Electric Vehicles Start to Catch On, But Can They Go Mainstream?

Last night’s reveal of Tesla’s forthcoming electric pickup truck, the so-called Cybertruck, definitely made waves in the automotive world. Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduced a prototype and claimed some eye-popping figures relating to the future truck’s acceleration and towing capabilities. And its styling proved to be, umm, polarizing.

If this were simply a one-off for the auto industry, from a manufacturer that has yet to turn a consistent profit and has a history of overpromising on new models, it wouldn’t be much of a story. But the Tesla truck is not a one-off. As I wrote earlier this week, a bevy of electric trucks are in the works, from both established automakers and scrappy startups looking to shake up the industry. And the fact that so many companies are working on the once-unthinkable concept of an electric pickup underscores a broader truth: Electric vehicles in general are slowly gaining traction in the market.

A recent report from the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned electric utilities, notes that in September, plug-in vehicles made up 2.6% of U.S. auto sales. That’s not much, but it’s up from the roughly 1% that EV sales accounted for not long ago. Also, at a time when car sales around the world are slowing, EV sales are accelerating.

New EV models seem to make headlines every day now. This week alone, Ford unveiled a sleek electric SUV that it is calling the Mustang Mach-E. (What do the brand’s long-time fans of the venerable – and gas-powered – Mustang sports car think of that, I wonder?) A few days later, Toyota announced a plug-in version of its RAV-4 hybrid, which still has a gas engine but also can drive almost 40 miles in EV mode. Earlier this year, Porsche showed off a new high-performance EV sport sedan, which should rival the speed and handling prowess of its famous gas-powered models. The list goes on and on.

The downsides that EVs come with – expensive batteries, limited driving range, slow recharging times, not enough public charging stations – haven’t gone away. But those drawbacks are getting less onerous. Battery costs keep falling. The amount of energy they hold keeps growing, which means greater driving range than earlier models offered. High-voltage charging means less waiting to get back on the road. And the network of public charging stations keeps expanding.

All of those improvements mean that EVs are becoming a more realistic option for more consumers, says Bill Visnic, editorial director of mobility media at the Society of Automotive Engineers. Visnic recently wrote about his road trip in an electric Jaguar SUV. He found that a journey that once would have been unthinkable in an EV had become surprisingly doable, though not without hiccups.

Further improvements in battery tech and charging facilities will pave the way for greater EV adoption. But don’t expect electrification to displace internal combustion engines tomorrow. When I asked him for his thoughts about when EVs could become mainstream, Visnic said that the automotive suppliers he talks to tend to regard 2030 as the date by which EVs will be cheap enough and capable enough to truly compete with gas-powered cars.

Between now and then, look for more EVs on the road, but not in huge numbers. Odds are they’ll take hold in suburban neighborhoods before making big inroads in the cities or the rural countryside. Unlike in the cities, suburban homes are more likely to have garages where an owner can install a home charger. And unlike in rural areas, commutes in the suburbs tend to be short enough that a typical EV’s driving range won’t be a limiting factor (assuming the owner remembers to plug in the car to charge overnight).

You may also be seeing more EVs among commercial fleets before 2030. Given their relatively short, repeated routes with lots of stop and go driving, delivery trucks are good candidates for going electric. (Amazon recently announced a big investment in electric delivery trucks from startup Rivian, for example.) Ditto for garbage trucks. These types of vehicles tend to return to a garage or depot every night, allowing the fleet operator to recharge them on a nightly basis. Doing that could save a bundle in energy costs, given the difference between typical electric rates for commercial customers and the cost of diesel fuel.