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Electric Cars Are Better for the Planet – and Often Your Budget, Too

By Veronica Penney Jan. 15, 2021

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Electric vehicles are better for the climate than gas-powered cars, but many Americans are still reluctant to buy them. One reason: The larger upfront cost.

New data published Thursday shows that despite the higher sticker price, electric cars may actually save drivers money in the long-run.

To reach this conclusion, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated both the carbon dioxide emissions and full lifetime cost — including purchase price, maintenance and fuel — for nearly every new car model on the market.

They found electric cars were easily more climate friendly than gas-burning ones. Over a lifetime, they were often cheaper, too.

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Average carbon dioxide emissions per mile

Toyota Sequoia

Diesel cars

Traditional gas-powered cars span a range of prices and emissions.

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles are about the same price as traditional cars, but cut emissions roughly in half.

Honda Civic

Higher emissions

Nissan Leaf

Electric cars have the lowest cost and emissions over time.

Higher cost

Average cost per month

Purchase price, maintenance, fuel

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Electric cars have the lowest cost and emissions over time .

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Climate scientists say vehicle electrification is one of the best ways to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, the transportation sector is the largest source of emissions, most of which come from cars and trucks .

Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of energy studies at M.I.T. who led the research, said she hoped the data would “help people learn about how those upfront costs are spread over the lifetime of the car.”

For electric cars, lower maintenance costs and the lower costs of charging compared with gasoline prices tend to offset the higher upfront price over time. (Battery-electric engines have fewer moving parts that can break compared with gas-powered engines and they don’t require oil changes. Electric vehicles also use regenerative braking, which reduces wear and tear.)

The cars are greener over time, too, despite the more emissions-intensive battery manufacturing process. Dr. Trancik estimates that an electric vehicle’s production emissions would be offset in anywhere from six to 18 months, depending on how clean the energy grid is where the car is charging.

The new data showed hybrid cars, which run on a combination of fuel and battery power, and can sometimes be plugged in, had more mixed results for both emissions and costs. Some hybrids were cheaper and spewed less planet-warming carbon dioxide than regular cars, but others were in the same emissions and cost range as gas-only vehicles.

Traditional gas-burning cars were usually the least climate friendly option, though long-term costs and emissions spanned a wide range. Compact cars were usually cheaper and more efficient, while gas-powered SUVs and luxury sedans landed on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Dr. Trancik’s team released the data in an interactive online tool to help people quantify the true costs of their car-buying decisions — both for the planet and their budget. The new estimates update a study published in 2016 and add to a growing body of research underscoring the potential lifetime savings of electric cars.

Comparing individual cars can be useful — and sometimes surprising .

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Toyota RAV4 XLE

Retail: $27,450

Average carbon dioxide

emissions per mile

Nissan Altima

Retail: $26,800

The hybrid is cheaper and has lower emissions over time, despite the higher price tag.

Toyota RAV4 LE Hybrid

Retail: $28,500

The electric Tesla and gas- powered Nissan end up costing about the same over time.

Tesla Model 3

Retail: $37,990

hypothesis on electric vehicles

The electric Tesla and gas- powered Nissan end up costing about the same.

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Take the Tesla Model 3, the most popular electric car in the United States. The M.I.T. team estimated the lifetime cost of the most basic model as comparable to a Nissan Altima that sells for $11,000 less upfront. (That’s even though Tesla’s federal tax incentive for electric vehicles has ended.)

Toyota’s Hybrid RAV4 S.U.V. also ends up cheaper in the long run than a similar traditional RAV4, a national bestseller, despite a higher retail price.

The charts above use nationwide average prices for gasoline and electricity to estimate lifetime costs, but the results may shift depending on where potential buyers live. (The interactive tool allows users to input their local rates.)

Hawaii, Alaska and parts of New England have some of the highest average electricity costs , while parts of the Midwest, West and South tend to have lower rates. Gas prices are lower along the Gulf Coast and higher in California. But an analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists still found that charging a vehicle was more cost effective than filling up at the pump across 50 major American cities. “We saw potential savings everywhere,” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer for the group’s Clean Transportation Program.

Still, the upfront cost of an electric vehicle continues to be a barrier for many would-be owners.

The federal government offers a tax credit for some new electric vehicle purchases, but that does nothing to reduce the initial purchase price and does not apply to used cars. That means it disproportionately benefits wealthier Americans. Some states, like California, offer additional incentives. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has pledged to offer rebates that help consumers swap inefficient, old cars for cleaner new ones, and to create 500,000 more electric vehicle charging stations, too.

Chris Gearhart, director of the Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said electric cars will become more price competitive in coming years as battery prices drop. At the same time, new technologies to reduce exhaust emissions are making traditional cars more expensive. “With that trajectory, you can imagine that even immediately at the purchase price level, certain smaller sedans could reach purchase price parity in the next couple of years,” Dr. Gearhart said.

Climate Insights 2020: Electric Vehicles

A survey of American public opinion on electric vehicles illustrates the factors that make people resistant to purchasing them.

Oct. 19, 2020

Bo MacInnis and Jon A. Krosnick


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According to findings describe in prior installments of reports on the Climate Insights 2020 survey of American public opinion, large majorities of Americans believe that the earth has been warming over the past 100 years; that this warming will continue in the future if unaddressed; that it will constitute a nationally and globally serious problem; and that governments, businesses, and individuals should take steps to curb this warming and its likely effects.

According to some natural scientists and economists, one potential step to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change would be the widespread adoption of all-electric vehicles (EVs), which can be powered by electricity generated by sunlight, wind, and water. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (see below), transportation emits more greenhouse gases than any other sector in the US, attributable to transportation’s near-complete dependence on fossil fuels. Thus, emissions can be dramatically reduced by widespread adoption of EVs. Perhaps partly for this reason, manufacturing and sales of EVs have been increasing in recent years. Still, thus far, such sales represent a small share of consumer automobile purchases in the United States.

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Figure 1. US Greenhouse Gas Emissions (2018)

There are various possible reasons for the slow adoption of this technology. Since most people who might buy an EV already own a car, purchasing one is what economists call a consumer durable replacement decision. According to rational choice theory, consumers will be inclined to replace their gasoline-powered cars with EVs when the latter is expected to yield higher expected utility than the former over the course of ownership. However, recent psychological research has shown that not all consumers think this way. There are considerable psychological costs entailed by durable replacement decisions, and these psychological costs are barriers to the adoption of new technologically innovative products like EVs (for a review, e.g., see Guiltiman 2010).

