Levi Tillemann addresses the challenges facing the electric car

Electric cars are buzzing. Twice in two years, the Chevy Volt has edged out the Porsche 911 for highest customer satisfaction in Consumer Reports magazine. In 2011, the all-electric Nissan LEAF was named European Car of the Year. In 2012, the Tesla Model S was awarded Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year”. Sales are rising, too.

All this portends a fundamental shift in the energy landscape. After a century, transportation is decoupling from its complete reliance on oil.

Yet there are some major hurdles. All-electric cars, with no supplemental internal combustion engine, still have shorter range and batteries that are expensive and slow to charge. The car industry is among the most regulated and technology-intensive in the world; today’s cars are packed with computers, intricate emissions systems, even explosives (for air bags).

Thousands of components must blend together seamlessly over the course of hundreds of thousands of miles and decades of consumer abuse. Building the supply chains, regulatory institutions and infrastructure for electric cars is also a challenge. After all, almost 100 years have been invested in ecosystems that support the internal combustion engine.

But, the benefits of electrification are considerable. Sunlight, coal, biomass, trash and natural gas can all be readily converted into electricity. All-electric cars have the potential to be cheaper and easier to maintain than either internal combustion engines or plug-in hybrids.

One major focus at the US Department of Energy (DOE) is to tip the scales in favour of electrification. The DOE’s Electric Vehicles Everywhere initiative brings together stakeholders ranging from research labs to automakers and communities to do just that. A new “innovation hub” for batteries will fund up to US$ 120 million over five years for energy storage research. The DOE is also encouraging companies to install systems in new buildings that will make it easy to add charging stations as the electrified fleet expands.

Cities and states also have the power to promote the use of electric cars. California’s Air Resources Board leads the nation’s most aggressive effort with its Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. Local governments can grant electric vehicles special access to city centres through congestion pricing schemes, as London does today. This can reduce noise and improve local air quality.

An electric vehicle is not a cell phone or an iPad. The technology hurdles are higher and the scale of the challenge is bigger. But, a tipping point may have already been reached. By 2025, millions of electric cars could be deployed in the United States – and eventually, everywhere.

Read the Energy Vision 2013 Energy transitions: Past and Future Report

Author: Levi Tillemann is Special Adviser for Policy and International Affairs at the US Department of Energy.

Image: A plug is seen coming out of an electric car in Michigan REUTERS/Mark Blinch