Friday, August 30, 2013

The EV v. gas infrastructure argument cuts both ways

The big challenge for electric vehicles is that we have the societal infrastructure to support gas engines but not electric. Despite that fact, in California the hybrid and EV plug-ins are now 1.8% of the market. Globally and nationally, estimates range from one to three percent of all vehicles in 2019-2020 will be the two types of plug-ins (see page 4).

The infrastructure challenge is real even if "range axiety" is overhyped. To the extent that challenge to plug-ins is met and overcome, though, then the shoe is on the other foot. Every sale of a plug-in vehicle decreases support for the infrastructure supporting gas vehicles. When plugins are taking only one percent of the market, the decrease is insignificant. When they take three percent, it's starting to be significant, and we can expect the effect to increase and to be concentrated in some areas. If nearly two percent of California car sales are electric now, then what will be the percent in a decade, and what will be the situation in the San Francisco and LA metropolitan areas?

There are going to be fewer gas stations and fewer gas engine car servicing businesses. They'll try to adapt but plugins and especially EVs won't need charging stations in the same places and they won't need as much maintenance.

I think we may be about a decade away from hearing the first complaints of range anxiety and range irritation coming from gas vehicle owners in some markets, where they'll have to drive five miles or more out of their way each time they want to gas up, while their plugins can charge whenever they're at home, work, or shopping. The process may accelerate as investors hesitate to put money in the gas vehicle infrastructure, knowing they'll need a number of years to make a profit while their market is shrinking.

I know I'm pretty good at counting my chickens before they hatch, and I recognize that cars have a 10-year lifespan so it takes a while for the existing car population to reflect changes in sales (UPDATE:  per the comments, more like 20 years, although older cars are driven much less). Still, I can see this happening in a decade in some markets, especially where I live.