Perhaps consumers have developed attachments to their current gasoline-powered cars, creating additional psychic value , referred to as the endowment effect in behavioral economics (Kahneman, Knetsch, & Thaler 1990), and the mere ownership effect in psychology (Beggan, 1992). This additional value makes consumers less likely to replace their current cars, exhibiting the behavior of loss aversion. Additionally, consumers may be uncertain of their evaluations of the expected benefits and costs of a new product like an EV. That uncertainty, to many consumers who are typically risk-averse, may decrease the attractiveness of buying an EV and cause a delay in consumer adoption of such cars.

In addition, some public reluctance to purchase EVs may be derived from functionality. For example, although the charging capacity of EV batteries has been increasing, the miles-per-charge of such vehicles remains more limited than the distance capacity of gasoline-powered vehicles. Furthermore, the United States is blanketed with gasoline stations, giving gasoline-powered vehicles significant flexibility to travel distances that are limited only by the purchasing power of their drivers. In contrast, EVs can only be recharged in locations that offer the necessary infrastructure, and recharging takes time that travelers may not always have available. The attempt by the now-defunct EV firm Better Place to locate battery-swapping stations across the country was meant to solve this problem, but the company’s plan did not come to fruition, blamed partly range anxiety—the fear that EVs cannot drive the distances that passengers require and will therefore, leave them stranded (Noel and Sovacool, 2016).

However, even people whose travel patterns do not rule out EVs may hesitate before purchasing them for a variety of other reasons, some more rational than others. For example, prospective car buyers might perceive EVs to cost more to maintain than gasoline-powered vehicles. Prospective buyers might believe that there are fewer mechanics qualified to fix all-electric cars than can fix gasoline-powered vehicles, which would impose the inconveniences of additional distance, time, and cost when maintenance is required. Buyers might think that the acceleration of EVs cannot match that of gasoline-powered vehicles. Buyers might think that EVs depreciate more quickly than do gasoline-powered vehicles.

In light of these possible hesitations, it is interesting that both US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have recently expressed support for government efforts to promote use of all-electric vehicles. For example, during the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020, both candidates said they favor enhanced use of electric vehicles. Mr. Biden has pledged to build 500,000 charging stations on highways, to increase the proportion of federally owned and operated vehicles that are all-electric, and to provide tax credits to incentivize consumer purchases of such vehicles (Biden, 2020). During the debate, Mr. Trump also expressed his support for EVs: “I’m OK with electric cars, too. I’m all for electric cars. I’ve given big incentives for electric cars” (Kolodny, 2020).

With electric vehicles seeming to secure bipartisan support from leaders, it is of interest to explore the openness of American consumers to purchasing all-electric vehicles and to identify the sources of consumer hesitation impeding such purchases. To that end, we conducted a national survey asking American adults about their openness to purchasing all-electric vehicles in the future and their perceptions of various attributes of such vehicles. These questions allowed us to quantify the various hesitations and to estimate the impact of each belief on likelihood of purchasing all-electric vehicles in the future.

Understanding those sources of consumer hesitation may shed light on factors currently impeding expansion of the EV market in the United States. Many factors are presumed to influence consumer purchases, such as the cost of a product; the product’s safety, reliability and effectiveness; advertising and marketing to promote the product; brand appeal packaging; and more. Building on consumer choice theory, we hypothesized that product safety concern, economic costs, product features, normative considerations, and prior exposure may predict the public’s hesitation to purchase EVs (e.g., Ewing & Sarigollu, 2000).

Furthermore, when purchasing expensive and technically complex products such as EVs, consumers are confronted with many competitive alternatives, and considering each alternative requires digesting extensive descriptions of the specifications and functionalities of the product. Gathering, processing, comparing, and integrating the large array of information about each attribute of competing alternatives involves substantial cognitive work and psychological involvement (e.g., Abramson, and Desai, 1993), which may diminish consumers’ incentives to venture into a new market. Consequently, consumers without the experience or time to thoughtfully ‘comparison shop’ may hesitate before buying EVs so as to avoid expending the effort required to gather, sift, and process the technical specifications. Alternatively, these individuals may form intentions about purchasing EVs based on a small set of considerations to minimize their effort and rather rely on heuristic shortcuts in guiding their decisions (e.g., Kahneman, 2000).

We also explored whether decisionmaking about EVs might differ between men and women. Many studies suggest that women are more risk-averse than men (Eckel, & Grossman, 2008) and invest more conservatively than men (Bajtelsmit, & Bernasek, 1996), which suggests that women may be more hesitant to adopt EVs than men. Furthermore, women place different weight than men on various product attributes when making purchasing decisions (Arslanagic, Pestek, & Kadic-Maglajlic, 2014; Blakewell, & Mitchell, 2006). We therefore explored whether men and women might differ in the weight placed on different attributes that might influence openness to purchasing EVs.

Past scholarship has explored factors that inhibit purchasing of EVs in the United States and abroad, informed by elaborate psychological theories in some cases. For example, Nayum and Klockner (2014) estimated the parameters of a mediated structural equation model pointing to the roles of awareness, social norms, personal norms, attitudes, intentions, knowledge, and more (see also Priessner, Sposato, and Hampl, 2018). Barbarossa et al. (2015) provided evidence of the impact of eco-friendly self-identity, concern about the environmental consequences of consumption, and moral obligation (see also Thogersen, and Ebsen, 2019). Schmalfuss, Muhl, and Krems (2017) and Thogersen and Ebsen (2019) showed that direct experience with EVs generally made people more positive toward them, thus reducing purchase resistance. Jansson, Nordlund, and Westin (2017) documented the impact of attitudes and social influence on purchase resistance.

Understanding the sources of consumer hesitation may shed light on factors currently impeding expansion of the electric vehicle market in the United States.

Provocative as these papers are, they are thick on abstract theory, often rely on data collected outside the United States (e.g., Barbarossa et al., 2015; Jansson, Nordlund, & Westin, 2017; Priessner, Sposato, & Hampl, 2018; Thogersen, & Ebsen, 2019), and when done in the United States, did not involve representative samples of prospective car buyers. We took advantage of representative sample survey data and implemented a much simpler analytic approach by estimating the impact of perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of EVs on consumer openness to purchasing them. In that sense, our study is more akin to that done by Carley, Krause, Lane, and Graham (2013), whose analysis explored perceptions of two disadvantages of EVs: range restriction and charging time, both of which were shown to inhibit purchasing intentions. We expand on their approach by exploring a wider range of potential disadvantages of EVs to identify the drivers of resistance to purchasing them.

These issues were explored using the data from our national telephone survey, conducted from May 28 to August 10, 2020. In this report, we describe the results obtained from statistical analyses of the data and spell out the implications of those results. A separate methodology report, which can be found here under "Methodology and Data," describes the methods of the survey data collection and the measures included in it to address all-electric vehicles.

Expert Insight

During the past decade, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles on the road. As both all-electric and plug-in hybrid prices have declined and performance has improved with the help of government subsidies, the power of EVs in the auto industry is growing. In fact, Tesla is the most valuable car company in the United States, and, as of mid-October 2020, is worth more than Ford and General Motors combined.

