Potential for widespread electrification of personal vehicle travel in the United States


Electric vehicles can contribute to climate change mitigation if coupled with decarbonized electricity, but only if vehicle range matches travellers’ needs. Evaluating electric vehicle range against a population’s needs is challenging because detailed driving behaviour must be taken into account. Here we develop a model to combine information from coarse-grained but expansive travel surveys with high-resolution GPS data to estimate the energy requirements of personal vehicle trips across the US. We find that the energy requirements of 87% of vehicle-days could be met by an existing, affordable electric vehicle. This percentage is markedly similar across diverse cities, even when per capita gasoline consumption differs significantly. We also find that for the highest-energy days, other vehicle technologies are likely to be needed even as batteries improve and charging infrastructure expands. Car sharing or other means to serve this small number of high-energy days could play an important role in the electrification and decarbonization of transportation.

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Figure 1: Energy intensities and velocity histories of trips with similar distances and durations.
Figure 2: Probabilistic model of BEV range given observed nationwide travel behaviour.
Figure 3: Nationwide and city-specific BEV energy requirements evaluated against battery capacity.
Figure 4: Vehicle-day energy distributions in various cities and the differentiating effect of their heavy tails.
Figure 5: Differences in travel behaviour and vehicle use across cities.
Figure 6: Effects of increasing battery capacity on BEV range constraints.


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We thank M. Miotti for his contributions to the auxiliary power component of the TripEnergy model, and F. Riether for his contributions to characterizing the model robustness. We thank J. Heywood and S. Zoepf for their feedback on the vehicle model. We thank L. Chancel for a helpful discussion of transportation energy consumption in cities. This work was supported by the New England University Transportation Center at MIT under DOT grant No. DTRT13-G-UTC31, the MIT Leading Technology and Policy Initiative, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, the Charles E. Reed Faculty Initiatives Fund, and the MIT Energy Initiative.

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J.E.T. designed the study; J.M., M.T.C., Z.A.N. and J.E.T. built the model; Z.A.N., M.T.C., J.M. and J.E.T. performed the analysis; J.E.T., Z.A.N. and J.M. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jessika E. Trancik.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Figures 1–12, Supplementary Tables 1–5, Supplementary Notes 1–4, Supplementary References. (PDF 828 kb)

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Needell, Z., McNerney, J., Chang, M. et al. Potential for widespread electrification of personal vehicle travel in the United States. Nat Energy 1, 16112 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nenergy.2016.112

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