A Reality Check on the Plug-In Revolution

What’s really needed if we are to turn the Plug-In Revolution into the main event, instead of a colorful but distracting sideshow?
Detroit auto show, photo by John F. Martin for Chevrolet

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan tries out a 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

Photo by John F. Martin for Chevrolet

Before I start, let me put some facts on the table, so that we have them in mind when we pay our virtual visit to the Detroit Auto Show, which opens its doors to the public on Saturday.

  • There are around 700 million vehicles in the world—600 million cars and light trucks and 100 million commercial vehicles, trucks, and coaches.
  • In 2010, 52 million new cars were produced.
  • For the past 100 years, the oil-powered internal combustion engine has dominated the market.
  • When the oil is burnt, its ancient carbon mixes with oxygen, and produces carbon dioxide. Globally, cars and light trucks account for 10 percent of the CO2 emissions that are causing our climate crisis.
  • When the oil is burnt, its ancient carbon mixes with oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, becoming a significant contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
  • Each car adds some 4-5 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere a year, unless it’s electric and powered by green, renewable electricity.
  • The world’s ability to continue to provide oil for all these cars is in real doubt. Peak oil is coming, whether we like it or not.
  • A bike adds no pollution at all, while making you happier and healthier.

So while accepting that a truly sustainable system of transport would prioritize walking, cycling, transit, rail, ridesharing, and teleworking before it addressed the needs of the car, let’s see what this year’s Detroit Auto Show has to offer.

This year’s Auto Show is an electric celebration. The 49 journalists who did the voting chose the GM Volt—a plug-in hybrid—as the North American Car of the Year, and a runaway winner. 

Suddenly, they’re all doing it. Nissan has its all-electric Leaf. The Chinese manufacturer BYD is bringing out an electric car in 2012. Chrysler is launching an all-electric version of the Fiat 500 next year. Toyota is extending its Prius line to multiple vehicles and bringing out a Plug-In Prius in 2012. Ford is launching three new plug-ins—the Focus Electric, the C-MAX Energi and the C-MAX Hybrid, to be manufactured at its green-as-it-comes assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan, powered in part by a 500 kW solar energy system.

In 2014, Volkswagen is bringing out an all-electric version of Europe’s most popular car, the VW Golf blue-e-motion. Top speed 84 mph, 0-60 in 11.8 seconds, driving range of 93 miles, good for 80 percent of commutes to work. The Chevy Volt has back-up fuel, so it can go 375 miles before it needs a refill, eliminating range anxiety. GM will build 25,000 Volts this year, which cost $33,500 after the $7,500 US tax credit. GM hopes that electric vehicles will make up 10 percent of its production by 2020-2025 and is hiring 1,000 new engineers to make it happen.

Everyone is gushing over the new Plug-Ins—they’re gorgeous, sexy, brilliant, awesome—take your pick. But let’s stop for a reality check. In their 2010 study Drive Green 2020, JD Power and Associates found that total global sales of hybrid and full electric vehicles were expected to reach 20.5 million units by 2020— just 7.3 percent of the 70.9 million passenger cars they expect to be sold that year.

So on the one hand, as Felix Kramer of CalCars put it, “our cup runneth over with plug-in hybrids.” But when we set these numbers against the urgency of the global climate emergency and the imminence of peak oil, the progress is nowhere near fast enough.

Felix Kramer of CalCars has embarked on a new goal: to retrofit tens of millions of cars that are already on the road, turning them into electrics.

Optimism can be a great deceiver—and I’m a determined optimist. In China, the government wants to prepare 10 million car parking spots for electric vehicles by 2020, when they think the country's production of electric vehicles could reach 1 million units, or 5 percent of the nation’s car market—this in a country where consumers can get an $18,000 incentive (120,000 yuan) to buy an electric car in many cities.

If 7 percent of new vehicles are plug-in electrics by 2020, what does that represent? With China and India on an economic roll, there could easily be 700 million cars on the road by then (if the oil holds out). Of these, just 2.8 percent would be plug-in electrics. 

Since cars and light trucks produce some 10 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, this would only create a 0.28 percent reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions—and that’s even if we assume that 100 percent of the plug-ins are powered entirely by green electricity.

So for all the excitement, and all the positive stories, these little cars don’t amount to a hill of electric beans—a sentiment that Felix Kramer agrees with, and the reason why he has embarked on a new goal: to retrofit tens of millions of cars that are already on the road, turning them into electrics. And don’t underestimate the persistent Mr. Kramer, who helped inspire this whole revolution eight years ago.

So what’s really needed if we are to turn the Plug-In Revolution into the main event, instead of a colorful but distracting sideshow? Here are ten things that would at least help:

  1. Understand the climate numbers, and don’t be seduced into thinking the problem can be solved by new cars.
  2. Make the creation of a nation-wide infrastructure for plug-in vehicles a top priority.
  3. In order to speed up the shift away from carbon polluting transportation, put a price on carbon. There’s no escaping it. British Columbia has started the ball rolling with a carbon tax at $20 a tonne of CO2, adding 17 cents to a gallon of gas. To address the climate emergency, the price needs eventually to reach $200 a tonne.
  4. Give the same $7,500 tax credit you can get for buying a new electric car to electric vehicle conversions.
  5. Increase vehicle eco-efficiency standards. All new cars and trucks should produce no more than 50 g/km CO2 by 2020 (grams of CO2 per kilometre)—that’s 100 miles per gallon. Right now, the US goal is a very low 156 g/km, or 35 mpg.
  6. Do as Vancouver is doing: require all new single family homes and 20 percent of the parking stalls in new condos to have a charging infrastructure for an electric vehicle.
  7. Ensure that all government and municipal fleets include a number of plug-in hybrids.
  8. Allow plug-ins on HOV lanes, and give them free downtown parking. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready has 14 other proposals like this.
  9. Invest in the research that will drive down battery costs.
  10. Strengthen the grid to handle demand from plug-ins and promote night-time recharging.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This progress is great, considering what has been achieved in eight years. But this is just the starting line. Now our activism needs to swing into full gear to ensure that we get the change that’s needed. We need 100 million plug-ins on the world’s roads by 2020, not one million.

Note: An earlier edition of this article attributed approx. 5 percent of global GHGs to cars and light trucks. This figure did not account for the impact of black carbon, nitrous oxide, and other factors. The correct figure is 10 percent.


  • : Networks of electric charging stations—key to the acceptance and use of electric vehicles—are starting to appear around the world.
  • : How Portland plans to become the first world-class bike city in America.
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