MIT study says current electric cars could meet most of today’s driving demands

Available, low-cost electric vehicles could replace 87 percent of trips taken in gas-powered vehicles and still meet consumers’ transportation needs according to a recent MIT study.
Available, low-cost electric vehicles could replace 87 percent of trips taken in gas-powered vehicles and still meet consumers’ transportation needs according to a recent MIT study.
JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / Getty Images

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Anyone hesitating to buy an electric car for fear they will end up low on battery and stranded far from a charging station should reconsider.

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A new study from researchers at MIT finds almost 90 percent of the trips taken in gas-powered vehicles could be taken in electric vehicles without affecting drivers’ habits.

What’s more, that could be done even assuming the battery capacity of affordable EVs that are currently available on the market.

Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of energy studies at MIT and one of the researchers on the paper, told Boston.com how she and her colleagues approached the study, which was published in the journal Nature Energy this week.

“The goal of the study was to answer a specific question,” said Trancik. “If you take a bird’s eye view of U.S. and look at the cars on the road daily, how many cars could be replaced with low cost EVs, even if they were not able to recharge during the day.”

Trancik and the other researchers developed a model that looked at the driving habits of motorists from several major U.S. cities. The study concluded that currently available and low-cost EVs, like the Nissan Leaf or the Ford Focus Electric, would effectively replace gas cars on 87 percent of driving days nationwide and still manage to meet consumers’ transportation needs. On the other 13 percent of days, drivers travel farther or for longer than an EV would be able to go on a single charge.

Replacing this many gas-powered cars with EVs could lead to a 61 percent reduction in gasoline consumption nationwide and about a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, according to the study.

For example, the 2013 Nissan Leaf, which the researchers focused on in their study, has a median range of 74 miles and could complete half of all driving trips during a single charge. The 2016 Nissan leaf has a slightly longer range and starts at about $29,000.

Trancik said replacing gas vehicles with EVs could be a relatively “non-invasive option.” Most drivers would only require a single charge during the day or over night, which wouldn’t need to put a significant strain on an electrical grid.

The researchers looked at two datasets. The first outlined second-by-second driving habits based on GPS data and the other looked at information from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey that looked at distance and duration of trips taken by U.S.

The researchers believe 98 percent of U.S. gas vehicle trips could be replaced if electric battery energy were to improve to 200 watt-hours per kilogram, the target level recommended by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. This could also result in an 88 percent decline in gasoline consumption.

But if EVs were able to replace 87 percent of driving trips today, consumers would still need an option to address the remaining 13 percent of trips, such as when their driving needs extend beyond a single day charge of an EV. Trancik believes car-sharing services like Uber, Zipcar and others would be used to fill this gap.

The study acknowledges that “range anxiety” – that feeling EV drivers get when they’re not sure where to find their next charge – remains a hurdle for more consumers to adapt to electric vehicles. But Trancik hopes these findings will shed light on EVs capabilities and reduce that anxiety.

“Rather than say range anxiety should or should not exist… the goal is to alleviate that anxiety with accurate information that’s usable and useful to consumers, policymakers and technology developers,” she said.