Chart: Obama Calls for 1 Million Electric Vehicles, but Is That Enough?

By Alexis C. Madrigal

Scale Problem.jpg

In his State of the Union Speech, President Barack Obama said the U.S. should aspire to putting one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. 1,000,000! That's a lot of zeroes, it would seem. It seems like a very ambitious target.

But here's the problem. A million vehicles wouldn't come close to transforming our transportation infrastructure. Above, I've plotted some important numbers on a logarithmic scale. That means that every tick mark is 10 times what the previous tick mark was. Ten times! At the bottom, you see Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf sales, which appear to have come in around 350. Next up, you have the number of EVs on the road in 2007 [xls], the last year the Department of Energy made numbers available. Then, you've got Obama's number. Note that the number of cars sold each and every year is a full order of magnitude larger than Obama's call. And then we've got the really big number, which represents the enormity of our legacy system. There are something like 250,000,000 vehicles on the road in the United States.

I'm not saying that things don't change or that entrepreneurs and scientists working on electric vehicle technologies should give up. But I observe two things from this chart: 1) We've got a long, long, long way to go in electrifying our transport; 2) Any notion that a one million EV goal is too ambitious doesn't take into account the enormity of the challenge. If you're an EV supporter, this seems like a bare minimum goal. If the time to deploy electric cars is really now, we need millions per year, not a million over four years.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/chart-obama-calls-for-1-million-electric-vehicles-but-is-that-enough/70291/