMobil and the oil cartel OPEC, put that day far into the future. Exxon’s most recent predictions, the most pessimistic (or optimistic?), show the global stock of EVs reaching only 162 million by 2040. That’s 70% lower than BNEF’s base case.

How can these predictions be so divergent?

Two assumptions make all the difference in EV adoption models, says Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport for BNEF. The first is price parity. EV’s sticker price is expected to exceed conventional cars’ until the mid-2020s. Right now, electric vehicles are more expensive than conventional counterparts thanks to their pricey batteries and relatively small EV manufacturing capacity. No one is sure how far battery costs, the biggest expense in making EVs, can fall (they’ve already dropped 85% since 2010), and when EVs will achieve the same economies of scale as combustion engines have secured over the past century. The price of oil changes the total cost of ownership as well (New York City says EVs’ lower fuel and maintenance costs already makes them the cheapest option for its fleet).

That means incentives will continue to play an outsized role in EV demand. “Cost parity only happens because of volume [sales] from regulation,” says Nic Lutsey of the International Council of Clean Transportation. “If you push one or two levels deep in the models, you will always get to that point.” Every country has their own plans, subject to domestic politics. China relies on mandates. The country requires manufacturers to produce “new energy vehicles” each year. To stimulate demand, authorities have made it hard to even register a conventional vehicle compared to an EV. Other nations favor carrots. Norway has lavished generous perks such as free parking and tolls, as well as subsidies. America has a patchwork of state and federal incentives, mostly tax breaks, subject to change every year.

The second factor is the demographics of demand. The market for electric vehicles is highly segmented. Early adopters tend to be wealthy homeowners, and often own a second (or third) car. After demand in this demographic is saturated, it’s unclear how fast it will move down the income ladders. For EVs to go mainstream, a combination of new infrastructure (chargers), public education, and cost savings is needed. Many of these are only partially in automakers’ control. The nightmare scenario for EVs is that the appeal won’t spread fast enough beyond “techies and greenies” to sustain the growth of the early market, says David Keith, an engineer and professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Internal projections

Even within organizations, there are plenty of wrong guesses year to year. Most have consistently underestimated the number of EVs sold annually, and have had to revise their estimates upward as businesses and drivers embraced EVs faster than expected, and battery costs plummeted.

OPEC’s forecasts, while settling into a more consistent curve recently, have increased by an average of 210% since 2015.

Even BNEF has seen its forecasts jump, although to a lesser degree, despite much sunnier projections. McKerracher says its forecasts’ deeper analyses of the underlying technology give them greater confidence in growing demand over time as lithium-ion batteries fall in price.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA), America’s official source for energy statistics, has made one of the biggest adjustments to forecasts. Since its original one in 2011, the agency has raised its projections for EV stocks in the US by a factor of 20. Price played a big role. As recently as 2017, the EIA was predicting a $35,200 EV wouldn’t arrive until 2025. Several arrived last year.

That may sound willfully oblivious, but for government analysts it just seems prudent, Politico reports. Governments tend to formulate conservative estimates based on today’s technology rather than hazard guesses on future developments. That’s fine for mature industries. During times of breakneck technological change, it doesn’t work as well. As a result, the US government has massively and consistently underestimated the spread of renewable energy in the US.

Time will tell whether that’s true for EVs, too. Cheerleaders are seeing their predictions vindicated for now. But the uncertainty around the industry means it’s still anyone’s guess. So far in 2019, predictions of massive growth have yet to materialize.

Car companies are moving ahead anyway. Huge investments in electrification have already been announced. Volkswagen has committed $50 billion. Daimler placed a $23 billion order for EV batteries last year. GM and Ford are restructuring their business around electric cars. Whatever energy analysts predict, automakers are preparing for an electric future today.

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