Will electrified vehicles dominate our highways in the future? It’s a question on the minds of many these days as an increasing number of battery electric and plug-in hybrid models come to new car showrooms. The answer is not an easy one, especially since there’s the potential that future CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements could be modified. CAFE has been a driving force in the accelerated research and development in plug-in vehicles and new model introductions.
Automakers as a whole have said the current CAFE requirement of 54.5 mpg by 2025 cannot be achieved without a serious emphasis on electrification and the efficiencies these models bring. Thus, there has been an undeniable momentum for plug-ins underway as witnessed by the 39 battery electric and plug-in hybrid models from 20 automotive brands available in the U.S. market during calendar year 2017.
It has been a long path to get to this point since modern electrics emerged in the early 1990s. Along the way, early battery electric vehicles have been constrained by the limitations imposed by the very nature of battery electric propulsion. Simply, batteries are very heavy and costly, which result in two distinct penalties – greater weight that saps overall efficiency and high production costs that either make these vehicles expensive to buy, or require automakers to absorb much of these costs.
Those were the issues in the 1990s and, not coincidentally, these remain the issues today. Battery electric cars in 2017 are an order of magnitude better than those of a few decades back. But driving range and cost remain significant challenges. Plug-in hybrids are another matter.
Since these offer both all-electric driving and hybrid operation after batteries are depleted, there is no ‘range anxiety’ – the concern that a battery electric vehicle’s battery power could be insufficient for daily driving needs. Automakers are into plug-in hybrids in a big way and this has become a very competitive part of the automotive landscape.
So what does our driving future hold? There are nearly 40 plug-in vehicles for sale this year and that’s a big statement. Most major automakers have thriving electric research and development programs underway with electric model launches of one type or another in the pipeline. We will see an expanding offering of plug-in hybrids with battery electric models featuring greater driving range, as witnessed by the benchmarks being set by Chevrolet and Tesla and the new commitment to electrics by Volvo.
One wild card is that internal combustion continues to achieve surprising efficiency gains, at reasonable cost compared to electrics. That means the combustion vehicles we’ve had on our roads for more than a century will continue to ply our highways for some time to come, at approachable cost and without the need for the federal and state incentives that now help motivate buyers to go electric.
Still, there’s a growing desire for the emissions and inherent efficiencies of electric drive so there’s every reason to expect this interest to increase. We don’t yet know if plug-in vehicles of one stripe or another will dominate the market in the years ahead. But what is clear is that electrification is poised to play a major role moving forward.