The electric car is going to take over the world

The Electric Car


The electric car is going to take over the world.  Soon.  Let me explain.

75% of US consumers and over 85% of US millennials own smartphones.  Perhaps more amazing is that 1/4 of people in the world use a smartphone today.  Ten years ago a prediction that this would be the future would have been met with scorn or laughter. In fact, in 2005 few if any of the futurists would have even been able to imagine the kind of device most of us now depend upon.  Naturally, the release of the iPhone in 2007 changed everything, but it is likely that the smartphone era was inevitable. Steve Jobs just ushered it in a few years early.

In June of 2012 Tesla released the Model S and the results will be equally transformative.   Current predictions of the future of electric cars are as wrong as any predictions about the future of mobile phones made in 2005.  It is likely that electric car penetration, at least in the US, will take off at an exponential rate over the next 5-10 years rendering laughable the paltry predictions of future electric car sales being made today [1].  

These predictions are so wrong because they misunderstand the pertinent forcing function. Their assumption is that electric car sales will slowly increase as the technology gets marginally better, and as more and more customers choose to forsake a better product (the gasoline car) for a worse, yet  “greener” version. This view of the future is, simply, wrong. The reason electric cars will take over our roads is because consumers will DEMAND them.  Electric cars will be better than any alternative, including the loud, inconvenient, gas-powered jalopy. The iPhone demonstrated that smartphones are infinitely better than the feature phones which dominated the world in 2007. The Tesla Model S has demonstrated that a well made, well designed electric car is far superior to anything else on the road. This has changed everything.  

Elon Musk has ushered in the age of the electric car, and whether or not it, too, was inevitable, it has certainly begun. The Tesla Model S has sold so well because, compared to old-fashioned gasoline cars:

  • It’s more fun to drive, with smooth, transmission-less acceleration. For most of us it is the fastest car we have ever owned.
  • It’s quieter at all times and nearly silent at low speeds.
  • It is always “full” every morning one drives it and you never need to go to a gas station.
  • It has a user interface – including, notably, its navigation system – as superior to that of other cars as the iPhone was to earlier phones.
  • It is connected to the Internet.
  • It continuously gets better with automatic updates and software improvements.
  • It’s more roomy and has a trunk in the front (the “frunk”) AND a spacious back.
  • It comes with an app that allows you to manage the car from your phone.
  • It allows you to drive in the carpool lane and to sign up for a cheaper energy usage plan at home (obviously these incentives won’t last, but they will help get us to the tipping point described below).

Apple’s competition eventually figured out that they either join the revolution or lose their business (e.g., Motorola and Nokia) and began to effectively compete with the iPhone. It is not clear how long Tesla’s competitors will take to realize that they are living in the past, but one can assume that some will eventually figure out the score [2]. In the meantime, cheaper Teslas will appear and begin to take more and more market share and soon three trends will drive the exponential increase in electric cars on the road.

  1. All electric cars will become cheaper and cheaper.
  2. The range of these cars will soon match or exceed that of gasoline cars. [3]
  3. Gas stations will start to go out of business as many more electric cars are sold, making gasoline powered vehicles even more inconvenient.

The last of these is actually vitally important to understand.  Gas stations are not massively profitable businesses [4]. When 10% of the vehicles on the road are electric many of them will go out of business.  This will immediately make driving a gasoline powered car more inconvenient.  When that happens even more gasoline car owners will be convinced to switch and so on.  Rapidly a tipping point will be reached, at which point finding a convenient gas station will be nearly impossible [5] and owning a gasoline powered car will positively suck.  Then, there will be a rush to electric cars not seen since, well, the rush to buy smartphones.

It is hard to know just what the timeframe of this change will be, but I bet it happens much faster than pundits are predicting.  Electric cars, unlike other alternative fuels have a built in delivery network.  Objections that our existing grid cannot possibly support the new load they represent [6] do not impress. On the one hand, most charging will be done in the evening when there is plenty of capacity. On the other hand,  the potential exists for a huge rollout of home solar power over the next decade.  The bottom line is that we will have plenty of time to figure this out and solve it.  We will have to because consumers will demand their electric cars.  

The future of automotive transportation is an electric one and you can expect that future to be here soon.


Thanks to Sam Altman for having read an earlier version of this post.


[1] US predicts electric vehicles won’t make a dent by 2040

[2] There are already over 20 models of electric cars currently available, from all electric, like the Tesla and the Nissan Leaf, to many hybrids. Here’s a list of plug-ins those currently available, but expect it to change rapidly.

[3] The current range of a Model S tops out at about 300 miles. GM is planning to launch a new electric car called the Bolt with a range of  200 miles to effectively compete with Tesla. Battery technology is difficult, but it would be extremely surprising if the available ranges don’t double again in 5 years or less.

[4] In 2012, the average net profit margin of privately owned gas stations was 1.6%. This article, which ought to be written tongue in cheek, but isn’t, describes how happy gas station owners ought to be since their margins (temporarily) went up to 3% in 2013.

[5] By the way, if I’m right then this implies that over one hundred thousand former gas station locations will be available for cleanup (and I bet this won’t be easy or cheap) and redevelopment. This could be an extraordinary business opportunity in of itself.

[6]  See this discussion on Quora.


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