Electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf have the potential to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, but only with greater collaboration between relevant industries.

Electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf have the potential to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, but only with greater collaboration between relevant industries.

Few people know that plug-in electric vehicles were first introduced in the U.S. in the late 1800s, though they soon lost out to gasoline-powered cars as a more affordable option. Over the past few years, the growing need to reduce carbon emissions in the face of climate change, combined with advances in technology and government-provided tax incentives, have helped put several hundred thousand new electric vehicles on the road.

Electric cars and trucks are an important agent for reducing transportation-related carbon pollution, which accounts for around 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2015 report from the National Research Council, sales of electric vehicles have shown a decided increase since 2011 – nearly 320,000 vehicles were sold globally in 2014, up from around 130,000 in 2012.

The current progress is exciting for members of the utilities and automobile industries, who are working together for the first time to create a sustainable method of transportation. Yet as Boston and other major cities continue to evolve their transportation systems to make them more sustainable and innovative, including the pending introduction of driverless vehicles, further adoption of electric vehicles will prove challenging. Successfully moving forward will mean careful collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Sticker shock and range anxiety

The demand for electric vehicles is partly due to concern over environmental impacts, but the technology itself has also improved. In summer 2016, a study from MIT’s Trancik Lab found that nearly 90 percent of daily vehicle trips around the U.S. could be replaced by electric vehicles without fear of running out battery power, a number that will only increase as vehicles with higher range capabilities are developed.

In 2013, Massachusetts was one of 10 states to sign on to a Zero-Emission Vehicle agreement, collectively committing to put 3.3 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025. The stage is set for wider adoption, but there is a lot more work that needs to happen to overcome financial barriers and “range anxiety,” or consumers’ worry that electric cars will need to be charged too frequently to adequately meet their daily needs.

By far the greatest barrier to electric vehicle adoption is the high cost. Buying a new model, like the Chevy Volt or the Nissan Leaf, can cost upwards of $30,000. This is slightly offset by reduced maintenance costs, as electric vehicle owners only have to pay for charging their cars, not for constantly filling them up with gas. Unfortunately, if low fuel costs persist, this will likely reduce that advantage.

“Now that gas prices are a lot lower, and the fact that Massachusetts’ electricity prices are so high, one of the appeals of an EV has diminished considerably,” said John Graham, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Many states offer financial rebates to make electric vehicles seem like a more realistic option. Massachusetts’ consumer rebate program, MOR-EV, offers customers a $2,500 government-funded check for purchase of a Chevy Volt or other battery-operated vehicle, and a $1,500 rebate for a plug-in electric vehicle.

Rebates undeniably make a difference, but still, “sales are not moving anywhere near as fast as we need them to be in order to achieve widespread commercialization of the technology,” Graham said.

This is largely related to cost, but may also depend on the success of infrastructure initiatives in states that have committed to boosting the number of electric vehicles on their roads. According to a study from the Idaho National Laboratory, the number of charging stations in Massachusetts has increased from 33 in 2011 to nearly 550 in 2016. Yet people remain concerned that the driving range of most electric vehicles – about 100 miles – is not enough to fit their daily needs.

Increasing the number of charging stations is one way to decrease range anxiety, but greater public awareness will also be key. Many prospective buyers aren’t accustomed to the idea of electric vehicle ownership, despite the possibilities the vehicles present for reducing carbon emissions.

Fortunately, organizations like the Clean Cities Coalition of Massachusetts hold informative “Ride and Drives,” which are meant to show the reality of electric ownership and help bring the consumer into the conversation. Present and future electric vehicle owners can also learn about the availability of charging stations through apps like the Alternative Fueling Station Locator, created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Though ease of charging has increased, driving might not be everyone’s top choice, especially since there are many different ways to get around in Boston. As new technologies like driverless cars begin to enter the equation, it is increasingly important that the different aspects of Boston’s transportation infrastructure do not compete, but instead complement each other. Disruptive transportation technologies like electric vehicles and driverless vehicles can go hand-in-hand: for example, it’s likely that the first driverless cars will be electric.

More electric vehicle use is one way to improve Boston’s transportation sector, but that can also happen through improvement of the MBTA – Boston’s public transportation system – or by increasing bike lanes and on-foot travel options. It’s a combination of improvements that will hopefully lead to a more sustainable city overall.

An ongoing conversation

According to Indiana University’s Graham, “There’s no one magic bullet that’s going to get people to go out and buy an [electric vehicle].” Ultimately, successful implementation of electric vehicles in Massachusetts will require four completely different groups – all of whom have different goals – to collaborate. These groups include legislators and activists, utilities management companies, automobile manufacturers, and of course, consumers.

Progress will not be achieved if these sectors do not work together. For that reason, new technological developments like charging stations and driverless cars should be seen not as barriers to electric vehicle implementation, but as new opportunities for collaboration.

Graham says that it will be very difficult to meet electric vehicle goals “unless the communities in New England have a much more coordinated and receptive posture toward electric vehicles.” This coordination is key. Successful electric vehicle adoption in Boston requires ongoing conversation between everyone involved. For some, the goal of limiting carbon pollution will be a top priority. For others, economic incentives and other considerations will be the driving motivation behind collaboration.

Photo credit: George Richardson, Flickr

See also:

Proposed taxes on millionaires and vehicle miles would provide billions to repair Massachusetts’ transportation system 

Expanding the range of electric vehicles in Massachusetts depends on more charging stations

In switching to electric cars, 90 percent of drivers could get by without daytime recharging, say MIT researchers