Advances mean all new US vehicles can be electric by 2035, study finds

Oliver Milman
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA</span>
Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

Rapid advances in the technology and cost of batteries should allow all new cars and trucks sold in the US to be powered by electricity by 2035, saving drivers trillions of dollars and delivering a major boost to the effort to slow the climate crisis, new research has found.

Electric vehicles currently make up only about 2% of all cars sold in the US, with many American drivers put off until now by models that were often significantly more expensive than gasoline or diesel cars, as well as concerns over the availability of plug-in recharge points.

Related: New US vehicles must be electric by 2030 to meet climate goals – report

This situation is likely to drastically change this decade, according to the new University of California, Berkeley study, with the upfront cost of electric cars set to reach parity with gasoline vehicles in around five years’ time. As electric cars are more efficient and require less costly maintenance, the rapid electrification of transport would save about $2.7tn in driver costs by 2050.

Researchers said the plummeting cost of batteries, the main factor in the higher cost of electric vehicles, and improvements in their efficiency mean that it will be technically feasible for the US to phase out the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars within 15 years. This would shrink planet-heating emissions from transport, currently the largest source of greenhouse gases in the US.

“In order to meet any sort of carbon goals, the transport sector needs to be electrified,” said Amol Phadke, a senior scientist at University of California, Berkeley and report co-author.

Phadke added: “The upfront price of electric vehicles is coming down rapidly, which is very exciting. Because of battery technology improvements, most models now have a range of 250 miles, higher than the daily driving distance of most people, and now come with pretty astonishing fast-charging capabilities.”

Joe Biden has identified the growth of the electric vehicle market as a key plank in his administration’s efforts cut US emissions to net zero by 2050, with the US president framing the issue as a boon to American manufacturing and jobs. Biden’s administration has pledged to roll out 500,000 new electric charging ports for cars within the next decade.

Some states, and other countries, have gone further. California has vowed to sell only electric vehicles by 2035, a date also set for the end of the internal combustion engine in the UK. General Motors, meanwhile, recently pledged to shift all of its fleet to electric cars by the same year.

The University of California, Berkeley study makes clear that government intervention will be required for the US to hit the 2035 target of all-electric sales, with a business as usual approach meaning that less than half of cars sold in America would be electric by this point.

“The role of government policy is crucial, firstly with incentives to buy electric vehicles until there is price parity and then to rapidly ramp up fast-charging infrastructure,” said Phadke. “If the US government set a date for the end of gasoline cars, it would give a very clear signal to the market. If it does nothing, the transition will still take place but not quick enough to deal with climate change. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s achievable.”

Melissa Lott, an energy policy expert at Columbia University who was not involved in the research, said “the battery technology is largely there and we are very close to price parity” but that questions remain around extending recharging infrastructure to low-income people and those in high-density housing.

“If I can’t charge my car, it won’t matter if the car itself is cheaper,” Lott said. “What Biden has proposed on chargers is a drop in the bucket. We need hundreds of thousands more than that.”

Improvements in battery technology and their falling cost have led to hopes they will be a key tool in helping reduce emissions – the global market for electric vehicle batteries alone is expected to hit almost a trillion dollars by 2030.

The Biden administration has outlined plans to electrify buses, while data centers and airplanes may also start to rely upon batteries in a shift to cleaner energy. An electricity grid powered by wind, solar and other renewables will, too, require some battery storage, although the technology isn’t yet able to retain power over long periods to account for seasonal power surges and troughs.