The Electric Transformation of Transportation


General Motors recently announced that they would stop making gas-powered vehicles by 2035. This is a promising step to tackle carbon emissions, as electric vehicles are significantly better for the environment than gas-powered ones. But moving towards an all-electric fleet will take time — time that we just don’t have. To meet President Joe Biden’s goal to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we are going to need to completely reinvent our transportation system. 

As of right now, less than 1% of the vehicles on the road in the U.S. are electric. To have an all-electric fleet by 2050, all manufacturing of gas-powered vehicles must end by 2035. While G.M.’s promise is vital to reach this goal, they are not the only car manufacturer involved. In addition, there are a number of other obstacles that could prolong the fleet turnover. 

The first major obstacle is the change in infrastructure. Right now, our entire country is designed around gas-powered vehicles. To move towards electric ones, gas pumps would need to be replaced with charging stations, and tools and services offered in repair shops would have to shift. To really push people to make the transition to electric vehicles, it needs to be more convenient to own an electric car than a gas-powered one. 

Typically, when thinking about sustainability and the environment, the general rule of thumb is that keeping something longer is better. But in the case of electric cars, the rule is blurred, and there is no clear consensus on what the best choice is for consumers. Generally, when you buy a new car, you sell your old one on the used car market or it gets disassembled and used for its parts. However, as we move towards an all-electric fleet, most of the older gas-powered vehicles will end up in a landfill. 

Additionally, manufacturing and transporting a new car account for as much as 28% of the carbon emissions generated during the average life cycle of a gas-powered car. Even if you are purchasing an electric car, a large amount of carbon emissions are still being produced before it even reaches you. 

On the other hand, studies show that electric vehicles’ production emissions offset in between six and 18 months. This means that if you keep your old gas-powered car, it will continue to produce carbon emissions, while if you buy a new electric car, its emissions will quickly offset. Although it feels logical to try and sustain your current car as long as possible, keeping older “gas-guzzler” cars on the road is worse for the environment than buying a new electric car. 

This leads to questions about the cost of buying a new car, a difficult task for many people. Right now, the average car on the road is about 12 years old, but economists predict that as electric cars start to take over, people will keep their vehicles for even longer. Consumers who are unable to afford newer, pricier electric cars will likely continue to drive their older gas-powered cars or buy gas-powered cars on the used car market. This trend will slow down the transition to an all-electric fleet even more. 

These economic and infrastructural challenges will likely slow the transition to an all-electric fleet, meaning even G.M.’s promise to stop making gas-powered vehicles by 2035 will not be enough to meet the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But this does not mean there is no hope. A couple of key changes to the transportation system in the U.S. — such as electrifying high mileage vehicles and improving infrastructure — need to be our primary focus right now.

Rather than pushing Americans to purchase new, expensive electric cars, we should be focusing on public transportation and ride-share services. In a study by Abdullah Alarfaj, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, he suggests that electrifying Uber and Lyft cars is a good first step. Typically, cars used for Uber and Lyft are retired earlier than those used for personal use, so replacing them with electric cars could happen in a shorter timeframe than the typical vehicle. 

Electrifying public transportation systems is important, too. Buses contribute to almost a quarter of the carbon emissions produced by vehicles, so electrifying all buses would make a big impact on our national carbon emissions. “E-buses,” which are common in China, have low operating costs and net-zero emissions. 

The final category of vehicles that should be electrified first is semi-trucks. A single semi drives 45,000 miles a year on average, meaning semi-trucks contribute to a large percentage of vehicle emissions. Big car manufacturers like Volvo and Tesla have started to produce electric semis, which would be key in lowering emissions and helping to change the infrastructure.

Semi-trucks drive all over the country, which means there need to be gas stations and repair services all over the country. However, if the majority of semis are electrified, that infrastructure will start to shift to accommodate electric vehicles. That shift is ultimately what we will need to move towards an all-electric, net-zero fleet of vehicles on the road. 

By 2050, it needs to be easier to own and drive an electric vehicle than a gas-powered one. We must start this infrastructural change by electrifying rideshare cars, public transportation and semis rather than pushing individual consumers to invest in electric vehicles.