I was visiting an automotive molder last week when our conversation turned to electrification. Big automakers are betting a lot of money on electric vehicles. They're developing new models, better batteries, more and faster-charging stations, and even creative ways to sell what's currently a pretty expensive technology.
But EVs are still a niche product. Keith Crain, the chairman of our parent company Crain Communications and editor-in-chief of Automotive News, wrote recently that EVs account for less than 2 percent of new-car sales, according to a recent J.D. Power study. Most of those came from Tesla.
In 2020, automakers sold just over 300,000 battery-electric vehicles in the U.S., according to the Automotive News Data Center. That was up 19 percent from 2019, but it was still a pretty small market share. To put it in perspective, AN said that is about the same number of Honda CR-V vehicles sold in the United States.
But EVs are supposed to be the wave of the future. Consumers in China and Europe are gobbling them up, and auto industry observers think stricter federal and state environmental regulations will encourage more EV sales in the United States.
But don't throw away that gasoline station credit card just yet. The automotive molder I was visiting pointed out that some U.S. automakers are still developing new internal combustion engine for future models. That means they're betting that the ICE still has at least a decade of high-volume new production, and maybe more.
Mr. Crain's column wasn't actually about EVs. He was lamenting the demise of another "old-fashioned" automotive technology, the standard transmission.
"I may be the only one left who remembers learning how to drive on a manual transmission car," he wrote. "My first car, a '51 Ford, had a manual gearbox and so did several cars that followed."
You're not the last one, Mr. Crain. I learned to drive in an awful 1970s-vintage Ford Fairmont with a four-speed manual transmission that had barely enough power to reach highway speeds.
The first car I owned was a 1960s VW bus with a manual transmission. The second was a 1980s Toyota Tercel with a five-speed. It got better gas mileage than anything I've driven since. On a personal note, I also taught my wife to drive in that Toyota, and we're still married today. But I don't think I could convince her to buy another car with a clutch.
And we aren't alone. Today only about 1 percent of new cars have standard transmissions.
So in my car-buying lifetime I've seen a major shift in consumer taste, from standard to automatic transmissions. When we bought our last car a few years ago, I commented as we were driving off the lot that it may be the last gasoline-powered, nonautonomous vehicle that we'll ever buy.
My wife thought I was wrong, and it looks like she'll be right. We aren't ready for an EV yet.
Plastics and fossil fuels have had close ties for decades. Some oil producers have been pivoting their businesses away from gasoline and toward plastics and chemicals, betting that those products have a longer and more sustainable future.
It may be that government action will speed up the shift from internal combustion to EVs. According to Automotive News, during the 2020 campaign, now-President Joe Biden pledged to build 550,000 EV charging stations and create more than 1 million jobs by investing in clean-energy research.
Automakers like General Motors are anticipating an electric future. Federal policy may tip the scale in that direction. But don't expect the change to happen overnight. It looks to me like we'll see both EVs and internal combustion engines in the market for at least another decade — or two.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.