However, EVs still make up a small market share of new passenger vehicles. Compared to gas-powered cars, there are relatively few options and charging stations remain scarce in many places in the United States. Gas-powered vehicles will likely continue dominating the market for some time, but EVs may replace gas-powered vehicles in the long-term. When that time comes will be influenced by the presence of government subsidies, advances in battery technology, and consumer behavior. But overall, the transition from one vehicle technology to another will most likely be gradual.

On the political side, something to watch is California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order announcing that, by 2035, California will require all new passenger vehicles sold in the state to produce no direct emissions. California is the first jurisdiction to do this in the United States, and the action follows similar announcements that a few countries have made, such as France and Germany. Considering that California accounts for about 10 percent of US sales, it will be interesting to see what will happen to the EV market if CA follows through. Political action like this on the state and federal level will likely have an influence on the future of EVs.

— Joshua Linn , RFF Senior Fellow

Why May Americans Be Resistant to Electric Vehicles?

Opinions on global warming.

Nearly one-quarter (26%) of Americans believe that unchecked global warming will not be a problem for the United States (16%) or believe it will be a “not so serious” problem (10%). These individuals may be less motivated to consider buying an EV than the 15% who believe that unchecked global warming will be a somewhat serious problem and the 58% who think that unchecked global warming will be a very serious problem.

Figure 2. Americans’ beliefs about how serious a problem global warming will be for the United States

Distributions of perceptions of evs.

Environmental benefits. More than one-quarter (28%) of Americans believe that driving an EV will not help the environment at all (14%) or that it will help the environment “a little” (14%). These individuals may be less motivated to consider buying an all-electric car than the one-quarter of Americans (25%) who believe that driving an all-electric car will help the environment “a moderate amount,” the 17% who believe that it will help the environment “a lot,” and the 29% who believe that it will help the environment “a great deal."

Figure 3. How much Americans think driving an all-electric car helps the environment

Safety. About one-third (34%) of Americans believe that EV batteries are extremely likely (5%), very likely (6%), or moderately likely (23%) to catch on fire. These individuals may be less motivated to consider buying an EV than the nearly two-thirds of Americans who believe that batteries catching on fire is either slightly likely (32%) or not likely at all (31%).

Figure 4. How likely Americans think it is that EV batteries will catch on fire

Economics. Nearly one-third (29%) of Americans believe that maintaining EVs is more costly than maintaining gasoline-powered cars, and these individuals may be less open to purchasing an EV then the 13% and 50% of Americans who believe that maintenance of all-electric cars is less costly than or as costly as maintaining gasoline-powered cars, respectively.

Figure 5. Americans' beliefs about maintenance costs of EVs relative to gasoline-powered cars

22% of Americans believe that driving EVs is more costly than driving gasoline-powered cars, and these people may be less motivated to buy an EV than are the 45% and 28% of Americans who believe that driving EVs is less costly than or as costly as driving gasoline-powered cars, respectively.

45% of Americans think that it is cheaper to drive an EV one mile than a gasoline car.

Figure 6. americans’ beliefs about whether the electricity to drive an ev one mile costs more, less, or the same as gas to drive a gasoline-powered vehicle one mile.

15% of Americans believe that all-electric cars lose value more quickly than gas-powered cars. These people may be less motivated to purchase an EV than the 27% who think that EVs lose value more slowly than gas-powered cars and the 52% who believe that depreciation of all-electric cars and gasoline-powered cars is about the same.

Figure 7. Percentage of Americans who think EVs lose value faster, more slowly, or at the same rate as gasoline-powered vehicles

Performance and efficiency. One-quarter of Americans (25%) believe that all-electric cars have poorer acceleration than gasoline-powered cars. These people may be less motivated to buy EVs than the 26% who believe that all-electric cars have better acceleration than gasoline-powered cars and the 43% who perceive no difference in acceleration between all-electric cars and gasoline-powered cars.

Figure 8. Americans’ beliefs about whether EVs accelerate more quickly or more slowly than gasoline-powered vehicles

22% of Americans believe that charging EV batteries is extremely difficult, 24% believe it is very difficult, and 32% perceive it to be moderately difficult. If perceived difficulty of charging EV batteries factors into the decision to purchase, these 78% of Americans may be more reluctant to buy EVs than are the 13% and 8% who believe battery charging is slightly difficult and not difficult at all, respectively.

78% of Americans think finding an EV charging station is at least moderately difficult.

Figure 9. americans’ beliefs about how difficult it is to find an ev charging station.

58% of Americans believe that “a few” auto mechanics can repair EVs, and 7% believe that “essentially none” can. These Americans may be more reluctant to buy EVs than those who believe that “about half,” “most,” or “all” mechanics can fix them (22%, 9%, and 1%, respectively).

Figure 10. Americans’ beliefs about how many mechanics can fix EVs

A little more than half of americans who anticipate purchasing a car in the future will consider buying an all-electric car..

Prior exposure. 65% of Americans have not driven or known someone who has driven an all-electric car or truck. These people—representing about two-thirds of Americans—may be more reluctant to buy an EV than are the 34% who have driven one or know someone who has driven one.

Figure 11. Percentage of Americans who have or have not driven an EV or known someone who has

Openness to buying an EV. 40% of Americans said they will buy a car in the future and will consider buying an all-electric car, 30% said they will buy a car in the future but will not consider buying an all-electric car, and 28% said they will not buy a car in the future. Thus, of future car buyers, 57% said they will consider buying an EV.

Figure 12. Percentage of Americans who will or will not consider buying an EV

It appears that many people would at least consider buying an EV. This is striking, because EVs represent about 2% of all new vehicle sales. It begs the question, what is preventing those considering an EV from actually buying an EV? It may be a combination of reasons. First, only a few dozen EV models are available, compared to hundreds of gasoline models. This really restricts options. Second, EVs remain more expensive than an equivalent gasoline vehicle. Third, battery range remains a concern, as a typical mass-market EV still only gets 200 to 300 miles per charge. This is much smaller than the range of a typical gasoline vehicle.

It seems that many people think charging is a challenge (Figure 9), even though the number of EV charging stations has increased a lot over time. This could be due to a lack of awareness of where charging stations are located. Gas stations are large and obvious, while EV charging stations are less obvious.

— Benjamin Leard , RFF University Fellow

65% of respondents have neither driven nor known someone who has driven an all-electric car or truck.

Predicting Resistance to Purchasing EVs

Global warming. In the OLS regression predicting purchase openness (see technical report), the strongest predictor of reluctance is the belief that global warming will not be a serious problem for the United States in the future. The more serious people believe global warming will be in the future, the more likely they are to consider buying EVs.

