According to research by scientists at MIT, electric vehicles (EVs) meet the needs of drivers enough to replace 90% of vehicles currently on the road. In spite of their limited driving range, researchers have found that EVs can bring about a meaningful reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, positively affecting climate change.

The study, published in Nature Energy journal, was conducted by the Atlantic Richfield Career Development Associate Professor in Energy Studies at MIT’s Institute for Data Systems and Society (IDSS) Jessika Trancisk, graduate student Zachary Needell, post-doctoral student James McNerney and recent graduate Michael Chang.

According to Trancisk, replacing conventional combustion vehicles with low-cost EVs that are currently available on the market would exceed near-term climate targets for personal vehicles – even if the EVs are only able to charge overnight. The team found that, even without accounting for emissions for power plants, switching to EVs would result in a 30% reduction in emissions from transportation.

Conducted over four years, the research integrated detailed GPS data collected by state agencies in Texas, Georgia and California with national data based on travel surveys. The first set of data was collected from data loggers installed in cars while the second set was gathered from a national household transportation survey.

By integrating information from the two different data sets, the team was able to track one-second-resolution drive cycles, allowing them to conclude that 90% of cars on the road could be replaced with EVs. They found that the replacement would allow the country to meet its near-term emissions-reduction targets for personal vehicles. Since private vehicles make up the majority of transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions, the reduction could potentially make a dent in overall greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

The study also addressed the issue of “range anxiety” – a concern that EVs have a limited range and therefore cannot replace combustion vehicles – one of the primary arguments against the full-scale adoption of EVs. Critics often find that high-range EVs like the Tesla are too expensive, while lower-cost EVs like the Ford Focus Electric and the Nissan Leaf have a limited range compared to combustion cars; the scarcity of charging infrastructure for EVs is yet impediment against adoption.

The findings indicate that range anxiety is at best exaggerated, since the majority of cars on roads in the U.S. consume about as much energy as they would have if using an affordable EV, provided that they could recharge the cars overnight at home or at work.

However, the study did find that, if EV ownership were to increase, EVs would have to meet the needs of drivers at all times, including vacations, when people generally drive longer distances, and during extreme weather conditions, when air conditioners and heaters would alter distance ranges. And while battery life improvement might increase the range of EVs, there would always be high-energy days that could not be fulfilled by them. The study noted that, with the right business model, car sharing of combustion vehicles could play a large role in electrification (the large scale adoption of EVs), making it possible for people to own EVs but to use combustion vehicles when going on longer trips.

One of the study’s most surprising findings was that the potential for adopting EVs did not change from one part of the country to another. “The adoption potential of electric vehicles is remarkably similar across cities,” Trancik told MIT News. “From dense urban areas like New York, to sprawling cities like Houston. This goes against the view that electric vehicles – at least affordable ones, which have limited range – only really work in dense urban centers.”

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