The electric car is still a relative novelty on American roads. There are half a million EVs on the road, sure, but there are 253 million cars on the road in America alone. Seeing an electric car beside you on the freeway is a rarity. But over the last week, it’s pretty clear that by 2020, if you want to be done with the gas station for good, you can be.
Today, China, the biggest market for cars in the world, slapped a large target on gasoline’s back. China’s air pollution is literally killing people, so China has become keenly interested in ending air pollution. As part of that, they’ve announced a new cap-and-trade system where an ever-increasing percentage of vehicles produced and imported to the country have to be zero-emissions. It’ll start at 10% across all manufacturers in 2019, inch up to 12% in 2020, and keep rising from there as part of the country’s goal to get rid of emitting carbon altogether by 2030.
That capped off a week of big news for tailpipe-haters. Honda and Mazda teamed up to build an electric car platform that could scale down to the cute little two-seaters we all imagine or up to the mighty SUVs that your dad still insists on buying for his golf clubs. Meanwhile, gadget company Dyson announced it’d be selling a luxury electric car by 2020, giving Elon Musk’s Tesla a little competition.
All this is neat, of course, but why would it put electric cars over the top? The most basic reason is that as a technology spreads in a market, it gets cheaper and better. It’s sort of like buying stuff in bulk, the more of it you make, the cheaper it is. The cheaper it is, the more widespread it is. And the more people buy something, the more money there is in making it better and cheaper. For example, within six months, between June 2015 and January 2016, the efficiency of the best solar panels went from 18.2% to 29.8%. Between 2012 and 2015, that went up less than one percent. As a result, solar power from a roof grid costs, on average, about the same as getting it from a central power plant. Really, ask people if they want solar panels or a smog-belching eyesore down the road powering their phones, and it’s no contest.
The stage is set for the same improvements for the electric car. There’s already a massive gold rush to build big, powerful batteries. Dyson’s luxury car may never see the light of day, but the $1 billion or so he’s investing in solid-state batteries? Those are going to be everywhere. And now, China’s told the entire world that yes, they would like to buy as many superefficient batteries as possible.
Keep in mind, too, that there’s far more demand for electric vehicles beyond your parking spot. UPS has been fighting to cut the billions it spends on fossil fuels for years, and electric panel trucks are becoming popular not just because they save on gas, but because you don’t wake up half the neighborhood with a idling diesel grunting up the street when you deliver something at 6am. The main roadblock has been the range and durability of the industrial batteries you need to keep these trucks going, and while we haven’t plowed through that roadblock yet, China’s standards make it a matter of time.
You won’t see gas-powered cars disappear overnight, of course. But technological changes tend to snowball as they roll downhill, and electric cars just picked up a heck of a lot of momentum.