Figure 13. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effects of global warming beliefs

Environmental protection. Controlling for beliefs about global warming, the perception that driving EVs does not help the environment did not inhibit intentions to purchase such cars. When the perception that driving EVs does not help the environment was included among the predictors in the regression equation but beliefs about global warming were not, beliefs about environmental protection were a marginally significant inhibitor to purchase intentions, as expected. Thus, it seems that beliefs about global warming are the motivator behind this relation involving environmental protection.

Figure 14. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effects of beliefs about environmental benefits

Safety. The perception that batteries pose a safety hazard substantially reduced people’s openness to purchasing EVs.

Figure 15. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effects of beliefs about safety

Economic costs . Perceived greater maintenance costs of EVs as compared to gas-powered vehicles was another predictor of purchasing reluctance. Believing that EVs are more expensive to maintain was a deterrent to purchasing as well. The perception that EVs are more expensive to operate and depreciate more quickly than gasoline-powered cars did not inhibit purchasing intentions.

Figure 16. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effects of perceived cost

The perception that batteries pose a safety hazard substantially reduced people’s openness to purchasing all-electric vehicles.

Performance and efficiency . The perception that EVs have better acceleration than gasoline-powered cars predicted the openness to purchasing all-electric cars marginally significantly. Perceiving worse acceleration was not a deterrent. The perceived difficulty of charging batteries and the perceived lack of car mechanics knowledgeable in EV repair did not inhibit purchasing intentions.

Figure 17. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effects of beliefs about acceleration, charging difficulty, and availability of mechanics

Prior exposure . Prior experience driving EVs did not enhance openness to purchasing all-electric cars.

Figure 18. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effects of prior experince driving EVs or knowing someone who had an EV

Other predictors. Liberals are less resistant than moderates to purchasing EVs. Democrats are marginally significantly more resistant than are Independents. People ages 55 to 64 were significantly more resistant than people ages 18 to 25. High school graduates were significantly more reluctant than people who had not graduated from high school. People in the Northeast region of the United States were marginally significantly less resistant to purchasing EVs. Sex, Hispanic ethnicity, race, income, and marital status were unrelated to resistance.

Figure 19. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effects of other factors

Moderators of the predictors of resistance to purchasing evs, moderation by sex.

Men and women* differed in terms of the predictors of their openness to purchasing all-electric cars (for regression coefficient estimates testing moderation, see the Climate Insights 2020: Electric Vehicles technical report ). Belief that global warming will be a serious problem significantly enhanced openness to buying an EV in the future among women, and did not among men.

*Respondents were asked, “Are you male or female?” Hereafter, respondents who said they were female are referred to as “women,” while respondents who said they were male are referred to as “men.”

Figure 20. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of global warming beliefs by sex

The perception that driving EVs does not help the environment inhibited intentions to purchase such cars among men and did not among women.

Figure 21. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of environmental benefit beliefs by sex

The perception that EV batteries pose a safety hazard substantially reduced people’s openness to purchasing EVs among women but did not among men.

Figure 22. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of safety beliefs by sex

Perceived greater EV maintenance costs were a strong predictor of reluctance to buy these cars among men, but did not increase reluctance among women. In contrast, the perception that EVs depreciate more quickly inhibited purchasing intentions among women to a high degree, but did not have the same effect among men.

Figure 23. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of cost and depreciation beliefs by sex

The perception that EVs have poorer acceleration than gasoline-powered cars predicted the resistance to EVs among men but did not predict resistance among women. Perceived unavailability of car mechanics to repair EVs decreased purchasing intentions among men but did not among women.

Figure 24. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of acceleration beliefs by sex

Figure 25. predicting reluctance to buy an ev: effect of beliefs about availability of mechanics who can fix evs by sex, moderation by education.

More educated people differed from less educated people in terms of the criteria that drive their reluctance to purchase EVs. For example, the belief that global warming will be a serious problem significantly enhances openness to buying an EV among people who did not graduate from college more than among people who did.

Figure 26. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of global warming beliefs on those who did and did not graduate from college

The perception that EV batteries pose a safety hazard substantially reduced the openness to purchasing EVs among people without a college degree but did not reduce openness among college graduates.

Figure 27. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of safety beliefs on those who did and did not graduate from college

Perceiving all-electric cars to depreciate more quickly inhibited purchasing intentions among college graduates but did not among people without college degrees.

Perceiving greater maintenance costs of all-electric cars predicted reluctance to buy these cars equally strongly among people with and without college degrees.

Figure 28. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of depreciation and cost beliefs on those who did and did not graduate from college

Perceived unavailability of car mechanics to repair all-electric cars substantially decreased purchasing intentions among Americans without college degrees but did not among college graduates.

Figure 29. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of beliefs about availability of mechanics who can fix EVs on those who did and did not graduate from college

Moderation by prior experience.

Believing that global warming will be a serious problem significantly enhanced openness to buying EVs among Americans without prior exposure to such cars. However, belief in the severity of global warming did not enhance openness among Americans with prior experience.

Figure 30. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of global warming beliefs on those with and without prior experience

The perception that EV batteries pose a safety hazard equally reduced openness to purchasing all-electric cars among people with and without prior exposure.

Figure 31. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of safety beliefs on those with and without prior experience

Perceived high EV maintenance costs increased hesitation to buy these cars among people without prior experience, but did not increase hesitation among people with previous exposure.

Figure 32. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of maintenance cost beliefs on those with and without prior experience

Perceived poor acceleration predicted the resistance to all-electric cars among Americans with prior exposure, but did not affect hesitation among Americans without prior exposure.

Figure 33. Predicting reluctance to buy an EV: Effect of acceleration beliefs on those with and without prior experience

These findings shed light on how people perceive EVs and how those perceptions drive public resistance to purchasing EVs. At present, 57% of future car buyers are willing to consider an EV. Thus, there are almost as many people who are reluctant to consider buying one as there are people who would not. And that reluctance comes from a variety of different beliefs.

The most important driver of openness to purchasing an EV is belief that global warming will be a serious problem for the United States in the future. Among potential car buyers, perceptions of this threat are not maximized. So if perceptions of the threat posed by global warming increase in the coming years, openness to purchasing EVs seems likely to increase.

But even if that happens, there are other psychological sources of hesitation regarding EV purchases. When examining the full sample, we saw the following barriers appear: the perception that batteries might catch on fire, the perception that maintenance costs of EVs are higher than the cost of maintaining gas-powered cars, and the perception that EVs have weaker acceleration than do gasoline-powered vehicles.

Furthermore, when we analyzed subgroups of the population defined by sex, education, and prior exposure to EVs, we identified other beliefs that are also barriers to purchasing among subgroups: the belief that charging batteries is difficult, the belief that EVs depreciate more quickly than gasoline-powered cars, and the belief that mechanics who can fix EVs are not numerous. Thus, to the extent that all of these beliefs change in directions favorable to EVs, there is reason to believe that purchase openness will increase as well.

