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MIT: 87% of cars could be electric

Amrith Ramkumar
Bloomberg News

With all the limits on electric vehicles — battery life, cost, the availability of charging stations — you might expect that at most 50 percent of the vehicles on U.S. roads could be replaced by more-sustainable cars.

Buckle up: It’s 87 percent, MIT reckons, in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Energy. Such a proportion, if it were the case today, would lead to a 60 percent reduction in total U.S. gasoline consumption and a 30 percent decrease in the1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions emitted by all American transportation in 2014. Transportation represents 26 percent of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s huge. It’s also a thought experiment. Currently 0.7 percent of vehicles in the U.S. are electric, and plug-in electric vehicle sales declined 17 percent from 2014 to 2015.

But it’s an interesting one. The findings represent a “technical potential” that shows how many households could start living more sustainably now, said Jessika Trancik, who led the study. For instance, in a two-car household, having one electric car and one conventional vehicle could meet drivers’ needs across the country and significantly increase the number of electric vehicles on the road.

The researchers found that more affordable electric vehicles, such as the Ford Focus Electric and the Nissan Leaf, could meet our energy and affordability needs if people recharged their cars just once daily, either overnight at home or during the day at work. Then the scarcity of public charging stations wouldn’t be as pressing. And although electric vehicles’ sticker prices are higher, the researchers concluded that their operating costs would be lower than for conventional cars. This would make the overall costs comparable.

The study noted that rural areas had a slightly smaller adoptive potential than urban areas but found similar potential across different types of cities, ranging from more compact cities such as New York and to more sprawling ones like Houston.

Trancik hopes the research will show how the potential for EV adoption could exceed even 87 percent. She said the researchers are developing an app based on their model that could tell car shoppers how many days per year an electric vehicle could meet their needs and advise two-car households on which type of car, EV or regular, they should use on high-energy-consumption days.

Regardless of advances in technology and the addition of charging stations, there will always be days on which electric vehicles can’t get the job done. For these, Trancik said, there would need to be better car-sharing services or advancements in other environmentally friendly cars that could fill in the gaps. She also pointed to the need for further quantitative research on EVs.

“Common sense isn’t enough. Common sense leads people to conclude either that the potential is high or low. You have extreme views on both ends,” she said. “It’s important to unpack that question and ask research questions that we can answer quantitatively.”