Electric vehicles have seen a slow adoption curve, probably slower than most new technology products, but contrary to popular belief the main reasons are actually non-technological ones.

In the past few months, hardly a week goes by without an article from a reputable media source being published stating that the electric car is doomed.

It is a fact that industry analysts forecasted that by 2012 a significant percentage of vehicles sold would be electric so the figures are disappointing, but is this a reason to desist?

Despite of the many options of electric vehicles being commercialized by the traditional automotive manufacturers along with some of the new entrants, electric vehicle sales have been smaller than what the industry predicted.

In the past the main technical concerns of limited range, responsible for the range anxiety myth, and the costly prices of the batteries were quickly overcome and are being constantly improved following a slightly longer version of Moore’s law. Additionally, although we can’t extrapolate the early adopters feedback and usage patterns to the majority of future electric vehicle users, it seems that current battery technology is already able to provide a significant range at a relatively low cost.

Then there is the issue with emissions. EV’s are obviously zero direct emissions vehicles but one of the arguments used by its detractors was that the electricity used to power EV’s could be harmful for the environment depending on local energy production. Currently, the global consensus on the subject is that, independent of power source, an electric vehicle is on average cleaner than any equivalent combustion engine vehicle.

All in all, the main barriers slowing down electric vehicle adoption seem to be external to the product itself:

  • Industry inertia: one of the heavy industries worldwide, automotive faces a difficult challenge of adapting equipment, factories and even internal capabilities necessary to develop a new type of vehicles. This opens the door to some of the new entrants like Tesla, who have a once in a lifetime chance for success but also face considerable investment challenges to enter an uncertain and low margin business. It is still early days but it seems that those who will succeed will be the ones who realize that they are not only developing a new product but also a completely different business model, disrupting the current automotive industry
  • Gas prices: the recent technical developments in gas exploration with consequent reduced gas prices have now positioned this fuel source as a strong competitor in terms of costs compared to EV’s, despite the fact that it still is a non zero emissions source of transportation
  • Infrastructure development: a.k.a chicken and egg problem is a point that often analysts and journalists forget when criticizing EV’s adoption. EV’s actually face a bigger infrastructure challenge than when the automobile was invented. When the first cars were on the roads, they faced an incredible slow transition from horse-based transportation due to their premium cost. This helped the infrastructure development gradually grow with demand. Current demand for a substitute to combustion engines requires a large and quick deployment of the charging infrastructure required to supply EV’s which represents a significant challenge to finance such high capital intensive developments
  • Lobbying: as with any significant technological change, some of the established players who can’t imagine themselves as part of this change, try to fight it as best as they can, influencing local and national governments in this sense
  • Alternative technologies: oddly enough, one of the contradictory barriers to EV adoption comes from similar alternative technologies like fuel cells and hydrogen production which present themselves as a potential candidate to replace current mobility technologies, although these are most at a very early stage development and still face the same infrastructure challenges as EV’s do

It is still hard to predict if electric vehicles will be the next revolution in transportation. What is certain is that it has been more than a century since something revolutionary happened in this space and that current technology is capable of proposing a functional, ecological and affordable alternative to a highly polluted form of transportation.

Hopefully soon pragmatism will overcome skepticism and allow us to use available technology to eliminate transportation from the global warming equation.