It is interesting to note that simply having driven an EV or knowing someone who has one does not make people more inclined to purchase an EV in the future. This suggests that if, as time passes, more people have the opportunity to experience or hear about owning an EV, we do not expect to see increased willingness to purchase based on this factor alone.

The findings reported here contribute to the literatures in marketing on consumer decisionmaking by highlighting differences in decisionmaking criteria based on a person’s sex, education, and prior experience. First, perhaps contrary to the notion that women are more likely than men to hesitate to adopt new technologies, we did not see any effect of sex directly on purchasing openness when controlling for beliefs. It is interesting to note, however, that among women—but not among men—experience driving an EV or knowing someone who has done so increased openness to purchasing an EV, consistent with the notion that familiarity with a new technology reduces reluctance about it. Among women, economic and safety were key concerns, with accelerated depreciation concerns the most powerful barrier to purchasing, followed by concern about battery fires. For men, maintenance costs and mechanic availability were important sources of hesitation.

The most important driver of openness to purchasing an all-electric vehicle is belief that global warming will be a serious problem for the United States in the future.

Regarding education, the only notable difference was that concern about mechanic availability was a very powerful source of hesitation among people with lower levels of education, whereas it was not at all a deterrent among people with higher levels of education.

Interestingly, having prior experience with EVs reduced the impact of maintenance cost concerns but enhanced the impact of acceleration concerns. Also, surprisingly, being a Democrat was a source of hesitation among people without prior experience but not among Democrats with prior experience.

The findings reported here highlight opportunities for advocates of EVs to educate the public about the attributes of these vehicles. Increasing education and public awareness would likely translate into an enhanced appetite for EVs. If public inclination to make such purchases increases in the years to come, it will be interesting to then test whether the possible influences on opinion identified here were in fact responsible for the observed shifts.

RFF Climate Insights Survey Data Explorer

Survey Methodology

Electric vehicles: survey questions and data.

PDF — 499.2 KB

Electric Vehicles: Methodology

PDF — 248.9 KB

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Eckel, Catherine C., & Grossman, Philip J. 2008. Men, women, and risk Aversion: Experimental evidence. Handbook of Experimental Economics Results , 1 , 1061-1073.

Ewing, G. O., & Sarigollu, E. 2000. Assessing consumer preferences for clean-fuel vehicles: A discreate choice experiment. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing , 19 (1), 106-118.

Guiltinan, J. 2010. Consumer durables replacement decision-making: An overview and research agenda. Marketing Letters , 21 , 163-174.

Jansson, J., Nordlund, A., & Westin, K 2017. Examining drivers of sustainable consumption: The influence of norms and opinion leadership on electric vehicle adoption in Sweden. Journal of Cleaner Production, 154, 176-187.

Kahneman. D. 2003. Maps of bounded rationality: Psychology for behavioral economics. American Economics Review , 93 (5), 1449-1475.

Kahneman, Daniel; Knetsch, Jack L.; Thaler, Richard H. 1990. Experimental tests of the endowment effect and the Coase Theorem. Journal of Political Economy, 98 (6), 1325–1348

Kolodny, Lora. 2020. Biden and Trump agreed on at least one thing in debate: Support for electric vehicles. Accessed on October 7, 2020 at https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/30/trump-and-biden-both-say-they-support-electric-vehicles-in-debate.html.

Noel, Lance, Benjamin K. Sovacool. 2016. Why did Better Place Fail?: Range anxiety, interpretive flexibility, and electric vehicle promotion in Denmark and Israel. Energy Policy , 94 , 377-386.

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Jon A. Krosnick

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Jon A. Krosnick is an RFF university fellow and Stanford University-based social psychologist who does research on attitude formation, change, and effects, on the psychology of political behavior, and on survey research methods.

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Why electric cars will take over sooner than you think

A Volkswagen ID.3 electric car stands on an elevator platform inside one of the twin towers used as storage at the Autostadt promotional facility next to the Volkswagen factory

I know, you probably haven't even driven one yet, let alone seriously contemplated buying one, so the prediction may sound a bit bold, but bear with me.

We are in the middle of the biggest revolution in motoring since Henry Ford's first production line started turning back in 1913.

And it is likely to happen much more quickly than you imagine.

Many industry observers believe we have already passed the tipping point where sales of electric vehicles (EVs) will very rapidly overwhelm petrol and diesel cars.

It is certainly what the world's big car makers think.

Jaguar plans to sell only electric cars from 2025, Volvo from 2030 and last week the British sportscar company Lotus said it would follow suit, selling only electric models from 2028.

Jaguar I-Pace (I-PACE) battery-electric crossover SUV on display at Brussels Expo on January 9, 2020 in Brussels

And it isn't just premium brands.

General Motors says it will make only electric vehicles by 2035, Ford says all vehicles sold in Europe will be electric by 2030 and VW says 70% of its sales will be electric by 2030.

This isn't a fad, this isn't greenwashing.

Yes, the fact many governments around the world are setting targets to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles gives impetus to the process.

But what makes the end of the internal combustion engine inevitable is a technological revolution. And technological revolutions tend to happen very quickly.

This revolution will be electric

Look at the internet.

By my reckoning, the EV market is about where the internet was around the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Back then, there was a big buzz about this new thing with computers talking to each other.

Jeff Bezos had set up Amazon, and Google was beginning to take over from the likes of Altavista, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo. Some of the companies involved had racked up eye-popping valuations.

A sign for the Yahoo! Internet search engine rises above lower Manhattan in this February 10, 2000

For those who hadn't yet logged on it all seemed exciting and interesting but irrelevant - how useful could communicating by computer be? After all, we've got phones!

But the internet, like all successful new technologies, did not follow a linear path to world domination. It didn't gradually evolve, giving us all time to plan ahead.

Its growth was explosive and disruptive, crushing existing businesses and changing the way we do almost everything. And it followed a familiar pattern, known to technologists as an S-curve.

Riding the internet S-curve

It's actually an elongated S.

The idea is that innovations start slowly, of interest only to the very nerdiest of nerds. EVs are on the shallow sloping bottom end of the S here.

For the internet, the graph begins at 22:30 on 29 October 1969. That's when a computer at the University of California in LA made contact with another in Stanford University a few hundred miles away.

The researchers typed an L, then an O, then a G. The system crashed before they could complete the word "login".

Like I said, nerds only.


A decade later there were still only a few hundred computers on the network but the pace of change was accelerating.

In the 1990s the more tech-savvy started buying personal computers.

As the market grew, prices fell rapidly and performance improved in leaps and bounds - encouraging more and more people to log on to the internet.

