Can EV Adoption Scale Like Cell Phones Did?

Transitioning to a clean energy future requires phasing out conventional vehicles and phasing in electric cars at a rapid pace. I’ve driven an EV for the past five years. I know the advantages: the convenience of home charging, the low operating costs, and the zippy acceleration.

I also realize that this transition faces challenges. Are there enough chargers? Is there enough material for the batteries? Is the electric grid green enough for EVs to make sense everywhere? But the concern that I hear most often is this one: electric cars are just too expensive.

Teslas are viewed as luxury cars. And Ford’s F-150 Lightning is priced like one, with extended-range models starting at upwards of $70,000. The average price of an electric vehicle hit $66,000 in June 2022. At those prices — even factoring in incentives — can EVs really propel us into a clean energy future?

Before answering that question, consider how the market for cell phones looked in the late 1980s. In 1987, the big news was a handheld cell phone that weighed just over a pound and could hold a call even as you transitioned between cell towers. In today’s dollars, that cell phone cost $2,000 up front, $125 a month for service, and more than $1 a minute per call.

Back then, cell phones were a badge of conspicuous consumption. In 1987, only one million people in the United States used a cell phone — about one half a percent of all Americans. But then the market for cell phones began to accelerate, approaching 50 percent by 2000, 85 percent in 2009, and 97 percent by 2021.

The parallels are telling. Although EVs sales gained momentum in the 2010s, EVs still accounted for less than one percent of U.S. vehicles on the road in 2021. Yet, if we are going to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, EVs must accelerate along the same adoption curve that put a cell phone (now a smart phone!) in nearly everyone’s pocket.

What combined to accelerate the adoption of cell phones in the 1990s? First, building the right infrastructure. In the 1980s, U.S. cell phone companies made the mistake of investing in limited capacity and expensive analog cell service, which drove up costs. But in the early 1990s, the industry began shifting to digital cell infrastructure, which dramatically expanded both capacity and reliability.

Second, as the market grew, mass production and competition drove down the price of handsets. By 1995, the price of a handset reached about $200 and monthly service fees dropped to $50 per month in today’s dollars. In 1995, 10 percent of Americans owned a cell phone (probably made by Motorola, Nokia, or Ericcson). By the late 1990s, nearly a third of Americans did, and newspapers began reporting that cell phones were the hot new gadget for teenagers. In the early 2000s, cell phones reached the tipping point — more Americans had a cell phone than did not.

In some respects, the parallels with electric vehicles seem promising. Over the past decade, Tesla’s proprietary Supercharger system has demonstrated how widespread and reliable charging infrastructure can facilitate EV adoption. With the 2021 infrastructure bill, the groundwork is being laid for a national, publicly accessible, non-proprietary charging network — a necessary precondition for widespread EV adoption, much like the digital cell phone networks of the 1990s.

And, despite the persistent concerns about the upfront costs of electric vehicles, as battery costs continue to fall and EV manufacturing grows, the sticker price of an EV will reach cost-parity with conventional vehicles. Some project we’ll reach that point by 2025. At that point, the lifetime costs of an EV will be well below those of conventional cars — making them a sensible economic choice for more and more drivers.

Spurred by better infrastructure and falling costs, it seems plausible that EV adoption could begin to accelerate rapidly, potentially even matching the uptake of cell phones in the 1990s. But let me offer one caveat.

Cell phones were an enabling technology — made possible by the revolution in consumer electronics and better battery technology — that allowed consumers to do something new: communicate in real time while on the go. Well into the 2000s, cell phones were purchased in addition to, rather than instead of, existing communication infrastructure.

In contrast, electric vehicles are a displacing technology. Electric vehicles need to displace an existing technology, the internal combustion vehicle and the fossil-fuel based infrastructure that supports it, which is well established and which many people find satisfactory on a day-to-day basis. Cars remain in service for a decade or more, not just a few years — which will further slow adoption.

That means ensuring the rapid uptake of electric vehicles is going to require more than just enthusiastic consumers. It is also going to require good policies that encourage the rapid adoption of electric vehicles, not just because they are satisfactory on a day-to-day basis, but because electrifying the transportation sector is essential to mitigating climate change and advancing a clean energy transition.

This post is adapted from James Morton Turner’s forthcoming book, Charged: A History of Batteries and Lessons for a Clean Energy Future (August 2022). You can learn more about Charged at Turner tweets at @_jay_turner

Also see: Recycling Lead-Acid Batteries Is Easy. Why Is Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries Hard?


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