Progress in electric car development was steady — a new Tesla here, a Chevy Bolt there. Until, like a thunderclap, came news that portends the eventual phaseout of traditional gas-powered engines: Volvo announced that every new model it will launch from 2019 onward will be either all-electric or a hybrid.
No vrooms and fumes? Get used to the idea.
The actual disappearance of traditional engines from Volvo showrooms should arrive in the mid-2020s, once customer interest in older gas models dries up. That commitment puts Volvo at the leading edge of a dizzying trend for manufacturers, the oil industry, the environment, drivers and the culture at large. We’ll always have “Little Deuce Coupe” and other great car songs, but what rhymes with lithium-ion battery? Guess we’ll find out.
A look at global manufacturing plans shows the industry is going all-out. Business Insider says about a dozen companies, including Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar and Ford, will introduce electric SUVs by 2020.Volvo, owned by a Chinese company, plans to launch five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021. “This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car,” Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo’s CEO said a few days ago.
European-based automakers are driving hard to introduce electric vehicles to comply with stringent new rules on carbon emissions. France says it wants to end the sale of gas and diesel-powered cars by 2040. The same type of political pressure exists in the U.S., where the Obama administration instituted stricter fuel-economy standards. Even if President Donald Trump rolls back those requirements, California likely wouldn’t. That should be enough to compel automakers to continue adding electrified vehicles to their lineups.
Then there’s consumer demand. Because of the outlook for higher gas prices and worries about global warming, expect car buyers to gravitate to electric vehicles, as long as they perform. And they do. Teslas are as sporty as traditional cars, while the Toyota Prius hybrid, once a four-wheel buzzkill, also motors nicely these day.
The biggest breakthrough in electric car technology is in battery power: The Bolt can go 238 miles without a recharge. That eliminates range anxiety — fear of running out of juice on the highway. Electric car performance will continue to improve, and battery costs will decline, until electric vehicles match the cost and performance of traditional vehicles. A report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that electric vehicles will be cheaper to buy and have lower lifetime costs as soon as 2025 and will make up more than half of global new car sales by 2040.
Surprisingly, electric cars go back a long way. Back in 1893, an electric buggy built by an Iowa chemist named William Morrison made an appearance at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While the Morrison Electric may have had promise, it lost the race for technological supremacy to Henry Ford’s gas-powered Model T. The discovery of oil in Texas and development of a road system with gas stations assured the internal combustion engine’s dominance, as did its increasingly robust performance. It’s only now that electric vehicles have caught up.
But an even bigger revolution is on the horizon. At some point, self-driving vehicles controlled by artificial intelligence will grab the wheel from humans. Like them or not, autonomous vehicles will be safer and more efficient. So have fun, fun, fun until the robots take your T-Bird away.
This editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, July 8.