The Environmental Protection Agency announced stronger proposed emissions regulations for cars and trucks today. The EPA projects the new rules will push the industry towards two-thirds of “light duty” vehicle sales—the ones most people buy such as cars, SUVs, and pickups—being electric by 2032 and about half of medium-duty vehicles like the very large pickup trucks, box trucks, and school buses. This is being presented as a monumental challenge for the auto industry, its workers, and consumers who aren’t ready to make the switch to electric. For such people, I have excellent news: You will still be able to buy a gas car for decades to come.
This is not a bold prediction, but rather a simple fact I deduced by reversing the statistics above to reflect gas car sales. Take, for example, the EPA’s projection—which, it bears emphasizing, is a statistical projection, not a mandate—that two-thirds of light duty sales will be electric in 2032. That means one out of every three new cars sold in the U.S. in 2032 will be gas. Last year, 13.7 million light duty vehicles were sold in the U.S. If the EPA’s projections are accurate, that would equate to 4.5 million new gas cars sold in the U.S. in 2032. For perspective, about one out of every four cars sold in the U.S. today is a sedan or wagon. So the EPA is projecting gas cars will be more popular in 2032 than sedans are today, when it is possible to walk into most car dealerships and buy a sedan.
And that is just new vehicles, which is a minority of vehicle sales in the U.S. An estimated 36.2 million used cars were sold in 2022. The average age of automobiles used in the U.S. keeps going up, peaking 12 years old for the first time in 2021. So let’s suppose the entire country follows in California’s footsteps and bans new gas car sales as of 2035 and it is literally impossible to buy a new gas car in the country after that (a scenario I find unlikely). It will still be a further 12 years, or 2047 at least, until the average gas car is junked. That is 24 years from now.
In the coverage of the EPA’s announcement, the word “unprecedented” is used a lot. But this is not true. There is in fact an excellent precedent for the electric vehicle transition. And it is the advent of the motor vehicle itself. That precedent is a humbling analogue for the EV transition, because it was far more gradual than people often acknowledge.
From about 1900 to 1950, motor vehicles went from being an extravagant plaything of the super rich that was far too impractical for daily use to the dominant mode of transportation in the United States. This story—told in many books by researchers from a variety of academic disciplines—is indeed a story of change, but not a sudden one.
For example, in Car Country: An Environmental History, the historian Christopher Wells charts vehicle registrations against the over-15 population in the United States. In 1900, when cars were expensive, difficult to drive, and unreliable, there were 6,254 driving-age people for every registered vehicle. A decade later, it was 133. A decade after that, in 1920, it was 7.8. In 1930, it steadied at 3.2 people over 15 years old per registered vehicle, when the Great Depression tanked sales. Only after World War II did the two-car garage and lumbering family car become the dominant mode of transportation in the U.S. Today, every state has 1.5 or more registered cars per household. Only five—Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.—have fewer than two.
If the history of the American automobile teaches us anything about the current EV transition, it is that we are likely bickering over problems that will sort themselves out while ignoring the irreversible consequences of the transition. Automobile enthusiasts of the early 1900s fretted over where to get fuel, the need to standardize over a single type of fuel, how to make the technology more reliable and less confusing for the average person, and lowering the cost of the car. All of those concerns have direct analogues to the modern EV, and they are also problems that can be solved by money and coordination.
The other, bigger problems—where do we put all these cars in cities, how do we ensure other transportation options remain, how do we stop these things and their drivers from killing people, and what is the long-term cost to both ourselves and our environment—were hardly discussed until cars were already everywhere, the problems intractable, and new interest groups and constituencies fought against addressing them. History is a guide, not a fortune teller, but a gradual, decades-long transition from one type of car to another is both nothing and everything to be afraid of.