Why is the switch to electric cars from gasoline cars taking so long?

If we can switch from caffeinated to decaffeinated coffee at the drop of a hat, why is it so hard to switch away from gasoline fuel for cars to something else?  We know that gasoline and all the other fossil fuels cause a wide range of problems, and that it’s a great idea to switch to clean renewable fuels for transportation.  But, changing over to cleaner fuels is taking a lot of time, and changing transportation fuels is meeting huge resistance.

Why?

Most of the decisions are made in the board-rooms of big companies – Automobile manufacturers, Oil companies – and in the halls of government.  We individuals have very little role in this, because we can only buy the vehicles the automakers offer for sale.  Recently the automakers have begun to offer some serious alternatives, and our society is in a slow process of evaluating and adopting electric vehicles.

We’re now a bit over three years after the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt went on sale, and their launch marks the current era of electric vehicles.  Sales of both are growing, and there is a growing roster of electric vehicles from many manufacturers, with Tesla Model S being the most exciting model on the market.  But total electric car sales are a tiny fraction of the overall car market.

Will we ever be able to stop driving gasoline cars?  Will electric cars ever take over the road?

Electric car adoption may follow a trajectory similar to the Toyota Prius.  While that car is selling well today, its’ first couple years saw lackluster sales and lots of criticism.  It wasn’t until the GenII Prius, when Toyota fixed the initial problems, that sales took off.

Here’s a few ideas about what’s delaying the switch away from gasoline powered cars:

The existing gasoline system is convenient:  The gasoline companies and automakers have had over 100 years to develop and refine the system for recharging gasoline powered cars.  You pull into a station, and within a few minutes are refueled for another 300+ miles of driving.

2011 nissan leaf charging ports

Energy density and Refueling time: The “range anxiety” bugaboo is really about recharging time.  Can the car be recharged quickly enough to be useful?  The effective speed of a road trip is limited by the driving range gained per hour of recharging time.  The recharging time of electric cars – say, 3-4 hours to give a Leaf 78 miles of range – works out to an effective 25 miles/hr speed.  Charge that Leaf with CHAdeMO, or a Chevy Spark EV with CCS fast charging, and the car gains 60ish miles in a half hour, for an effective speed of 110-120 miles/hr.  The Tesla Model S, charged at a Supercharger station, gains 300 miles of range per hour of charging.

Inertia: Do you brush your teeth the same way every morning?  We have a tendency to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them.

Investors demanding return on investments in existing infrastructure: The Investor Class controls a lot of the decisions in the world, because the CEO of each company is employed by the shareholders.  Each piece of oil industry infrastructure, from oil well, to tanker ships, to refineries, to pipelines, and gasoline stations, has a pool of investors who are demanding royalty payments.  Some of the stocks with highest dividend rates are oil pipeline operators.  The oil companies have to keep selling oil products in order for those investors to be paid the royalties they demand.

Self-perpetuating nature of existing power structures:  Entrenched power structures always work hard to maintain their position of power.  Any effort to do something different is seen as a threat to the existing power structure, and there is always a response to squash the new different thing.

There is somewhere around a trillion barrels of oil left in the ground:  That’s a lot of business income waiting to be reaped by the oil company investors.  These companies have already invested in the infrastructure to tap that oil, and have investors demanding their cut of the income that’s yet to be earned from oil that is yet to be drilled from the ground.

Car industry investments in engine-centered transportation: Similar to the oil industry’s investment in oil drilling and delivery infrastructure, the automakers have investments in tools, machines, factories, techniques, technology, and on and on, related to engines.  They have their own investor pool demanding royalties from those investments.

The slow ramp-up of electric car adoption is only partly due to electric vehicle technology limitations.  Because the technology is improving all the time, the limitations will be eliminated in the due course of time.  Even if electric cars reach price parity with gasoline cars, there are a big pile of other reasons why the powers-that-be might still fight to delay electric car adoption.  If nothing else, all the reasons named above will continue incentivizing efforts to continue delaying electric car adoption.

In order to move forward, must we buy out the investors in the current paradigm?  If it’s the investors who are incentivized to delay better ideas, then we have to somehow get rid of their influence.  For example, by buying every share of stock in every oil company, and closing down the companies.  That would cease the production and sale of gasoline and other fossil oil products, and give a huge positive environmental impact.

As audacious as that idea is, a recent proposal to close the coal industry and clean up the environment offered a compelling model for actually doing this.  It was made by a pair of leading thinkers in sustainability, Felix Kramer and Gil Friend.  They claim the idea could pay for itself – if there’s a price on carbon.  Revenue from carbon credits earned by shutting down the coal industry would pay for buying out the existing investors, and ongoing benefits to society-as-a-whole would be enormous.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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