Electric cars could replace 90% of vehicles today: study

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A Nissan LEAF, left, and a Kia Soul EV on charge on a London street.
Miles Willis / Getty Images

Replacing internal combustion cars with electric ones would reduce overall carbon emissions by 30%, even with the vehicles relying on carbon-emitting electricity generation, a new study by MIT researchers shows.

“Roughly 90% of the personal vehicles on the road daily could be replaced by a low-cost electric vehicle available on the market today, even if the cars can only charge overnight,” says Jessika Trancik, one of the authors of the study published in the journal Nature Energy.

That would more than meet near-term US climate targets for personal vehicle travel, she says.

The four-year MIT study is the most comprehensive to date. The researchers integrated two huge datasets – a detailed set of driving behaviour based on GPS data, and a broader set of national data based on travel surveys. 

Both combined represent millions of trips made by drivers. Through the data, the researchers could track one-second-resolution drive cycles.

Personal vehicles account for about a third of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

While “range anxiety” remains a significant deterrent to the take-up of electric vehicles, the MIT team found that people could do most of their recharging overnight at home, or during the day at work.

And while vehicles such as the Ford Focus Electric or the Nissan Leaf are still more expensive than equivalent conventional cars, they are still good value when overall lifetime costs of internal combustion vehicles are taken into account.

The study suggests ways drivers’ needs could be met on high energy consumption car uses, such as for vacations, or days when heating or cooling was needed and reduced range.

Car sharing of internal combustion engine vehicles under such circumstances could solve the problem, the report says.

“The adoption potential of electric vehicles is remarkably similar across cities,” Trancik says.

“This goes against the view that electric vehicles – at least affordable ones, which have limited range – only really work in dense urban centres.”

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