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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

This Was the Year That Electric Vehicles Took Off

It might finally be happening. For years now, technologists have promised that the age of the electric vehicle cometh. After false starts in the early 20th century (when electrics, for a short time, accounted for a third of US vehicles), the 1970s (thanks, gas crisis), and the early 2000s (when two American engineers founded a company called Tesla Motors), electric vehicles are going mainstream.

Data from research firm BloombergNEF shows that the world hit an annual passenger EV sales record of 7.1 million halfway through 2022. The firm projects 10.6 million in sales by the end of year—even despite ongoing stresses on the vehicle supply chain that have made it difficult to get electrics into dealership lots.

In the first half of 2022, 13 percent of worldwide passenger vehicle sales were battery electric, plug-in hybrids, or fuel cell vehicles, according to data from BloombergNEF. Still, the growth is uneven, with Germany (26 percent), the UK (24 percent), and China (23 percent) leading the way. Only 7 percent of the passenger vehicles sold in the US in the first half of the year were zero-emission. 

What’s going right? For one thing, government efforts to combat climate change through progressive transportation policy seem to be bearing fruit. Since 2020, Germany has offered car buyers up to 9,000 euros in incentives if they choose to go electric, a scheme that’s worked so well that the government will reduce the payout in 2023. China has aggressively invested in its domestic electric car industry for nearly a decade. And the US government this year passed a raft of new programs that not only extend vehicle purchase incentives but also aim to support a more American electric vehicle supply chain, from vehicle assembly all the way down to the mining of the rare minerals that go into EV batteries. 

Automakers have also ramped up production of all sorts of electrics. After years of limited electric options, more people are now able to find an EV to meet their needs, whether they’re a single gal out for a weekend joyride or a busy parent toting a couple of kids plus accessories. In the US, that has produced a diverse menu of new all-electric SUVs, including the Tesla Model Y and VW ID.4, trucks including the Ford F-150 Lightning and Rivian R1T, and zippy sports cars, including the Porsche Taycan and Ford Mustang Mach-E. Europeans have gone for smaller hatchbacks, including the Fiat 500 electric and Peugeot e-208—and have even been courted by Chinese automakers who have worked to meet high European safety standards. 

There’s reason to think that the EV surge can continue. Before the end of this decade, top global automakers have pledged to spend an astronomical $1.2 trillion to produce 54 million electric vehicles, according to a Reuters analysis. Governments have pledged to spend billions on charging infrastructure. Battery makers have pledged billions in factory startup costs.

This is all good news for governments that have set aggressive targets to phase out gas car sales by 2035. The European Union and the US states of California, New York, and Washington all formalized their plans to do so this year. But although EV sales are surging now, plenty could slow the electric revolution.

For one thing, electric vehicle chargers aren’t nearly widespread enough. Governments and the private sector need to build out a global network of electric vehicle chargers that can serve not only passenger cars but also fleets of vans and trucks with a ubiquity that can rival gas filling stations. For another, the world’s supply of battery minerals—lithium, nickel, cobalt, even graphite—is limited, and it’s dirty work to get them out of the ground. Was 2022 the electric tipping point? It’s a question that can only be answered in hindsight.

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