Low-cost electric cars proven to be ready for our daily driving needs

Original news release was issued by MIT, written by David L. Chandler.

We have grown accustomed to the general idea that electric vehicles (EVs) still have ways to go before they can completely replace those with combustion engine. And while the two still can’t compete in some respects (although the high-end of EVs is catching up), even the lower tier of electric cars could actually replace 90% of all American cars at this very moment – and our comfort would not take a hit. At least not nearly as much as climate change would.

Driving range is one of the issues that gets brought up the most when people eunumerate drawbacks of current EVs. But after investigating daily driving habits of American drivers, researchers at MIT found that 90% of them would not be affected by switching to an electric vehicle, provided that they charge it overnight. Simply put, today’s electric cars are more than capable of supporting the vast majority of American drivers on their daily commute without driving range ever becoming an issue. And the impact on climate change mitigation would be considerable.
The study was published yesterday in the journal Nature Energy by Jessika Trancik, the Atlantic Richfield Career Development Associate Professor in Energy Studies at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), along with graduate student Zachary Needell, postdoc James McNerney, and recent graduate Michael Chang SM ’15.

“Roughly 90 percent of the personal vehicles on the road daily could be replaced by a low-cost electric vehicle available on the market today, even if the cars can only charge overnight,” Trancik says, “which would more than meet near-term U.S. climate targets for personal vehicle travel.”

Overall, when accounting for the emissions today from the power plants that provide the electricity, this would lead to an approximately 30 percent reduction in emissions from transportation. Deeper emissions cuts would be realized if power plants decarbonize over time.
The team spent four years on the project, which included developing a way of integrating two huge datasets: one highly detailed set of second-by-second driving behavior based on GPS data, and another broader, more comprehensive set of national data based on travel surveys. Together, the two datasets encompass millions of trips made by drivers all around the country.
The detailed GPS data was collected by state agencies in Texas, Georgia, and California, using special data loggers installed in cars to assess statewide driving patterns. The more comprehensive, but less detailed, nationwide data came from a national household transportation survey, which studied households across the country to learn about how and where people actually do their driving. The researchers needed to understand “the distances and timing of trips, the different driving behaviors, and the ambient weather conditions,” Needell says.
By working out formulas to integrate the different sets of information and thereby track one-second-resolution drive cycles, the MIT researchers were able to demonstrate that the daily energy requirements of some 90 percent of personal cars on the road in the U.S. could be met by today’s EVs, with their current ranges, at an overall cost to their owners — including both purchase and operating costs — that would be no greater than that of conventional internal-combustion vehicles. The team looked at once-daily charging, at home or at work, in order to study the adoption potential given today’s charging infrastructure.
But it is appropriate to curb our enthusiasm at this point, as there are hurdles to overcome.
Even though EVs are more than ready to handle our daily commute, longer trips are still out of the question – be it for holidays or business trips. Furthermore, efficient use of electric cars would also become more complicated in times when the need for heating or cooling would take a significant chunk out of the driving range on a single charge. Such situations would necessitate a second car, but they also open avenues for business model innovation, wherein efficient car-sharing services could mitigate the inconveniences.
One way or another, such quantification of effects that electric vehicles would have on the environment is immensely useful for further research, as well as for guidance in policy-making. We will be interested to see where the future of transportation takes us in the future, as recent developments show promise of a decent shake-up in the next couple of years.