How Many Electric Cars Are on the Road in the United States?

Experts predict explosive growth in the near future.

Nissan Leaf charging in a parking garage.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Electric vehicles represent less than 1% of vehicles on American roads today (including cars, pickup trucks, and vans). However, their numbers are increasing. Within the next decade, EVs may dominate the American car market.

How Many EVs Are On the Road Today?

In the United States, at the end of 2020, just over 1.3 million vehicles on the road were battery electric vehicles, according to the International Energy Agency's Global EV Data Explorer. And worldwide, nearly 7 million electric vehicles were in operation. While overall vehicle sales declined worldwide by 16% in 2020, the number of electric vehicles registered globally increased by 30%, with over 2 million vehicles sold, again according to the IEA's Global EV Data Explorer. In the United States, by contrast, EV sales were up 11% in 2020.

The Global EV Data Explorers also demonstrates that the U.S. market represented only 11.5% of global EV sales in 2020, and EV sales represented only 2.04% of new car sales in the United States. Electric vehicles are a new technology, however, and over the long run, their growth curve has been tremendous. Since 2010, annual sales of EVs in the United States have grown an astronomical 19,302.85%, from only 1,191 vehicles sold in 2010 to 231,088 in 2020, according to the Global EV Data Explorer.

Electric Vehicle Sales in Select Markets, 2010-2020

David Kuchta / Treehugger

As the graph illustrates, unlike other parts of the world, the United States has yet to reach the explosive growth stage of a disruptive technology's typical growth curve, called the S Curve. Its brief surge began with the introduction of Tesla's popular Model 3 in 2017, but growth has since slowed. As new technologies go, the electric vehicle is still in its early adopter stage, even if signs of more robust growth in the EV market appeared in the first half of 2021. While the U.S. new car sales grew by 36% between January and April 2021, EV car sales in the U.S. increased by 95%, year over year.

Tesla's Dominance

The U.S. EV market is dominated by a single player: Tesla. In 2020, Tesla sold more electric vehicles in the United States than all other manufacturers combined, accounting for nearly 79% of all new EVs registered in the United States. This dominance came despite the fact that Tesla does not advertise its products, relying instead on word of mouth or press coverage, and the $7,500 federal tax credit for Tesla vehicles ended in December 2019, because as a fleet Tesla had already sold 200,000 vehicles.

A row of Tesla charging stations.

RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / Getty Images

In 2021, buyers' options for electric vehicles continued to expand, with 25 new models coming on the market and legacy automotive companies like Ford, Volkswagen, and GM committing to increasing the development of EVs or even to ending the production of gas-powered vehicles in the future. General Motors intends to stop making gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Volkswagen has a goal of producing 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2025, Volvo aims to have half of its global production volume be electric by 2025, and Ford intends to sell only electric cars (in Europe) by 2030. Many of these pledges are aspirational rather than already implemented, and some are limited by region or vehicle type.

Top 10 Electric Vehicles Sold in the United States, 2020
Model Vehicles Sold
Tesla Model 3 95,135
Tesla Model Y 71,344
Chevrolet Bolt EV 19,664
Tesla Model X 19,652
Tesla Model S 14,430
Nissan Leaf 8,972
Audi E-tron 7,089
Porsche Taycan 3,943
Hyundai Kona EV 2,964
Kia Niro EV 2,807
Source: Electrek

California's Leadership

Equally out of balance, California accounted for 41% of all U.S. EV sales in 2020. With an expanding market, EV sales in California constituted 8% of all new vehicle sales, even if overall vehicle sales fell by nearly 3%. California's EV incentives are the highest in the country, higher even than those of the federal government, with a $1,500 upfront discount through its Clean Fuel Reward program, and up to $7,000 from the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. Additionally, the state's electricity utilities also offer incentives. It is possible to buy a Tesla Model 3 in California for $25,000, making the vehicle cost-competitive with gas-powered vehicles.

A Key Obstacle: Dealerships

Because service and parts represent 42% of dealers' gross profit while new car sales represent less than a third, dealers have less incentive to sell electric vehicles than gas-powered cars, which need far more maintenance than an EV. Despite statements from the National Automobile Dealers Association saying that dealers are “all in” on electric vehicles, and that “dealers are absolutely essential” to EV sales, to date they have dragged their feet in promoting electric vehicles and put up roadblocks to startup EV companies selling their products.

In many states, long-standing laws prevent auto manufacturers from selling vehicles directly to customers, which would require EV startups to establish expensive dealerships in every state—a barrier to entry into the market. Direct sales represent a threat to dealers, whose reputation is already abysmal with consumers. Only 22 states allow direct sales, while 11 others make an exception for Tesla, which had to negotiate with each state to gain the right to sell cars directly to customers. In states with laws prohibiting the practice, dealers have fought hard to keep them on the books.

Getting to Net-Zero Transportation

The anomalous success of Tesla and of EVs in California are hopeful signs for the EV market in the United States, since they demonstrate that superior technology sells, even without advertising, and that government incentives work. Still, the road is a long one to a world of net-zero transportation.

Electric vehicles may have penetrated the passenger car market, but they have yet to make a dent in trucks, vans, and other vehicle sectors. Moreover, the average car remains on the road for 11.6 years. Even if 60% of new car sales were electric beginning today, only 40% of all cars on U.S. roads would be electric by 2050. For nearly all cars on the road to be electric by 2050, all new car sales would need to be electric by the mid-2030s, which is why the 2030s have become key dates for banning the sale of new gas-powered vehicles.

Still, experts predict that even with or without government support, EVs will come to dominate the automotive world. BloombergNEF predicts that by 2025, even without government incentives, EV sales worldwide will more than quadruple, from 3.1 million in 2020 to 14 million in 2025—becoming some 16% of all passenger vehicle sales—and that by 2040, EVs will present over 60% of all new car sales worldwide, including nearly 75% of new car sales in the United States.

Whether or not that meteoric rise in EV sales reaches the United States depends on the development of new electric vehicles, the electrification of all sectors of road transportation, the increasing availability of electric vehicle charging networks, and government support for the transition. The future looks promising, even inevitable, but the question is how quickly the United States makes that transition.

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