Old-fashioned gasoline-powered vehicles commanded somewhere north of 95 percent of the U.S. vehicle market last year.
Obviously, consumers really, really love gasoline, right? Is it the delightful fragrance? The joy of pumping fuel outdoors in the company of strangers? The comfort of sharing the roads with large trucks marked "flammable"? Affinity for brands such as Exxon and BP?
Of course not. Americans don't love gasoline any more than Iowa cattle love corn. What has kept us wedded to this fuel for so long is a lack of alternatives, or more precisely, an unwillingness to pay or compromise for them — a cherished American tradition.
So don't let the sales numbers fool you. Gasoline endures because it's the incumbent. We accept it, for all its faults, because it hasn't been replaced yet by something more compelling.
Emphasis on "yet," because look around: It is happening. Batteries are getting smaller, better and cheaper. Plug-in and pure electric vehicles are getting more attractive, luxurious and plentiful. They are delivering that once-elusive combination of range, speed and power at more attainable prices. For automakers with the scale and flexible platforms of today's global titans, the technology and the economics are beginning to work out.
Which is why this is a good time for France and the U.K. to announce bans on the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles, and a good time for the rest of the world to join them. The 2040 target date they set clearly signals the start of a transition, and reflects their growing confidence, shared by automakers, that better electrified substitutes will be ready by then. Volvo plans a quick transition to an all-electrified fleet. Volkswagen, Daimler, General Motors, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover are rolling out more plug-ins and EVs, in part to prepare for a Chinese market that, with mandates and scale, will dictate the pace of the transition. Countless startups are working on high-performance EVs whose technology will surely trickle down to the everyday muscle car.
In the meantime, we will need more Teslas and Volvos, automakers with the courage to field more than compliance cars and affirm that petroleum-burning engines need to be phased out over time. We will need automakers whose eyes are fixed on the future and not the monthly sales tables or this morning's gasoline prices. Electrified powertrains need to be presented to the consumer not merely as an alternative to internal combustion engines, but as their inevitable successor. And government, yes government, will need to do its part to support the development of a charging infrastructure (in addition to the one that's in most homes) and ease the transition to an electrified fleet.
A gasoline-powered fleet was never a foregone conclusion. Some of the earliest automobiles were electric or hybrids, aimed at controlling the emissions of a pollutant called horse poop. If not for a coincidence of history — the discovery of oil in Texas right at the dawn of the automobile age — we might have had 120 years of battery EV innovation and infrastructure development by now, and who knows what kind of driving range.
This isn't about destroying consumer choice. It is about the undeniable march of human progress. We stick with something until something better comes along, but when it does, we recognize and seize the opportunity without misplaced nostalgia. It's seat belts. It's email. It's broadband. It's mobile phones. It's HDTV.
Today's customers do not actively choose gasoline; they choose the convenience, the price, the power and a number of other things associated with gasoline. If a zero-emissions technology can provide those same things in substantial measure, along with an outsize environmental gain, then the internal combustion engine has no reason for being.
The sooner automakers, regulators, suppliers and dealers acknowledge and adapt to this reality, the sooner we can end our accept-affair with gasoline.