The S is beginning to sweep upwards here, growth is becoming exponential. By 1995 there were some 16 million people online. By 2001, there were 513 million people.

Now there are more than three billion. What happens next is our S begins to slope back towards the horizontal.

The rate of growth slows as virtually everybody who wants to be is now online.

Jeremy Clarkson's disdain

We saw the same pattern of a slow start, exponential growth and then a slowdown to a mature market with smartphones, photography, even antibiotics.

The internal combustion engine at the turn of the last century followed the same trajectory.

So did steam engines and printing presses. And electric vehicles will do the same.

In fact they have a more venerable lineage than the internet.

The first crude electric car was developed by the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in the 1830s.

But it is only in the last few years that the technology has been available at the kind of prices that make it competitive.

The former Top Gear presenter and used car dealer Quentin Willson should know. He's been driving electric vehicles for well over a decade.

General Motors' environmentally friendly electric car, the EV1, January 1998

He test-drove General Motors' now infamous EV1 20 years ago. It cost a billion dollars to develop but was considered a dud by GM, which crushed all but a handful of the 1,000 or so vehicles it produced.

The EV1's range was dreadful - about 50 miles for a normal driver - but Mr Willson was won over. "I remember thinking this is the future," he told me.

He says he will never forget the disdain that radiated from fellow Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson when he showed him his first electric car, a Citroen C-Zero, a decade later.

"It was just completely: 'You have done the most unspeakable thing and you have disgraced us all. Leave!'," he says. Though he now concedes that you couldn't have the heater on in the car because it decimated the range.

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How things have changed. Mr Willson says he has no range anxiety with his latest electric car, a Tesla Model 3.

He says it will do almost 300 miles on a single charge and accelerates from 0-60 in 3.1 seconds.

"It is supremely comfortable, it's airy, it's bright. It's just a complete joy. And I would unequivocally say to you now that I would never ever go back."

We've seen massive improvements in the motors that drive electric vehicles, the computers that control them, charging systems and car design.

But the sea-change in performance Mr Willson has experienced is largely possible because of the improvements in the non-beating heart of the vehicles, the battery.

Tesla Model 3

The most striking change is in prices.

Just a decade ago, it cost $1,000 per kilowatt hour of battery power, says Madeline Tyson, of the US-based clean energy research group, RMI. Now it is nudging $100 (£71).

That is reckoned to be the point at which they start to become cheaper to buy than equivalent internal combustion vehicles.

But, says Ms Tyson, when you factor in the cost of fuel and servicing - EVs need much less of that - many EVs are already cheaper than the petrol or diesel alternative.

At the same time energy density - how much power you can pack into each battery - continues to rise.

They are lasting longer too.

Last year the world's first battery capable of powering a car for a million miles was unveiled by the Chinese battery maker, CATL.

Companies that run big fleets of cars like Uber and Lyft are leading the switchover, because the savings are greatest for cars with high mileage.

But, says Ms Tyson, as prices continue to tumble, retail customers will follow soon.

How fast will it happen?

The answer is very fast.

Like the internet in the 90s, the electric car market is already growing exponentially.

Global sales of electric cars raced forward in 2020, rising by 43% to a total of 3.2m, despite overall car sales slumping by a fifth during the coronavirus pandemic.

Electric car sales

That is just 5% of total car sales, but it shows we're already entering the steep part of the S.

By 2025 20% of all new cars sold globally will be electric, according to the latest forecast by the investment bank UBS.

That will leap to 40% by 2030, and by 2040 virtually every new car sold globally will be electric, says UBS.

The reason is thanks to another curve - what manufacturers call the "learning curve".

The more we make something, the better we get at making it and the cheaper it gets to make. That's why PCs, kitchen appliances and - yes - petrol and diesel cars, became so affordable.

Xinwangda Electric Vehicle Battery Co. Ltd, which makes lithium batteries for electric cars and other uses, in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province

The same thing is what has been driving down the price of batteries, and hence electric cars.

We're on the verge of a tipping point, says Ramez Naam, the co-chair for energy and environment at the Singularity University in California.

He believes as soon as electric vehicles become cost-competitive with fossil fuel vehicles, the game will be up.

That's certainly what Tesla's self-styled techno-king, Elon Musk, believes.

Last month he was telling investors that the Model 3 has become the best-selling premium sedan in the world, and predicting that the newer, cheaper Model Y would become the best-selling car of any kind.

"We've seen a real shift in customer perception of electric vehicles, and our demand is the best we've ever seen," Mr Musk told the meeting.

There is work to be done before electric vehicles drive their petrol and diesel rivals off the road.

Most importantly, everyone needs to be able charge their cars easily and cheaply whether or not they have a driveway at their home.

That will take work and investment, but will happen, just as a vast network of petrol stations rapidly sprang up to fuel cars a century ago.

And, if you are still sceptical, I suggest you try an electric car out for yourself.

Most of the big car manufacturers now have a range of models on offer. So take one for a test drive and see if, like Quentin Willson, you find you want to be part of motoring's future.

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News from the Columbia Climate School

Fossil fuels, renewable energy, and electric vehicles.

hypothesis on electric vehicles

The transition to an environmentally sustainable economy will take at least a generation , if not a bit longer. And at the end of the journey, we will not emerge with a pristine planet. The goal is to minimize the damage we humans inflict on the planet; the damage will never be eliminated. There are too many of us and too little planet to eliminate destruction. We need to understand our impacts and reduce them as much as possible. Our principal goal should be to mitigate problems that are global in scale, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, virus transmission and invasive species.

A critical element of the transition is to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are expensive and environmentally destructive. In the United States, most of our use of fossil fuels is for transportation. Here in New York City, where we have a population density that supports a mass transit system, most of our fossil fuel use is to power our buildings. In any case, when we switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we reduce but do not eliminate environmental damage. Current versions of renewable energy such as solar cells and windmills do far less damage to the environment than oil rigs, fracking, and strip mining, but they do damage the environment. Windmills can harm migrating birds, and solar cells require toxic substances to be manufactured. Battery technology currently requires lithium and other rare earth metals, which must be mined. No one should pretend that these technologies are perfect — they’re not. Reporting last year in the New York Times , Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer observed that:

“Like many other batteries, the lithium-ion cells that power most electric vehicles rely on raw materials — like cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements — that have been linked to grave environmental and human rights concerns. Cobalt has been especially problematic.  Mining cobalt produces hazardous tailings and slags that can leach into the environment , and studies have found high exposure in nearby communities , especially among children, to cobalt and other metals. Extracting the metals from their ores also requires a process called smelting, which can emit sulfur oxide and other harmful air pollution.”

