What will cheap gas do to electric cars?

When GM introduced Detroit’s first modern, mass-produced electric car — the doomed EV1 — the average cost of gasoline was $1.82 per gallon. That’s not far off from what we’re paying today. Of course, back then, no one was talking about fuel economy, and the cheap gas boosted sales of the gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs that dominated the era. GM’s EV program was dead in the water, documented by the 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car.

Ironically, 2016 is the year that EVs are finally turning mainstream, just as oil is getting really, really cheap again.

This year, GM unveiled the production version of the sub-$40,000 Bolt at CES, and Tesla is expected to unveil the Model 3 in March. Nissan, Ford, and Volkswagen are making aggressive moves to expand the number of EVs in their fleets in the near future. Toyota has said it will virtually eliminate gasoline by 2050, using a combination of hydrogen, EVs, and hybrid vehicles.

But will a collapsing oil market derail the progress?

It’s still the early days for EVs, which account for a tiny fraction of total vehicle sales. Constantine Samaras, assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says that 116,597 battery electrics and plug-in hybrids were sold last year, a figure that dropped slightly from the 123,049 sold in 2014. Out of the 17.5 million cars sold in the US in the last 12 months, EVs made up only a small percentage.

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