Technological Revolutions: Part II — Have Electric Vehicle Sales Reached the Tipping Point?

For Part I of this short series covering the early development and adoption of automobiles, airplanes, calculators, computers, televisions, the Internet, and more, see “Technological Revolutions: Part I.”

Gas mobile vs. Electric Vehicle Technology

As a former NASA scientist with an engineering background, I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to observe that electric vehicles were a vastly superior technology to combustion vehicles. Electric cars are also the answer to stopping the spewing of planet-warming CO2 and toxic gases out of your vehicle while you drive. The simplicity and efficiency of a battery and electric motor combination versus the mix of an extremely complex internal combustion engine, fuel, cooling, exhaust and emissions control system was a no brainer. Electric vehicles quickly became feasible the moment battery technology reached an inflection point.

For me, the tipping points came in 2014 when Nissan offered Nissan LEAF leases for a $200/month payment. I figured I would save more on gas per month than I would pay on the LEAF lease. The LEAF was a wonderful car for local driving, but did not meet our needs for our commute each year from our winter home in Utah to our summer home in northern Wisconsin. My second EV tipping point came in 2019 when we figured out a way to finance a long-range Tesla Model 3. The range of more than 300 km and the amazing Tesla Supercharger network made long-distance driving only slightly more difficult than driving a gas car.

Has the global production and sale of electric cars reached the tipping point?

In 2021, global electric car sales were 6,750,000, but this was only 8.3% of the total market. See the discussion below to see EV sales progress for 2022 and forecast for 2023.

First country where EV uptake reached dominance (~90%): Norway

In October 2021, Norway’s plug-in car sales reached 90% of total car sales. In 2016, 24% of vehicles sold in Norway had a plug. Let’s call 25% of sales the tipping point. Sales of electric cars in Norway went from ~25% to ~90% in 6 years. Electric vehicle sales in Norway have been stable recently, but the percentage of pure battery electric (BEV) has recently increased to 77.5%. Government incentives for electric cars will be reduced for plug-in hybrids, so when countries reach 90% electric cars, most of these cars will be clean cars.

How soon will this happen in the rest of the world?

2nd country with EV uptake beyond the tipping point (well on the way to dominance): Sweden

In October 2022, Sweden’s plug-in electric car share was reached ~60% of the car market.

3rd country with EV uptake beyond tipping point: Ireland

In September 2022, Ireland saw with ~37% of all new vehicle registrations are plugin vehicle registrations. 29.31% were fully electric.

4th country with EV uptake beyond the tipping point: China

September 2022 plugin vehicles in China hit 35% market share with 26% fully electric (this is especially important as more electric cars are sold in China than in the entire rest of the world).

5th country with EV uptake beyond the tipping point: Germany

January-September 2022 sales of new cars: 32% have a connector and 19% are BEVs.

Country with EV adoption nearing tipping point: France

September 2022 plugin vehicles now at 24% (14.8% BEV)

Country with EV adoption nearing tipping point: UK

October 2022 plugin vehicles now at 21% (16% BEV).

EV uptake is approaching the tipping point: Europe

September 2022 plug-in vehicle share of the total European car market was 24% (16% full electricity/BEV). The tipping point can be reached by the end of 2022.

Tipping point for adoption of electric cars not reached: California

September 2022 the plugin vehicle’s share of the car market was 18% (mostly full electric/BEV). Note: California’s GDP would be 8th in the world if the state were a country.

EV adoption tipping point not reached: US

July-September 2022, only 6% of US car sales were fully electric. Since EV uptake in the US is totally dominated by all-electric Teslas, the total plug-in market is almost the same as all-electric.

Rivian electric truck. Lehi, Utah. 28 October 2022. Photo by Fritz Hasler.

Since California is by far the leading US EV with 18% uptake, one would expect much lower uptake in other states. But since we returned to Utah for the winter this October, Teslas in the northern Utah metro area seem to have multiplied like rabbits. Today I saw 12 Teslas here in Saint George, Utah. You still see the occasional Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt. But recently a beautiful tan Rivian pickup truck drove by my house, later in the day I saw the blue one (see above) in American Fork on my daily bike ride, and even later a Ford Mustang Mach-E. Bottom line: EVs from multiple companies are starting to appear in the wild even in a US state that isn’t California.

The tipping point for the uptake of electric cars has not been reached: Globally

In September 2022, plugins represented 17% share of the total global car market.

(Note: If we use 10% as the tipping point instead of 30%, then all the major European countries, China and California have all already exceeded it.)

If the past is prologue, EVs in Sweden, Ireland, China and Germany should reach dominance by 2028 or sooner. Most legacy car companies could design and set up mass production EVs in 5 years or less if they are willing. The problem is getting enough batteries. Tesla has been the company that is most proactive in obtaining/building batteries for its electric cars. This has enabled the massive uptake in production of the Model 3 and Model Y. However, production of the Tesla Semi and Cybertruck has been delayed due to battery shortages. Lack of batteries is probably the reason for the anemic production of electric cars from many other companies, apart from the Chinese company BYD, which makes its own batteries.

Europe plans to ban all cars with internal combustion engines by 2035. If EV uptake for the rest of Europe follows Norway’s lead, it should be able to easily meet the deadline. China should also be able to ban all combustion engine cars by 2035.

California also plans to ban all cars with internal combustion engines by 2035. Based on current progress, it will be more difficult than for Europe, but it should also be possible. It will be difficult for the rest of the United States to move that quickly.

Car and battery companies are making massive investments in electric cars in the US and other countries. With global EV adoption doubling from 8.3% to 17% from 2021 to 2022. If it doubles again in 2023, we will have already reached the 30% tipping point for the entire world. Now may be the point where companies realize that if they don’t switch to electric cars as soon as possible, they will end up declaring bankruptcy just like Kodak, Nokia and Blackberry.

Figure 3: 40 stall Tesla Supercharger. Baker, California. February 21, 2022. Photo by Fritz Hasler.

In addition to a huge increase in the production of electric batteries, there is also a need for a huge increase in electric chargers if electric cars are to become dominant. For local travel, anyone with a garage, carport or driveway will have sufficient access to charging. For multi-unit homes, electric car chargers must be installed in their parking stalls. Street chargers must be expanded to the rest of electric vehicles. For long-distance travel, only Tesla has a system of Superchargers that make cross-country travel hassle-free. Tesla is also making a massive expansion of its Supercharger system to keep up with its massive expansion in car production and sales. Figure 3 shows the Tesla Supercharger in Baker, California, with forty 250 kW stalls all occupied. 100-stall Superchargers are planned for the near future. This is the situation with new electric car sales in California at just 17%. Can you imagine how many charging stations for electric cars will be needed if not only the sales of new electric cars exceed 90%, but the total car fleet exceeds 90%. I can imagine several 100 stall EV chargers at every freeway exit. In urban areas with expensive land prices, this can be a real problem.

Your comments and corrections are welcome in the comments section.




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