Electric vehicles have a potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions but still face challenges. This study asks what can be learned from the US automobile history. In 1900, there were three equal contenders in the US automotive industry: gasoline, electric and steam cars. Only a decade later, the gasoline car had achieved a crushing dominance. This dominance is often attributed to techno-economic factors, such as an innate inferiority of electric cars. Meanwhile, the role of the infrastructures is not well understood. This study presents evidence on the mechanisms behind the rise of gasoline vehicles, using a database of more than 36,000 passenger car models. We estimated econometric models to explain the technology choice of car producers, which show that the slow expansion of electricity infrastructure had a key impact. We estimate that a 15 or 20 year earlier diffusion of electricity grids would have tipped the balance in favour of electric vehicles, most notably in metropolitan areas. In the context of the current climate crisis, the results support the notion that large-scale investment in infrastructure is critical to achieve sustainable socio-technological transitions.

Nature Vol 6, nº 10

Josef Taalbi e Hana Nielsen  

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