Thank You, Early Electric Vehicle Adopters

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There are waiting lists for both the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, full of Americans who want to be part of the most exciting evolution in automotive technology since we switched from coal-fired steam engines, to gas-powered motors. These early adopters are paving the way to a future of cleaner air and reduced dependence on oil.  They are investing at a critical moment, and we all stand to benefit from their actions.

It’s no secret that the first generation of any new technology is usually expensive.  My great uncle, a true engineer, who bought one of the first pocket calculators can testify to that fact.  When this Busicom “Handy-LE” calculator was introduced in 1971, it cost over $2,000 in today’s money.


Now, companies give branded mini-calculators away as promotional items.  I’m not suggesting that the future holds free electric cars for all, but that vehicle performance will continue to increase while costs decrease.  In fact, we’ve already witnessed such progress.  As seen below, between 1991 and 2001, the performance of lithium-ion batteries (the blue line, measured in Watt-hours per liter), which power today’s electric cars, doubled, while their price (the green line, measured in dollars per Watt-hour) went down ten-fold.


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The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt have MSRPs of $35,000 and $40,000 respectively.  Not cheap, but surprisingly affordable for the first generation of widely available electric vehicles, especially if you take advantage of the $7,500 Federal tax incentive and other public and private incentives.  A lot of us, myself included, may not be able to buy a brand new electric car, but I’m grateful to those who do, because they are supporting a cleaner future for everyone.

California's electric vehicle drivers are already helping the rest of us.  Their decision to drive on electricity means they’re emitting four times less carbon dioxide pollution than they would if they had chosen to drive average conventional vehicles.  Electric cars also reduce smog-forming pollution near busy roads and highways, where lower income Californians often bear the burden of dirty air.  These benefits will only increase as more cars are sold and as more renewable electricity is added to the grid.

Today’s electric vehicle drivers aren’t simple altruists. Many are motivated by the convenience of re-fueling at home, the torque of electric motors, and the fact driving on electricity costs just a little more than dollar-a-gallon gasoline.  Whatever their motivations, they’re creating a market.  Between 35 and 40 different electric vehicle models will be introduced within the next several years.

While electric vehicles have numerous benefits, they are by no means a panacea.  We need a comprehensive package of policies and technologies to keep America competitive, reduce our dependence on oil, and protect our environment.  Last week, President Obama announced an agreement to strengthen carbon pollution and fuel efficiency standards for all light-duty cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.  My collegue, Roland Hwang, explained the singlular importance of this action: “With this standard everybody wins—not only drivers and auto workers but every man, woman and child who will be able to breathe cleaner air.”  As noted in this report, the health benefits of previous standards have exceeded the cost of emissions controls by as much as 100 to 1. Our work isn’t over though. We still need greater investment in public transit as my colleague, Deron Lovaas recently told Congress.  We also need intelligent urban and regional planning to foster sustainable communities, as explained by my colleagues Kaid Benfield and Amanda Eaken.  There is no single solution, but electric vehicles are a key element of a future of reduced dependence on oil and lower fuel bills for everyone.  So, thank you, early adopters, for helping to make part of that cleaner future possible.

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