Four years ago, Washington State Representative Nicole Macri from Seattle had coffee with Matthew Metz. A few years ago, Mace founded Coltura, an organization that advocates to stop the use of gasoline. He explained his vision for the country: to stop selling new gasoline-powered cars by 2030, just 12 years later.
Macri, a Democrat who is new to climate policy and works mostly in housing and health care, was drawn to Mays’ simple idea. It has nothing to do with abstract, hard-to-grasp metrics around fuel efficiency or emissions reductions. “Everyone can understand that by 2030, if you buy a new car, if you register a new car in our state, it has to be electric,” she told Grist. “It’s like, well, it’s a policy that I can understand, I can talk to my constituents about, and they can understand.”
When the Washington State Legislature convened in 2019, Macri began pushing for the introduction of the policy. Macri said her Democratic colleagues discouraged her, calling the idea too radical. “It’s like, ‘Well, you’re right, you’re an urban Liberal Democrat, but that’s very incendiary in the suburbs and other areas where people are more car-dependent,'” Macri said. She remembers a Democrat People told her that introducing the bill would make her “the downfall of the Democrats.”
Lawmakers who are working to pass other climate-friendly measures, such as clean fuel standards, said she should wait to introduce the bill, warning that authorization could spark a legal backlash and distract them from other agendas. That same year, Washington finally passed a package of bills that would move the state to a fossil-fuel-free grid, expand incentives for electric vehicles, and build the state’s charging network. The state’s House Transportation Committee chairman and fellow Democrat Jack Fey told Grist that his priority was more “actions to get the job done” than setting goals because “there is no real strategy for getting there”, and those goals are often was abandoned.
To most people at the time, the imminent demise of the internal combustion engine seemed unbelievable. But in just a few short years, the switch to electric vehicles has become less of a futuristic vision and more of a looming economic reality. Fast forward to today, and Washington state officially implemented the 2030 goal after nearly adopting it last year. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the broader “Washington Forward” transportation plan in late March, setting a deadline for electrifying all new vehicles registered in the state.
It’s not a task, but the timetable is the most aggressive in the country. By contrast, California is finalizing a mandate to ban the sale of gasoline vehicles by 2035, with implications for a dozen other states that follow its emissions standards, including New York, Colorado and Pennsylvania. President Joe Biden has called for half of all new vehicle sales to be electrified by 2030.
The adoption of electric vehicles is accelerating, although it has encountered obstacles such as a backlogged supply chain and a lack of charging infrastructure. For example, consider that most electric vehicles in the world today have been added in the past year and a half.
“It’s not really a question at this point, where is the market going?” said David Reichmus, a senior engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Transportation Program. “It’s more of a question of how fast we can get there.”
So what happened to bring the end of gasoline-powered cars from a radical idea to a legislative reality? Experts told Grist that economic, political and cultural factors have been colliding to create the conditions for this seemingly sudden shift.
Batteries are getting cheaper. So why not electric cars?
1. A growing market
In the first three months of 2022, the only automakers reporting sales growth in the U.S. are all-electric companies like Tesla and Polestar, and the outlier BMW. Most automakers saw double-digit sales declines, while Tesla’s sales rose 88% from a year earlier. Auto companies are eyeing Tesla, which was recently the sixth-largest company in the world by market cap at $902 billion, and wants to show investors that “if they haven’t hit it, they have a plan to get there,” Reichmuth said. Say. Companies that have already started producing EV models, such as Ford, are finding they can’t produce EVs fast enough to keep up with demand.
“Car companies see electrification as the future,” Reichmuth said. Many have pledged to sell only electric models for the next few years, with Jaguar targeting 2025, Volvo 2030 and General Motors 2035. But some of the biggest companies, like Toyota and Volkswagen, are still lagging behind.
2. Reduce costs
Electric vehicles require energy-dense rechargeable batteries—a technology that used to be very expensive. Prices for lithium-ion battery packs have fallen 89 percent since 2010, although shortages of key ingredients such as cobalt and lithium carbonate are driving them back up. Electric cars still tend to be more expensive than gasoline cars: An electric car sells for about $70,000 on average, compared to $48,000 for a gasoline car. Such high prices are partly due to the trend towards flashy premium models like the Tesla Model 3, but EVs are generally cheaper in the long run. Americans are likely to keep that in mind as they see gasoline prices climb to $5 or $6 a gallon in parts of the country this spring.
3. The global picture
Electric cars are no longer a niche product for open-minded Americans. China and Europe are leading the shift to electric vehicles, accounting for 85% of global EV sales last year. About 3.2 million were sold in China, 2.3 million in Europe and only 535,000 in the US.
“I think automakers are realizing that to be globally competitive they just need to have a very strong EV presence or they’re missing out,” said Janelle London, co-executive director of Coltura. Countries such as Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United Kingdom aim to ban new fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2030, the same timeline as Washington state.
4. More regulation
Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order in 2020, the California Air Resources Board introduced a plan to ban the sale of new gas vehicles by 2035. What’s happening in California and Washington state and all these efforts are actually decisive in driving automakers to shift,” Metz said. “Without that, it wouldn’t have happened.
Concerns about climate change and air pollution are driving policies to phase out gasoline. Transportation accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s emissions, most of which come from gas-powered passenger cars. Gasoline vehicles are also a huge health hazard, spewing particulate matter and carbon monoxide from the exhaust.Higher concentrations of toxic chemicals in Cars, where Americans are most exposed to air pollution every day.
5. More options
A decade ago, there were only eight electric vehicles to choose from in the U.S., such as the Tesla Model S or Nissan Leaf. During 2022, the number of models jumped from 62 to 100. “A lot of people are waiting for the type of model they’re looking for,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Green Energy Consumers Coalition. “You know, not everyone wants a small car. Not everyone can afford a Tesla. They’re looking for something bigger and more affordable than a small one. And that’s coming.”
The electric version of the Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., arrived just last week, starting at around $40,000 and promising a range of 230 miles on a single charge. Ford had to limit the waitlist to 200,000 in December, meaning a three-year backlog. “People won’t care if they’re a red state or a blue state — they’re going to want this stuff,” London said.
6. Higher visibility
Adapting to new technology takes time. With more EVs on the road and EV-enabled chargers popping up in grocery stores and office buildings, it’s easier for more people to imagine themselves behind the wheel of an EV. “Your neighbor might have an electric car, or someone on your kid’s soccer team, or at school, at work,” Reichmuth said. “It makes it easier for people to adapt to switching to electric vehicles.”
7. Changes in public attitudes
Americans are beginning to realize that the era of gasoline cars may be coming to an end. A poll commissioned by Coltura last October found that 55 percent of U.S. voters support requiring new vehicles to be electric by 2030. About half of those considering buying a car in the next five years said it was “somewhat” or “very” likely that they would go electric. That was even before the onslaught of electric vehicle ads during this year’s Super Bowl.
“People understand that it comes quickly,” Chretien said. “They’re getting ready. They expect to get electric cars soon.”
Of course, the transition to EVs won’t be smooth sailing. There are many obstacles along the way, such as an uncertain policy environment and a lack of charging infrastructure. Macri said her constituents are concerned about the number of charging points in their apartment buildings or the streets where they park. Washington state’s newly approved transportation package directs the state to develop a roadmap by the end of the year to determine how to achieve its 2030 goals. “We don’t think about getting there until someone says you have to do it, and then you start figuring out, ‘Oh, here are the five steps you need to do to get there,'” Macri said.
Looking back, she observes how much has changed. A few years ago, ending sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2030 “was really seen as very, very, aggressive,” Macri said. “We’ve just seen huge progress.”