Since most of America’s electricity still comes from fossil fuels, electric vehicles charged by that source of energy indirectly generate greenhouse gasses. But as our sources of electricity transition from fossil fuels, the infrastructure of electric vehicles and charging stations will be in place and will facilitate the reduction of greenhouse gases. The trend toward electric vehicles will stimulate the reduction of greenhouse gases but not guarantee it.

The critical element will be the development of renewable energy technology that is inexpensive and reliable. The current technologies work but have limits. They also are being subjected to disinformation campaigns fueled in part by Donald Trump’s long-standing hatred of windmills. According to a recent NPR segment:

“ The spread of misinformation about solar and wind energy is leading some states and counties to restrict or even reject projects. The Energy Department calls it a key threat to decarbonizing the grid.”

Decarbonization will take decades, and in the case of large-scale installations like wind farms and solar farms, we will see NIMBY-style (Not In My Back Yard) opposition to siting. Some of the opposition will be justified because these installations will have a negative impact on a community. The harm caused won’t be the nutty stuff articulated by windmill conspiracy theorists, like cancer and other ailments, but these installations will have some negative environmental and community impacts. All economic development projects have negative impacts. The issue is: How do these impacts compare to the positive impacts and, in the case of renewable energy projects, how do they compare to fossil fuel alternatives?

A critical issue in decarbonization will also be the role of the electrical grid itself. Wind and solar farms are alternatives to fossil fuel-fired power plants. With current technology, these new forms of power plants require a great deal of land along with adequate transmission lines. Our power system and its management are one of the few examples of highly centralized vertical organizational integration remaining in our economy. The growth of supply chains and networks of organizations involved in production is common in many parts of the economy, but not electricity. Enhanced, smaller and lower-priced solar and battery installations could massively disrupt this approach to electricity generation. But any look at our total energy use, its growth and centrality to modern life argues for building as many different sources of renewable energy as possible. We need off-grid and on-grid solutions.

The transition to an environmentally sound economy will be messy and slow. In many respects, the process began a little more than a half-century ago with the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA’s regulatory responsibilities expanded during its first two decades, and many forms of pollution were identified and reduced. Automobiles became more energy-efficient and less polluting. When I returned to New York City in 1981, after a decade living in other places, Manhattan’s raw sewage was still being released without treatment into the Hudson River. That ended in 1984 when the North River sewage treatment plant opened. In the last two decades of the 20th century, we identified thousands of toxic waste dumps and worked to ensure that people were not in the pathways of exposure to poison. But even in 2022, many Superfund sites remain to be cleaned, and during intense storms, we still release raw sewage into the Hudson. It’s always two steps forward and one step back.

Decarbonization will resemble our efforts at pollution control. We will see progress as we make the problem less bad, but we will not solve the problem. The argument that electric vehicles pollute too much is not persuasive. They pollute less than vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine. That is the only comparison that matters. Moreover, as the technology develops, it will improve. Tesla is already building the capacity to recycle batteries, and as the years pass and more electric vehicles are put into use, the value of the rare earth minerals in motor vehicle batteries assures that many new vehicles will be built with parts of older batteries.

I am assuming that the global demand for transportation will grow as the developing world develops. I am also assuming that the attraction of mobility will continue in the developed world. Reducing mobility is infeasible and so we need to look for methods of reducing harm. Electric motors will eventually power large trucks and we should see some form of renewable energy powering air travel in the future.

The fossil fuel industry and right-wing attack on renewable energy will probably not extend to electric vehicles. First, the world’s motor vehicle manufacturers are as capable as the fossil fuel companies of translating their economic power into political clout. And auto manufacturers are investing many billions of dollars in electric vehicles. These vehicles are technologically superior to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. They need less maintenance and have already proven their attractiveness in the marketplace. It’s hard to lie about EVs on social media when your neighbor has one parked in her driveway. When economies of scale are reached and prices come down, we have every reason to believe electric vehicles will drive gasoline-powered vehicles from the market.

The data indicates that this year will be a pivotal year for the growth of electric vehicles, according to a recent New York Times report by Jack Ewing and Neal E. Boudette:

“Sales of cars powered solely by batteries surged in the United States, Europe and China last year, while deliveries of fossil fuel vehicles were stagnant… Battery-powered cars are having a breakthrough moment and will enter the mainstream this year as automakers begin selling electric versions of one of Americans’ favorite vehicle type: pickup trucks …While electric vehicles still account for a small slice of the market — nearly 9 percent of the new cars sold last year worldwide were electric, up from 2.5 percent in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency — their rapid growth could make 2022 the year when the march of battery-powered cars became unstoppable, erasing any doubt that the internal combustion engine is lurching toward obsolescence .”

The focus on electric pickup trucks in the United States is a brilliant strategy for automakers. Displacement of old technologies by new ones can be accelerated when the new technology can do things the old ones can’t. In marketing the new pickups, auto companies have featured their extra storage space and shown them powering a home during a blackout. Just as video cassettes were replaced by DVDs and DVDs were replaced by streaming video, once adoption of a new technology begins, it can easily become unstoppable. While electric vehicles are not environmental perfection, they are an environmental improvement. Once again, demonstrating that the solution to environmental problems caused by technology will probably be addressed by new technologies. Now, I’m waiting for my low-cost, apartment-friendly solar power window kit, which enables me to generate and store enough electricity to power my home.

Related Posts

hypothesis on electric vehicles

Steve Cohen assumes that our energy future will be all-renewable. It will not; it will be renewables plus nuclear, which has far smaller material requirements and imposes far less environmental disruption. It can even be used to produce carbon-neutral fuels. That can power today’s vehicles and aircraft. If future projections are to be realistic, they have to include large amounts of nuclear power

Richard Jesch

Absolutely, nuclear, which was framed as dangerous in the 80s is now making a comeback through new technology such as http://www.kairospower.com

Marlin Williams

Last week the Russian Energy Minister announced a deal to provide China with 100 million tons of coal, and India with 50 million tons. Also last week Rivian boosted the price for its EV truck to $83,000 for its golf cart model. Who will buy these things? What’s the monthly payment on an $83,000 Rivian, or the $108,000 Chevy Silverado? None of this adds up.


Part of the problem with electric vehicle adoption is education. The public has not gotten a sense of how electric vehicles can save them money and reduce carbon emissions and time over the course of ownership. Our family went all-electric in 2018, and we have not visited a gas station since. When you add up all the time getting oil changes and fueling your car at the gas station, it adds up. Our EVs recharge at night, and we wake up with a full battery each day. I think a person needs to understand the benefit and which electric car best fits their unique needs. After helping several friends and colleagues, I built a site called Electric Driver ( https://electricdriver.co ) that provides personalized recommendations based on one’s unique needs. Education and awareness need to increase to speed up EV adoption, but the future looks exciting as we live through a major period of automotive transition and innovation.

