Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s overarching goal of converting the world from using fossil fuel powered cars to electric vehicles is coming to fruition. Or so it would seem after the company has secured nearly 300,000 reservations on its upcoming mass-market Model 3.
But is the world really on the cusp of a green car revolution? According to the Washington Post, our enthusiasm should be tempered with a healthy dollop of reality. “Even if Tesla manages to scale up and hit its very aggressive target of 500,000 vehicles a year by 2020, that would still represent only about .5 percent of global light-duty vehicle sales,” said Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “So it’s hard to have an overall impact from them alone.”
The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation transportation total 7 billion tons annually. That number is projected to rise to 12 billion tons by 2050 in the absence of any significant policy shifts. Several experts suggested this week that booming sales of Tesla automobiles won’t have a significant impact on the global vehicle market.
Today, global sales of light duty vehicles are a staggering 88.5 million a year according to Navigant Research. That number is expected to grow dramatically as sales in India and Asia skyrocket in the years ahead. In comparison, 500,000 Teslas are just the proverbial drop in the bucket.
The real question is what effect the success of the Model 3 will have on global cultural norms and other manufacturers. “It’s obviously important for Tesla, but I think it’s going to push other automakers to match what Tesla’s doing, and also get other people to think about switching to electric,” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts electric vehicles sales will total less than 5% of total global sales until 2022. After that, falling battery prices will finally make electric cars truly price competitive with conventional cars. Bloomberg thinks it will be 2040 before the number of electric cars sold each year gets really impressive. By then, 35% of cars will be electric and EVs will comprise 25% of the cars in the world.
Regulatory and cultural changes will have a large effect on how rapidly the world decarbonizes the transportation sector. In China, government policies strongly favor electric cars. As a result, sales of so-called "new energy vehicles" -- which include hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric cars -- are expected to triple this year and continue to expand rapidly in the years to follow. Those policies will alter the Chinese culture. Electric cars will likely be preferred over conventional cars in China within a few years.
Tesla Model X Signature Red offered on Tesla China website (left). Tesla Model S in Chinese showroom (right) [Source: Tesla Motors]
Autonomous cars could also dramatically reduce transportation emissions.That's according to a study by Jeffrey Greenblatt and Samveg Saxena of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Tesla obviously is positioning the Model 3 to feature advanced autonomous driving features when it goes into production.
Just like wind and solar power, electric cars may enjoy a period of very rapid growth, but that in and of itself will not solve the world's carbon emissions problem. Will people look back on the introduction of the Model 3 as the "tipping point" when the balance between internal combustion engines and batteries began to shift? Quite possibly. Certainly Tesla is raising awareness about electric cars and forcing other car makers to invest in battery and autonomous technology.
But there could be a long way to go before the people on earth can say they have conquered their carbon emissions problem. A rhetorician would argue that Tesla is doing what's necessary to promote change but not sufficient to make that change complete.
Feature photo credit: Tesla Motors