Peak Gas Cars Are Already Past

Here’s an extraordinary thing – the peak sales of gasoline-powered cars in the US was in 2016:

Click to download spreadsheet

This includes straight passenger cars, SUVs, and pickups, which are all lumped together as Light Vehicles. The data comes from the Bureau of Economic Analysis via FRED, and EV sales from InsideEVs. It only goes up to November 2018 because the BEA has been closed by the federal government shutdown. Sales grew after the Great Recession as people regained their incomes, but have been flat for the last three years.

Note, though, that Electric Vehicles (including pure battery cars like Teslas and plug-in hybrids like the Volt) are now actually eating into the sales of gas cars. 2018 was a great year for EVs with 360K sold, almost twice 2017 sales. That’s about 2% of total vehicles. This is largely because of the Tesla Model 3, which sold about 140K total, and now accounts for about half the EVs sold each month. In December 2018 Tesla sold about as many cars as BMW in the US. If you break it down by state, the leading technological state, California, saw 10% of vehicle sales be EVs in August 2018.

The story is the same for world sales – about 1.7M EVs were sold out of 80M total. Most of those are in China, but Europe is electrifying fast.

Things will only get worse for gas. Electrics are already cheaper to run than gassers because they use energy more efficiently. They’re also faster, quieter, and need less maintenance. The main advantage of gassers is initial price, but that will be wiped out as batteries continue to get cheaper. They have dropped by a factor of 5 in the last 7 years according to BNEF, and were at $200/KWh in late 2017. Tesla thinks they’ll be $100/KWh by 2020. In the current Chevy Bolt the battery accounts for about a quarter of the price, so cheaper batteries help a lot.

So if all this is true, why did GM just cancel the Chevy Volt? I like my Volt, but sales actually fell this year, from 20K to 2017 to 18K in 2018. It’s probably getting eaten by the Model 3 and the Bolt. GM also says, as do most in the industry, that 2019 will be a bad year overall, and is cutting back in preparation. They do intend to keep building the Bolt, so maybe they believe that the days of plug-in hybrids are over, now that the battery-only range is up to 240 miles. Now everyone is wondering when they will announce a battery SUV or plug-in. Some think that they’re holding off for fear that people will delay current SUV purchases, others that GM is just on a death spiral.

Regardless, what is clear from past disruptions is that change happens faster than anyone expects. EV sales have been doubling every two years for the last seven. Five more doublings, ten years, and they would be at 64% of cars sold in 2028. It happened with PCs, it’s happening with solar and wind, and it could happen with EVs. For the sake of the climate, it had better.

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