Could electric vehicles become as common as smart phones?

Electric cars are parked atop the Los Angeles Police Department parking lot in 2016.
Electric cars are parked atop the Los Angeles Police Department parking lot in 2016. AP file

With Gov. Jerry Brown upping the ante by calling for California to put at least five million zero-emission vehicles on state roads by 2030, and the state Assembly considering a bill that would ban sales of gas-powered cars, it’s worth testing these ambitious visions of our clean transportation future against market and technological realities.

Our new report does just that. While it was compiled before the governor announced the new goal last month, it finds that California is well on its way to meeting the previous target of 1.5 million ZEVs by 2025.


As with other advanced technologies, instead of electric vehicle sales growing steadily each year, they appear headed to a tipping point, where they grow exponentially until they become common. Smart phones followed this pattern; electric cars could be as common by 2040 as smart phones are today.

The cost of EV batteries – the vehicles’ most expensive component – dropped by 74 percent from 2010 to 2016, even as driving range increased every year. Last year, global electric vehicle sales topped one million for the first time in history. Countries including China, India and the U.K. have announced plans to phase out gas-powered cars entirely.

In addition to the market and technological improvements we’re seeing, analysts believe the advent of autonomous vehicles will further change the automotive industry. Fleets of self-driving electric cars that people hail instead of owning their own vehicles may not be that far off.

But other factors could slow the growth of zero-emission transportation. There’s a gap between the number of electric vehicles on California’s roads and the number of available charging stations. While we lead the nation with more than 16,500 public, nonresidential charging outlets, that’s only 0.05 outlets per ZEV, one of the lowest ratios in the country. To maintain or accelerate growth, the state needs to provide more charging options. Brown’s plan to put an additional 250,000 charging stations on the road will help.

Another consideration is selection. In 2016 in China, 25 new models were introduced and EV sales jumped 70 percent. Chinese drivers can now choose among 75 EVs. In some California cities, dealers offer 25 to 30 models. But many Californians and more than half the U.S population live in areas with seven or fewer EV options. Ensuring additional models make it into showrooms is essential to encouraging higher sales.

In the coming months and years, state policymakers will make decisions that can either smooth the road to a clean transportation future, or throw up roadblocks. Questions abound, including how growing numbers of EVs might reduce gas tax revenues and impact the electric grid.

But one thing is certain: Electric vehicles are poised to change how Californians get around, and as in many fields, as goes California, so might go the nation.

F. Noel Perry is the founder of Next 10, a nonpartisan nonprofit think tank, and can be contacted at

Adam J. Fowler is research manager for Beacon Economics in Los Angeles and can be contacted at