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Where I live, in Berkeley, CA, it can seem like every other car is either a Tesla Model 3 or Y. Or a Hyundai IONIQ 5 SUV. Or some other brand of EV. And that’s not including the hybrids, the Toyota Priuses and others, that appear ubiquitous along the Bay. Recently my wife and I were keen on getting a 2023 Prius, which is much more sleek and futuristic-looking than previous models, until our local dealer told us the interest is so high, we’d have to wait months to maybe get a chance to snag one. (We’re now settling on a 2017 Prius Prime.) 

Research reflects this growing interest. “A total of 14 percent of all new cars sold were electric in 2022, up from around 9 percent in 2021 and less than 5 percent in 2020,” according to a report on global car sales from the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization based in Paris. What’s getting consumers so amped about electric vehicles?

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I caught up with Kate Whitefoot to find out. Whitefoot is both a mechanical engineer and a policy wonk at Carnegie Mellon University. She works at an impressive and ever-more-relevant intersection of ideas. Her research, according to her academic page, “bridges methods in engineering design and economics to examine a variety of topics, including product variety and product-line design, transportation energy, environmental policies, consumer choice, and automation and parts consolidation in manufacturing.” In a new paper, Whitefoot and her coauthors find out what’s driving people into the seats of EVs, and suggest when electric vehicles will make up the majority of cars and SUVs. 

We discussed that in our recent chat, as well as the role Tesla has and is playing in supercharging the EV future, plus how manufacturing that future might impact the environment.

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What’s behind the increasing demand for electric cars?

It’s really about the performance characteristics of electric vehicles—how much they’ve improved in the recent past and how much they’re expected to improve in the future. Desire for electric vehicles hasn’t really changed, but the technology has. We’re seeing that the majority of consumers are responding to these increases in the driving range, as well as the improvements in acceleration, performance, and reductions in price over time.

It’s certainly better for the planet to move to all-electric vehicles.

How are you seeing that?

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We ran a consumer-choice experiment with a nationally representative sample in terms of a wide range of ages, locations, and incomes. But we targeted people either currently in the market for a new vehicle or who purchased one very recently, so they can recall what was salient in influencing their choices. We provided them with vehicle options very similar to how a consumer would compare vehicles on a website. We can present them with conventional gasoline-vehicle options next to electric-vehicle options with different performance characteristics, and see which one they would choose. Because we can do that over and over again, we can disentangle how much, say, increasing the range of an electric vehicle was influencing how much consumers would be more willing to choose the electric vehicle as opposed to the conventional gasoline vehicle. Or other aspects, like the acceleration characteristics and whether or not it had fast-charging capability. We’ve seen really dramatic and impressive changes in all these respective technologies over time.

Who’s been driving those impressive changes?

Tesla’s definitely part of this—call it a revolution. In my opinion, they proved that you can have high-performing electric vehicles and that there’s a consumer base for that. They turned the heads of the other automakers, like GM, which has a long history in electric-vehicle development. It’s also the battery suppliers that have enabled these improvements in technology. Just about the whole industry is all-in on this transition.

When will most people drive electric vehicles?

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We would expect to see around 50 percent of new vehicles be all-electric by 2030, assuming some trends hold. So, given the technological capabilities expected in vehicles by 2030—projected by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—and given that all electric vehicles are as widely available as conventional gasoline vehicles are today, we’d expect that level of adoption. Extending the range capability up to 300 miles was key to seeing consumer demand of 50 percent all-electric.

How will increasing demand for EVs affect our planet?

Talking now beyond our new study, the total life-cycle studies that I’ve seen across vehicles, looking from material extraction all the way to end-of-life, comparing all-electric vehicles to conventional gasoline vehicles, you still get a better benefit to the environment with all-electric vehicles even though there is an increase in impacts from mining because you have to use a certain mix of materials in the batteries. If it’s an NCM, a type of lithium-ion battery, for example, we’ll need cobalt and increased grades of nickel. But of course there’s also environmental impacts from oil and gas extraction. So adding that up across the life-cycle, it’s certainly better to move to all-electric vehicles. It’s very important to clean up the electricity grid as well, in parallel, to really realize the benefits that all-electric vehicles could bring.

How much will electric cars matter to slowing climate change?

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I think it’s absolutely critical and necessary. We need grids to get cleaner and cleaner all the time to make sure that we really realize the full benefits that will be necessary to guard against more extreme effects of climate change in the future.

Do you drive an EV?

I’m a millennial, so I actually use a lot of car-sharing services. I ended up driving all types of vehicles for the research. [laughter]

Lead image: Paul Craft / Shutterstock

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