What’s Driving the Electric Car Renaissance

Now you can read us on your iPhone and iPad! Check out the BTRtoday app.

It wasn’t so long ago that even semi-electric cars were a novelty reserved for only the most ecological idealists. Toyota debuted its Prius hybrid in 1997, but it struggled initially before gaining a firm foothold in the United States. Other major automakers began introducing hybrids, such as Honda, Ford, and Chevrolet, but the idea of an all-electric car was still a pipe dream—let alone a world in which the majority of the cars on the road were electric.

Fast-forward to 2016, and the world of electric cars reads less like hopeful science fiction and more like inevitability. The electric car market has grown between 60 and 100 percent per year for the past five years, and projections foresee that growth accelerating even further in years to come, so much so that the 2020s could be “the decade of the electric car.”

Environmental consciousness is part of the reason behind this meteoric rise in electric automobiles. Aside from eliminating the reliance on oil, electrics also reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere. In fact, several states are providing incentives for automakers to utilize zero-emissions technology, as well as for consumers to go electric, including financial and parking incentives, utility rate reductions, and more.

When it comes to the companies themselves, there are established automakers that have introduced electric cars, as well as “hopefuls” that are in the process of developing an all-electric lineup. It’s too early to say who will dominate the market in the coming years, but Tesla certainly seems to be holding the pole position. It’s the only car company that’s built electric cars in a quantity of any significance in the last 100 years (oh yeah, there were electric cars in the early 20th century), and their nationwide charge network helps people drive routinely without worrying about battery power.

We have a ways to go before we’ll be seeing rest stops filled up with charging stations and highways populated by all-electric vehicles, but things are headed that way. A number of questions about the future persist, though; what will incentivize companies to move toward electric? What will that transition look like? How will electric companies market their vehicles to customers who have only known gas?

BTRtoday had the chance to chat with Christopher Alan, editor of Electric Car Insider, about these questions and more.

BTRtoday (BTR): How severe an environmental red flag is needed to push this transition from gas to electric?

Christopher Alan (CA): Companies aren’t going to respond to climate change, they’re going to respond to environmental regulations that require them—as they do now, in 10 states—to build an increasing percentage of their cars to be zero-emissions, including no-carbon emissions. So regulations tell the carmakers to get off their ass and switch their technology to zero-emission technology. They can do it, and in fact, they are.

Look at what’s happening with Volkswagen today—they’re backing off of diesel and they’re spending a huge amount of money in electrics, and ultimately that’s going to put them in a very good position to compete.

BTR: What will that transition look like, and how long will it take?

CA: We know a couple things. We know what the regulations say now, and what the regulations say now is that automakers have to build a little less than one percent of their cars as zero emissions in 10 states. Those 10 states comprise about 34 percent of all cars sold. It’s going to double in 2018; it ratchets up by two percent of their total production every year thereafter until 2025. So, nine years. At that point, a large percentage of the cars on the road will be electric. It will no longer be an oddball thing.

BTR: What about the complication of gas cars off the road and those who will remain loyal to those vehicles no matter what?

CA: Cars have a shelf life, typically 12-15 years. Yes, you’ve got classics, which people take really great care of and last a really long time, but that’s not your typical car. Your typical car is in the junkyard within 15 years. It’s very rare that a car will last more than 20 unless it’s some exotic or classic. So as more electric cars are built and the internal combustion parts are retired, you’re going to see more electrics on the road.

BTR: What do electric car companies have to do in order to achieve market penetration in an industry that’s still so fixated on gas?

CA: Electric car companies have to do all the normal things that a car company has to do to market their car. They have to make a case on why it’s more effective, why it’s more desirable, what the benefits are as far as things like operating costs, that it’s a more enjoyable drive. They have to make that case.

BTR: You own a Tesla. From your experience, what are its best features and potential selling points to new car buyers?

CA: When you do take a Tesla for a test drive, you realize a few things. One, these cars are wicked fast, which is definitely something that sells cars. Even for people who are just commuting, they want cars that are peppy as opposed to one that’s a dog. Two, they look good. The third is they drive amazingly. They’re a wonderfully handling and incredibly responsive car. You just tap that accelerator and the car moves, it wants to move. You have that experience and you realize “holy crap, this is what a car could be.”

It’s more responsive, it feels better, like a more refined car. People talk about how quiet and vibration-free a Rolls Royce is, but Tesla, even though it’s a performer, is also refined like that. It’s a characteristic that people fall in love with and say, “this is just a better car.”

BTR: So even more than economy and ecological benefit, you think that refined drivability is really what will push electric cars forward?

CA: That’s what automakers are competing with now. It’s just one of those things that comes with electrics. They just make less noise, they vibrate less.

Now, you have to make a refined electric car, you can’t make a piece of crap, but you can take all that built-in goodness without thousands of explosions per minute and make sure it doesn’t whine, there’s no gear noise, that it doesn’t do anything uncomfortable for the driver. You get that all worked out, and you just have this premium driving experience, even if it’s a less expensive car.