Ruby Sugar

Sina, I am not against EVs but our power grids cannot live up to the challenge. I live in Florida, where temps in the summers are in the 100s. Air conditioning is a must, even with a thermostat set at a reasonable temperature, the demand on the power grid is huge. What happens when every other home in the neighborhood is plugging in their EVs in the evenings? We saw what happened last winter up north with the below-average cold temperatures…rolling blackouts. I think it is more prudent to concentrate on the power grid to explore other avenues to produce power than fossil fuels. So the hue and cry should be more in that direction.

Scott Keeley

We didn’t forego the development of the automobile because the roads couldn’t handle everyone driving a car. We will build the grid as we need it. Certainly it would be better to plan ahead but we don’t tend to do that. It’s still no reason to stop changing dirty tech for clean.

frank H Pratt

Author misses the whole point when it comes to vehicles that require long duty cycles and need a high level of energy density. I would buy an electric car right now if they were affordable enough and had a 400 mile range even in cold weather. Not available right now. As for a heavy duty pickup for use on our farms, there is no technology available that can provide that kind of duty cycle. I hope there is soon, but there is a lot of physics to overcome for that kind of work machine.

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Do electric vehicles have an impact on climate change?

This Oct. 17, 2018 photo shows a Chevrolet Volt hybrid car charging at a ChargePoint charging station at a parking garage in Los Angeles. The country, and the world, will need thousands more for drivers to accept vehicles that are powered by batteries alone. But automakers and charging companies are struggling to raise the numbers now because they’re investing before demand arrives. With more than 40 fully electric vehicles on the market in the U.S. or coming within the next three years, however, auto and charging company executives say the demand is on the way.(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Several years ago the idea of city streets filled entirely with electric vehicles might have seemed far-fetched. Today, mass proliferation of these automobiles has shifted from fantasy to reality. A growing number of them are crossing intersections, and several governments, like the U.K. and France, have already pledged to phase out traditional combustion engines. 

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom went a step further. He signed an executive order that said all new cars and trucks sold in the state must be zero-emission by 2035. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, dozens of unprecedented wildfires tore through California, pushing the state to the frontlines of the battle against a warming climate. Newsom said he was “advancing a strategy to address [the climate crisis] head on.”

While 15 years may seem like plenty of time, there are still many obstacles and outstanding questions before the future of transportation goes fully green. 

One of those outstanding questions is: Does an electric vehicle mandate actually help address a warming climate? David Kelly, professor of economics at the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, said that official order is probably not the most efficient solution for addressing climate change. 

Kelly, who is academic director of the Master of Science in Sustainable Business Program, researches environmental economics and policy—and he drives a Tesla. 

“You have to think about what is the lowest cost way to get where we want to go,” Kelly said. “So, if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions or other pollutants, then electric vehicles are unlikely to be that.” 

Exactly how effective electric vehicles are in reducing greenhouse gas emissions lacks a definitive answer. They produce less CO₂ emissions than gas-powered vehicles, but how much less remains unclear. There are no direct emissions spewing from the back of Kelly’s Tesla, but his car still produces life-cycle emissions. Unlike direct emissions, which come from the vehicle itself, life-cycle emissions vary depending on multiple factors. The energy and machinery used to produce and sustain electric vehicles produce greenhouse gas emissions, which constitute the car’s overall life-cycle emissions. For example, coal-fired plants often provide the energy to power electric vehicles.

Kelly proposed an alternative approach to reducing emissions, like a tax on coal, or even a tax on carbon. 

“A carbon tax doesn’t pick any winners,” he said. “It just says if you use carbon you pay a penalty, and it’s up to you to find the cheapest way around that.” 

Such a tax would incentivize both consumers and producers to avoid emitting elements that are detrimental to the environment. “Everyone can find their own cheapest way to comply, and that keeps the cost of regulation down,” Kelly remarked.

There are other problems with an electric vehicle mandate according to Kelly, like the high price.   “The mandate would fall mostly on the poor,” Kelly said. “You have to consider the equity effects of making people spend tens of thousands of dollars more on vehicles.” 

There are currently government subsidies in place to make electric vehicles more affordable—specifically a $7,500 tax credit for every vehicle sold. But Kelly noted that the subsidies fall short.   Tesla, for instance, raised its prices $2,000 when it received the subsidy. So, the consumer only received $5,500 of that subsidy, and, according to Kelly, that money often went to consumers who did not need it. 

“It was a little bit of a subsidy for the rich in the sense that mostly wealthy people right now are buying electric vehicles anyway,” said Kelly. 

Additionally, these subsidies phase out after 200,000 cars are sold. As these manufacturers reach this threshold, prices could increase even more, making it difficult for lower-income earners to purchase the automobiles. 

This is why Kelly prefers taxes on carbon, gasoline, or coal over subsidies.   “You can rebate some of the money from taxes back to the poor, so they’re not as economically disadvantaged by rising electricity prices,” Kelly said. “You can’t do that with a subsidy.”

Along with high prices, the lack of widespread infrastructure also discourages buyers by removing incentives. The amount of operational charging stations varies per state—some, like California, have tens of thousands, and others, like North Dakota or Alaska, have less than 40. While   drivers can charge their cars at home, the low number of charging stations in many places limits the automobiles to short commutes. The deployment of charging infrastructure is ticking upward but the question remains whether it will match the expected growth of the market. 

Kelly said one efficient way to promote infrastructure and a proliferation of electric vehicles in a city is by converting the city’s fleet. That means converting city buses, school buses, and delivery and work transportation to electric. Building out the infrastructure would still be expensive, but it would promote more equity. 

“City governments aren’t exactly flushed with cash, but at least they can spread the cost out over many taxpayers as opposed to forcing it on one group of people,” Kelly explained. 

The more infrastructures available, the easier it will be for households to purchase electric vehicles, according to Kelly. Similarly, as the number of these automobiles continues to increase, prices are expected to decrease. That is no longer a question of if, but when. 

“You can probably afford to do nothing and there will still be a pretty high percentage of electric vehicles by 2050,” Kelly said. 

There are already incentives in place, besides subsidies, that promote electric vehicles, among them the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which regulate the fuel economy, or minimum mileage per gallon, of vehicles produced in the United States. CAFE standards penalize automakers for inefficiency and reward them for efficiency. 

If the CAFE standard is 35 miles per gallon (mpg) but an automaker produces a fleet with 38 mpg average fuel economy, then the automaker receives credit which they can sell to other companies with less efficient vehicles. Those manufacturers can use the credits to comply with the law. 

Regardless of mandates, incentives, taxes, subsidies, or overall effect on climate change, it seems the future of transportation is heading toward electric vehicles, one way or another. Kelly pointed out that it may come down to one factor: performance. 

“I think the electric vehicle is the superior vehicle,” Kelly said. “That is going to be incentive enough for car companies to scale them up and bring the cost down.”

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