WASHINGTON – One of the questions that has long plagued automobile executives was whether motorists — after a century of pulling into gasoline stations for a near instant fill up — would be willing to switch to electric vehicles typically requiring hours-long charges.

With electric vehicles constituting less than 3 percent of the global auto sales, that question remains unresolved. Governments and automakers, however, are not waiting for the answer. Confident technological advances will resolve that and other issues, they are forging ahead with plans to convert the majority of new car and light truck sales to electric by the 2030s in an effort to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Within the next two decades, new cars buyers may not have any choice but electric vehicles, much as Americans in the 1970s had no choice but to buy cars with smaller, less powerful engines after the federal government imposed fuel efficiency standards following the Arab oil embargo, said Devin Lindsey, an automobile analyst with the research firm IHS Markit.

“Everyone wanted a large engine,” he said. “But they had to buy the cars. That’s all there was.”

With China, Europe, and states such as California and Massachusetts imposing electric vehicle mandates, the transition from petroleum vehicles has gained increasing momentum in recent years. That has only accelerated with the election of President Joe Biden, who, since taking office, has ordered the EPA to work on tougher car emissions standards and federal agencies to start buying electric vehicles en masse.

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Auto manufacturers are rushing new electric pickup trucks and sports cars to show rooms, eager to establish footholds in what is expected to be the market of the future — whether they like it or not. The transition gained more speed recently when General Motors announced it would produce only electric vehicles by 2035.

At the Classic Chevy dealership in Sugar Land, owner Jeff Sebastian, said the shift was “a scary thing” for dealers given the low demand for electric vehicles now, but he was confident demand would grow.

“Manufacturers want to be on the forefront,” he said. “The batteries are so much more efficient and there’s so many less moving parts, which means less maintenance and repairs. The only thing that holds it back is people afraid they can’t take long road trips. But once they shorten the charge to minutes and not hours, that’s game changing.”

Impact on oil

Such a shift to electric vehicles would have long-term consequences for an oil industry that currently provides more than 90 percent of the U.S. transportation sector’s energy needs, raising questions about the future of oil drillers and refineries across Texas.

Were governments to institute policies in line with the Paris agreement on climate change, more than 4 million barrels a day of oil would be replaced by electric cars by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. And as more gasoline-powered vehicles came off the roads, the shift would increase exponentially.

The goal of many governments is to bring the global vehicle fleet to net-zero emissions by mid-century to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. If new vehicle sales become all electric by the 2030s, the thinking goes, that should be enough time for petroleum-powered vehicles to cycle off the road and into junkyards.

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That prospect is drawing intense opposition from oil and gas executives, as well as Republicans in Congress, who argue Biden’s moves on electric vehicles represent a forced technological shift that is likely to end in economic disaster.

Following GM’s announcement last week, Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas and other energy companies, said, “In no way should any taxpayer be responsible for GM’s ability to achieve — or fail to achieve — their corporate goal of an all-electric light duty fleet by 2035.”

The task of overhauling the transportation sector is rife with logistical challenges in line with the shift from the horse and carriage a century ago. But they are eminently solvable, experts say.

Worth it

Producing vehicles that run on batteries and not internal combustion engines will require expensive overhauls of traditional car assembly lines, with Ford alone estimating it will spend $11.5 billion on that effort by next year.

Auto executives are calculating the investment is worth it. With battery prices falling 80 percent since 2012, according to the research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the production costs of electric vehicles are close to those of gasoline-powered vehicles, and could go even lower.

“The biggest barrier has been the battery for a long time. And now we’re at the tipping point,” said Huei Peng, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan. “(Shifting the assembly lines) is going to be very hard, no doubt about it. But in the long run, the number of parts is an electric vehicle is dramatically reduced, and it’s easier and cheaper to assemble.”

Once electric vehicles begin rolling off factory floors in large numbers, the transition faces another challenge: charging millions of vehicles day in and day out.

Biden pledged on the campaign trail to install 500,000 chargers along U.S. roads and highways. With new fast chargers, an electric vehicle can be fully charged in 10 minutes — about the time it takes to “stretch your legs and get a cup of coffee,” said Nat Kreamer, CEO of the clean energy group Advanced Energy Economy.

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Replacing the nation’s more than 160,000 gas stations won’t come cheap. The fast chargers can cost $100,000 each. In addition, upgrading the power grid to handle the increased demand from electric vehicles is likely to be costly.



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