This is the second part of author Tam Hunt's annual Solar Singularity series. Read the first installment here.
The key unknown in the clean energy future scenarios I’ve been tracking has always been the degree to which EV adoption will grow. I concluded last year, after Tesla finally pulled off Model 3 production at scale, that this revolution was well underway and we are now trending toward EV ubiquity in markets around the world.
Norway was the market leader again and reached astounding levels of sales of zero-emissions vehicles in March 2019: 58 percent. This was in part a product of pent-up demand for Tesla’s Model 3, which just started going on sale in Europe this year. However, for 2018 as a whole the Norwegian market share for fully electric vehicles was an impressive 31 percent, up from 20.8 percent in 2017.
Is Norway the future of other markets? It seems so, but of course we won’t know for sure for a few more years.
U.S. EV sales were also very good (though nowhere near Norway’s level), with 2018 being a breakout year, as the figure below shows.
U.S. EV Sales Since 2010 (source)
Tesla is always a mixed bag in terms of progress. The company is on a tear with the Model 3, with 2018 sales far higher than 2017 (unsurprisingly). But even with the Model 3 coming through in spades (accounting for fully 60 percent of the U.S. EV market, for example), Tesla’s first-quarter 2019 results have caused distress because they are significantly down from the last quarter of 2018, at 63,000 total vehicles delivered, compared to 90,700 in the fourth quarter.
Despite this recent dip, however, it is clear from a quick examination of the trends in the figure below that Tesla is in the process of rapidly flooding the world with EVs.
Naysayers should at this point simply 'fess up that they’ve been wrong: Tesla has done it. And by “done it” I mean almost single-handedly changed the global automotive market to focus on EVs. That’s world-changing, by definition, and kudos are due. We and our kids and grandkids all owe Musk a massive debt of gratitude.
We now have over 5 million EVs on the road around the world, as of December 2018, up from just 4.1 million at the end of 2017, and over a million on U.S. roads alone. Projections for global growth of EV sales vary, but it is clear that forecasts will continue to go up as more long-range and increasingly affordable EVs hit the roads around the world.
The speed of EV adoption is still highly speculative and likely the most uncertain factor still in the solar singularity scenarios I’m focused on. Audi concluded in 2017 that EVs would make up the majority of the new car market within 10 years. That seems reasonable to me, at least in developed nation markets that have a robust electrical infrastructure.
It will take longer for developing nation markets to shift over to EVs en masse.
Since cars have 10- to 15-year operating lives, it will take that long after EVs reach 100 percent market share to achieve ubiquity. If we speculate that EVs achieve full market share around 2035, we’re looking at 2045 or so for the 80 percent penetration that I’ve defined as my target for predominance, and a bit longer for 90 to 100 percent penetration.
That’s longer than I and many others would like, so let’s root for Tesla and its growing cadre of competitors to churn out EVs even faster than currently expected.
Cruising on autopilot
“Full self-driving" or “Level 5 autonomy” are the catchphrases describing the apex of fully automated driving: no human intervention required other than giving the vehicle directions.
We’re not there yet. But we're getting closer.
Navigant’s 2019 report on this technology ranked Google’s Waymo as the leader. Waymo launched its first driverless ride-hail program, Waymo One, in Phoenix last December, but it’s a limited non-public program and still requires a driver in the car just in case. (Sign up here if you live in Phoenix.)
In second and third place are GM’s Cruise and Ford’s Autonomous Vehicles.
Tesla, which gets a lot of attention for its efforts to reach full self-driving (FSD), is actually a laggard according to the report, at second to last (of 20 examined). But the report considers a number of factors other than the technology itself, including business partnerships and sales and distribution strategies.
Regardless of Navigant’s rankings with respect to the FSD ecosystem, Tesla’s latest update to its Autopilot, called simply Navigate on Autopilot, is pretty exciting because some early reports show that it can in fact navigate without any human input at all in many circumstances. Tesla data shared publicly for the first quarter of 2019 show that it’s about twice as good as humans in terms of number of accidents per mile driven — but this isn’t a very good comparison because, of course, the miles being driven on autopilot are still the easiest miles (almost entirely cruising on freeways).
Musk also makes the great point in this interview with MIT research scientist Lex Fridman that Tesla has about 99 percent of all full sensory capacity vehicle data today, a massive advantage in developing FSD. He also says “it appears that Tesla is vastly ahead of everyone” on developing FSD. FSD is a classic example of exponential technology because it depends on data accumulation and software.
Accordingly, I’m a bit puzzled why Tesla ranks so low in Navigant’s assessment, even with the broader ecosystem the analysis considered. Tesla announced details of its new FSD chip, Autopilot Hardware 3.0, with a factor of 20 or so improvement over previous hardware, which is now part of every new car Tesla makes, on April 22.
As with all forecasts, time will tell who gets it right. For now, my money is still on Musk and Tesla being first to market with FSD vehicles. And since Musk is predicting “feature complete” and functional FSD (if not regulatory approval) by next year, we may not have long to wait.
There is a growing debate about whether statements from Musk and others are perhaps wildly optimistic about the time frame for FSD cars being on the road. Ford’s CEO James Hackett recently joined the growing chorus of analysts who contend that the problems are bigger than the optimists believe and that FSD vehicles have been overhyped.
Ford still plans to release its first FSD vehicle in 2021, but in narrowly defined and “geo-fenced” applications.
As mentioned, Tesla is looking at broad FSD by sometime in 2020. Bryan Reimer at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics thinks it’s premature to be talking about Level 5 FSD since the industry hasn’t even figured out Level 4 yet. MIT Technology Review has a good piece looking at the challenges of full autonomy here. We’ll see.
The 100% renewables revolution grows
An increasing number of jurisdictions at every level of government are committing to 100 percent renewable energy goals and mandates.
This is particularly gratifying for me because one of my first jobs in energy policy was to create a detailed blueprint for Santa Barbara County (California) to achieve in a realistic and cost-effective manner a “fossil-free” economy by 2030. As far as I am aware, that effort, which we finished in 2008, was one of the very first efforts to go all the way on renewables, and to show how it could be done realistically — and with major cost savings.
I also suggested last year that a silver lining of President Trump’s particularly anti-clean-energy presidency would be a state-level backlash in terms of setting very ambitious goals on renewables in order to fill the gap left by federal policy changes. That is indeed happening, and rather quickly.
A growing number of states have joined cities and counties around the country in announcing 100 percent renewable energy or carbon-free goals, including Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Washington state, Nevada (100 percent carbon-free by 2050), and many others considering similar targets. Puerto Rico has also joined this distinguished club.
We can reasonably expect this trend to quickly ramp up and reach a tipping point like we’ve see with marriage equality and cannabis legalization, where states and local governments bucked federal laws and eventually forced the feds to go along.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of this year's Solar Singularity series, focusing on whether the rapid rise of renewables will be enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Tam Hunt is a lawyer and owner of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, a renewable energy development and policy advocacy practice based in Santa Barbara, California and Hilo, Hawaii. He is the author of the book, Solar: Why Our Energy Future Is So Bright.