As More Electric Cars Arrive, What's The Future For Gas-Powered Engines? The vast majority of American cars run on gasoline. But analysts say that's poised to change as electric vehicles take over the market — albeit not as quickly as environmental activists might like.
NPR logo

As More Electric Cars Arrive, What's The Future For Gas-Powered Engines?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
As More Electric Cars Arrive, What's The Future For Gas-Powered Engines?

As More Electric Cars Arrive, What's The Future For Gas-Powered Engines?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The Democrats' proposed Green New Deal calls for America to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. transportation, an ambitious goal that would require - among many other things - phasing out cars that run on gasoline. That may sound like a major shift. But many analysts say that transition is already underway. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: If you're driving a car in America, odds are it runs on gasoline, which means it has an internal combustion engine. You put in fuel. Tons of tiny explosions move some pistons, turn a crank shaft. The car starts moving, and carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. But your next car might run off batteries instead. Sam Abuelsamid is an auto analyst with Navigant.

SAM ABUELSAMID: Probably in the mid-2020s timeframe it becomes comparable or cheaper to actually buy and operate an EV than an internal combustion vehicle.

DOMONOSKE: Some analysts say the rise of EVs - or electric vehicles - could take decades instead. After all, right now electric vehicles are a tiny percentage of cars. But many new electric vehicles are about to come to market. And analysts and auto executives agree a change is happening. It's not just activists talking. The internal combustion engine has some advantages, like fueling up.

BILL VISNIC: Five minutes - bang, you're back on your way.

DOMONOSKE: Bill Visnic is with the Society of Automotive Engineers.

VISNIC: Right now we don't have that ability to replicate that with electric vehicles.

DOMONOSKE: Plus, right now electric cars are more expensive up front. But electric vehicles are cheaper to operate. They're very low-maintenance. And those upfront costs are projected to go down. Government regulations are giving electric vehicles a boost, too, especially in Europe and China.

TOM MURPHY: And they are fun to drive.

DOMONOSKE: That's Tom Murphy, a managing editor at Ward's Auto, which ranks the world's best engines.

MURPHY: They're enjoyable. They're quiet. And there's loads of torque.

DOMONOSKE: Instant acceleration. In short, the electric vehicle market is revving up dramatically. Even people who love the internal combustion engine see the writing on the wall, like John Woods, who owns a '72 Porsche.


DOMONOSKE: He says this is the sound of the past.

JOHN WOODS: It's the beginning of automotive, you know, engineering. But the electric car will be the future because you can get more power, more speed and use no emissions.

DOMONOSKE: Say that is the future - what happens to all the internal combustion engines already on the road? One possibility - they might get replaced quite quickly with electric vehicles. That's what environmental activists want for the sake of climate change.

And Dan Neil, the automotive columnist for The Wall Street Journal, argues people might choose to switch to electric vehicles even if their old car runs perfectly fine.

DAN NEIL: They're such better machines than the machines they're replacing.

DOMONOSKE: High gas prices would speed that up. And some European cities have proposed bans on internal combustion vehicles, which would also accelerate change but could be hard on low-income drivers. That's the fast option. Then there's the slow timeline - Abuelsamid, the auto analyst.

ABUELSAMID: You know, if every new vehicle sold were electric, you know, starting today, it would still take 20 to 25 years to replace the entire vehicle fleet with electric vehicles.

DOMONOSKE: If gas-powered vehicles stay on the road for their full lifespans, the transition would take much longer than the 10 years the Green New Deal calls for. Is that a problem?

MARY NICHOLS: We can't turn them all into planters or sculptures. So I think we're going to have to provide for them to continue to exist.

DOMONOSKE: Mary Nichols is the head of the California Air Resources Board. She's a powerful regulator who has influenced the rise of electric vehicles. She emphasizes modern cars are cleaner than they used to be. She's been fighting air pollution since 1971.

NICHOLS: In that time, the air emissions from internal combustion engines have been slashed by over 90 percent twice.

DOMONOSKE: They're more efficient, too, which helps with climate change. And there's one last possibility. Maybe the combustion engine has a very long life ahead of it in the hybrids that run off electricity or fossil fuels. Then pistons and crankshafts might exist well into an electric-dominated future. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.