Electric car charging in driveway of a modern home.


What’s the Shift to Electric Vehicles All About?

The heat is on to get EVs into every driveway

The conversation about mandates for electric vehicles might feel sudden but, in reality, it's been simmering for decades.

The shift to electric vehicles is driven by a number of interconnected forces, including concerns about fossil fuels, government regulations and incentives, technological advances, and long-term plans from auto manufacturers. Each of these forces acts on others in a variety of ways, like better battery technology resulting in more consumer interest, and government regulations leading automakers to invest more in EVs.

Some of the biggest automakers in the world have already gone all-in on electric, and some states have now put an expiration date on the internal combustion engine, beyond which you’ll only be able to buy EVs. While these individual forces can push and pull in different directions, the number of EVs on the road continues to increase every year.

What Happened to Electric Vehicles?

While the current shift to electric vehicles is just getting started, electric vehicles aren’t a recent innovation. Electric vehicles have been around just as long as gas-powered vehicles, and some of the very first automobiles were battery-powered. At the turn of the 20th century, there were actually more electric vehicles on the road than gas-powered vehicles.

In the early part of the 20th century, the convenience and affordability of gas-powered vehicles relegated EVs to the sidelines. Battery technology just couldn’t keep up with the range, performance, and ease of refueling offered by gas powered vehicles. Interest in electric vehicles spiked during times of oil shortages and soaring gas prices, but the technology and infrastructure still just wasn’t there.

Advances in Battery Technology Opened a Door

VW production facility showing numerous EV batteries ready to use in new vehicles.

Sean Gallup/Getty

The science of electrochemical energy storage has come a long way since the first electric vehicles puttered around powered by lead acid batteries. Current lithium-ion battery technology is more efficient, offers a significantly higher energy density, charges faster, and weighs less than lead acid.

Toward the end of the 20th century, a number of major automakers launched electric vehicle testbeds. The industry consensus was that battery technology was a few decades away from finally being competitive with gas. Then Tesla showed that battery technology was already viable for sustained use, and auto industry timetables shifted into high gear.

Tesla has been one of the biggest forces in driving battery technology forward in the US, but it’s also important to stress the impact of global competition in that area. While EV sales still represent a small minority of new vehicle sales in the US, the story is different in other parts of the world.

Emerging markets like China have exerted massive force on the field of electric vehicles, with China alone accounting for 44 percent of all the EVs in the world. China also leads the world in terms of its battery supply chain, spurring further competition in that area from the US and the EU.

Increased competition leads to improved supply chains, manufacturing techniques, and technologies, resulting in prices and performances that are more attractive to the average driver.

Emissions Regulations and Government Mandates Create a Ticking Clock

While improvements in battery technology have made it possible for electric vehicles to compete with gas vehicles, they still tend to be more expensive and offer less range. However, electric vehicles do have one crucial advantage in that they don’t create any tailpipe emissions. Even when you take into account the environmental impact of manufacturing, shipping, and charging the batteries, electric vehicles still come out on top.

As one part of a larger effort to reduce carbon emissions, governments around the world have looked to the transportation sector. In the United States, emissions from transportation account for 29 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. That makes the transportation sector a prime target for emissions regulations, and passenger vehicles have been subject to ever-tightening emissions standards by the Environmental Protection Agency since the 1970s.

Elsewhere in the world, governments have already used mandates and tax rebates to drive the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. For example, electric vehicles accounted for more than 40 percent of the new vehicles sold in Norway in 2020.

In the US, a number of individual states have gone beyond simply mandating lower emissions and actually put an expiration date on the sale of new gas-powered vehicles. For example, you won’t be able to buy any new gas-powered vehicles in California starting in 2035.

Other states have attempted to set even more aggressive timelines, while others have hesitated due to concerns over a lack of charging infrastructure and other factors.

Building Out a Nationwide Charging Infrastructure

Electric vehicle charging station sign on top of a public charging station with palm trees in background.


