How Standards May Drive Electric Vehicle Adoption (May 26th, 2019)

Going back a few years, the sight of an electric car would have been astonishing. The early Teslas were something we envied while some of the cheaper electric cars looked like something our dorky cousin would buy. Moving forward to where we are today and EVs have achieved a boring milestone – they are starting to look just like their gas powered siblings. As more car brands release electric models, the increased interest and adoption of EVs by consumers may in fact be driven by something most of us don’t think about – standards.

We don’t think of standards much, but these formal and informal conventions power our modern world. The Internet itself is a giant collection of disparate networks, woven together with invisible standards developed over the last 40 years by a gaggle of government employees, volunteers, industry members and commercial firms. Even everyday things use standards but we rarely think of them. It is not accidental that anything electric can plug-in safely into a matching socket, traffic lights across the country behave the same and plumbing systems use matching parts. Similar to the way the Internet is held together by standards, these other parts of society also follow standards – some mandated by law, some developed informally and some agreed to by industry.

An average consumer is able to drive almost any car available for sale today, partially because they share common design patterns. Our existing transportation infrastructure is also fairly standardized including road signs, traffic signals, markings and road sizes. This is not accidental, as many of these are regulated by federal and state laws, with other similarities having being developed by convention or adopted by the industry. Some of these even date back to the times of horses and buggies. While a hundred years ago this level of standardization didn’t exist, in today’s world an EV can be made virtually indistinguishable from its gas siblings and manufacturers can get the benefits over a century of standardization and experience of gas cars without having to invest additional capital. Not needing to develop new tires, wheels and wipers can go a long way.

Going back to the time the Ford Model T was launched, electricity was something extraordinary. However, what was once extraordinary has now become ordinary enough that we don’t think twice when plugging in our phones to charge and knowing that there will be a reliable source of power that won’t fry us or our phones. Electrical vehicles are coming into a world where the fuel to power them is readily available in every house and business. If we were to flip the script, and imagine the introduction of gas-powered cars today, it would be more challenging to establish the unique gasoline distribution network of gas stations than adapt the current electrical system to charge electrical vehicles.

Another important point is that electricity itself serves as a common standard for energy distribution and storage. We can look to gasoline and diesel fuels as specialized energy storage mechanisms, usable in some cases and applications, while requiring unique distribution and safety constraints. But electricity can serve as a common carrier of energy across a multitude of energy sources, consumers and storage devices.

Yes, there are downsides. The most common power source in houses today – the 110V outlet – would take hours if not days to charge an average EV. There are faster options available but they are not yet common, nevertheless the underlying fuel to power them is already there. To continue the gas station analogy, putting in specialized chargers for EVs is more akin to building gas stations but without the underground tanks, fuel trucks and refineries needing to serve them.

Where does that leave us? Electrical vehicle adoption is increasing and much of it may no longer be driven by the early adopters. Multiple challenges remain including high cost of batteries, lackluster grid support and long charge times but a combination of better technology, familiar designs and reliance on existing standards may nevertheless establish EVs as a solid alternative.