Will electric cars cause the next oil crisis?

What's driving the electric car revolution?

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Some inventions are an immediate hit. When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, customers lined up outside stores, desperate to get their hands on what the media called the Jesus phone, a reference to the device’s popularity.

Other innovations aren’t quite as successful. Take electric cars. They’ve been around longer than you might think – they were first invented early in the 19th century – but were quickly overshadowed by their oil-guzzling counterparts.

For a long time, it looked as though things were set to stay that way. Despite all the benefits – electric cars could help cut carbon emissions and air pollution, for example – there were very few takers. In 2011, President Barack Obama predicted there would be 1 million plug-in cars on US roads by 2015. He was off by over 700,000.

But electric vehicles might be set for a revival: “A shift is under way that will lead to widespread adoption of EVs in the next decade,” Bloomberg reported last week. What’s behind the change?

It’s simple, really: electric vehicles are set to get a whole lot cheaper. While many people liked the idea behind electric vehicles, even with government subsidies they’re too expensive: “If there’s a price penalty, people just don’t buy,” Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan told the Guardian last year. His company sells more than half of the world’s electric cars.

One of the reasons for the price difference between electric and conventional vehicles is scale. Of the billions of cars on the world’s roads, only 1% of new cars are electric, which means higher production costs. Another is the cost of the batteries that power electric cars. And this is where the big changes are happening. Battery prices fell by 35% last year, and it’s a trend that will probably continue.

As the price of batteries fall, electric vehicles will soon – as early as 2022, according to Bloomberg – be as cheap as conventional cars. That’s when we’ll hit a tipping point: falling prices will boost demand, manufacturers will be able to scale up their production, and prices will then be pushed down even further. Within less than 30 years, a long-range electric vehicle could cost around $22,000, according to Bloomberg’s analysis, and by 2040, the market share will have jumped from 1% to 35%.

While these developments are good news for those who see electric cars as the key to a greener future, it adds even more pressure on the oil industry. If Bloomberg’s forecasts are accurate, oil consumption could fall by 14% by 2040 – enough, they say, to cause the next oil crisis. And that will only be the beginning: “Every year that follows will bring more electric cars to the road, and less demand for oil. Someone will be left holding the barrel.”

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