In the United States, the nationwide charging infrastructure hasn’t kept up with advancements in battery technology. While you can get a Tesla with an EPA-rated range of over 402 miles, and Toyota has a prototype that offers a 300 mile range with a 10 minute charge time, not everyone has easy access to EV fast charging stations.

For many drivers, and many situations, public charging stations aren’t necessary. Many drivers can simply charge their vehicles at home, and modern EVs provide more than enough range for most commutes, errands, and other daily driving tasks.

For those who can’t charge at home, however, the current state of the nationwide charging infrastructure poses a problem.

Extensive improvements will also be necessary to facilitate interstate commerce and travel, where a 300 or 400 mile range just isn’t enough without easy access to fast charging facilities along the way.

Extensive progress has already been made on building out the nationwide charging infrastructure, with the Department of Energy pumping in over $115 million between 2009 and 2013.

More recently, the Biden administration has backed a plan to install 500,000 chargers at 28,000 charging stations in the coming years. That’s more than five times the current capacity of the nationwide charging infrastructure.

Automakers Don’t Want to Get Left Behind

The automotive industry is massive, and it moves much slower than the vehicles it produces. Automakers are often slow to adopt new technologies, and big changes don’t often happen overnight. With that in mind, the major automobile manufacturers have to make their bets early, or risk getting left behind when change actually does come.

When Tesla proved that it was possible to mass produce a viable electric vehicle with the current technology, most of the major automakers kicked their plans into high gear. Today, every major automaker offers at least a few EV options, with many more coming online each year.

While EVs only represent a small minority of new vehicle sales today, sales increase every year, bolstered by improvements in range and performance, government incentives, and more options to choose from.

Beyond simply offering more options, some automakers have fully committed to the shift to electric vehicles. General Motors has pledged that it will only manufacture electric vehicles starting in 2035. Others have made huge investments, but haven’t gone quite as far as GM.

However, Ford has committed $29 billion to its electric push, and Volkswagen has earmarked more than $35 billion along with a pledge to offer 70 new fully electric models by 2028. Rolls Royce, owned by BMW, announced it will produce only electric cars by 2030, joining other premium brands like Volkswagen's Bentley, Jaguar's Land Rover, and Mercedes Benz Daimler.

The Changing Tide of Consumer Acceptance and Interest

Woman in driver's seat holding car key of her new electric car

aquaArts studio/Getty

There’s a definite push and pull between government regulations, automaker plans, and international competition that have all conspired to drive forward the shift to electric. However, the most important component is consumer acceptance and interest. That has increased in recent years as well, although the sales of new gas cars still far outstrips the sales of new electric vehicles.

Some of the biggest stumbling blocks for a lot of drivers have historically been issues with charging, range, and price. Model variety has also been an issue, although that’s quickly falling by the wayside as automakers offer an increasingly large selection, with even old favorites like the Ford F-150 being offered in an all-electric version.

Charging will be less and less of an issue as the nationwide charging infrastructure is built out, and advancements like DC fast charging reduce the amount of time it takes to “fuel up” on the road.

Price issues are currently mitigated by tax rebates and incentives to some degree in some areas, but economies of scale mean that as more electric vehicles are sold, improvements in the supply chain and other factors should eventually bring prices down closer to those of gas-powered vehicles.

Common misconceptions about electric vehicles, like that they don’t perform as well as gas-powered vehicles, have also hindered sales in the past. As more electric vehicles hit the road, and those misconceptions are shown to be wrong, that’s likely to swing consumer acceptance even further. Advanced features like self-driving are also likely to pique consumer interest as they become available.

The shift to electric vehicles has been a long time coming. Despite a century-long detour, and countless challenges, this shift is being driven by a number of powerful forces.

Governmental regulations, international pressure and competition, long-term industry plans, and environmental concerns all play a role, and the chances that your next car might be electric get better every year.

Trying to figure out electric vehicles and how they might fit into your life? Read The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Electric Vehicles to learn more.