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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Case for Electric Vehicles


Cars account for half the oil consumed in the U.S., about half the urban pollution and one fourth the greenhouse gases. They take a similar toll of resources in other industrial nations and in the cities of the developing world. As vehicle use continues to increase in the coming decade, the U.S. and other countries will have to address these issues or else face unacceptable economic, health-related and political costs. It is unlikely that oil prices will remain at their current low level or that other nations will accept a large and growing U.S. contribution to global climatic change.

Policy makers and industry have four options: reduce vehicle use, increase the efficiency and reduce the emissions of conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, switch to less noxious fuels, or find less polluting propulsion systems. The last of these – in particular the introduction of vehicles powered by electricity – is ultimately the only sustainable option. The other alternatives are attractive in theory but in practice are either impractical or offer only marginal improvements. For example, reduced vehicle use could solve congestion woes and a host of social and environmental problems, but evidence from around the world suggests that it is very difficult to make people give up their cars to any significant extent. In the U.S., mass-transit ridership and carpooling have declined since World War II. Even in western Europe, with fuel prices averaging more than $1 a liter (about $4 a gallon) and with pervasive mass transit and dense populations, cars still account for 80 percent of all passenger travel.

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