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Automotive & Transportation

Electric Cars Could Help Make a Dent in Climate Change

15 August 2016

The debate about whether electric vehicles (EVs) could help bring about changes to global climate change and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions may finally have a conclusion after researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have released a study saying definitively the answer is yes.

The results of the study concluded that the replacement of all conventional vehicles in the United States with electric cars could play a significant role in meeting climate change mitigation goals. The MIT research says that about 90% of the cars on the road today could be replaced by a low-cost EV, even if the cars can only charge overnight. This would not only meet the near-term U.S. climate targets for personal vehicle travel, but overall emissions would be reduced by 30% from transportation.

How They Did It

The researchers at MIT spent four years on the emissions project analyzing second-by-second driving behavior based on GPS data and another set of data based on travel surveys. The two datasets encompassed millions of trips made by drivers all around the U.S.

The GPS data was collected by state agencies in Texas, Georgia and California using special data loggers that were installed in cars to analyze driving patterns in each state. The other dataset came from a national household transportation survey to learn about how and where people actually do their driving, including distances, the time it took for the trips and weather conditions.

Debate Rages On

MIT researchers acknowledged the debate over opposing views of transportation electrification with some believing the potential for EVs is small and others believing it could play a much larger role in overall transportation and climate change.

MIT says those that feel the potential is small cite the high prices of the vehicles, such as Tesla models, and the limited distance that many EVs can drive on a single charge compared to gasoline vehicles. However the MIT survey found that the vast majority of cars on the road consume no more energy in a single day than the battery energy capacity in affordable EVs available today. MIT points to vehicles such as the Ford Focus and the Nissan Leaf, with lower sticker costs and more affordable overall because of lower maintenance and operating costs, would meet the needs of most U.S. drivers.

But there is more work that needs to be done. For EV ownership to rise to higher levels, electric cars need to have better energy consumption and car sharing should be more of a focus for car companies and businesses alike. There also needs to be more effort to improve batteries so that range anxiety can be extinguished and other types of vehicles can be manufactured in volume, such as those running on biofuel or hydrogen.

“The adoption potential of electric vehicles is remarkably similar across cities," says Jessika Trancik, the Atlantic Richfield Career Development Associate Professor in Energy Studies at MIT's Institute for Data, Systems and Society. “From dense urban areas like New York, to sprawling cities like Houston. This goes against the view that electric vehicles—at least affordable ones, which have limited range—only really work in dense urban centers.”

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