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The role of energy infrastructure in shaping early adoption of electric and gasoline cars

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Abstract

Electric vehicles have a potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions but still face challenges. This study asks what can be learned from the US automobile history. In 1900, there were three equal contenders in the US automotive industry: gasoline, electric and steam cars. Only a decade later, the gasoline car had achieved a crushing dominance. This dominance is often attributed to techno-economic factors, such as an innate inferiority of electric cars. Meanwhile, the role of the infrastructures is not well understood. This study presents evidence on the mechanisms behind the rise of gasoline vehicles, using a database of more than 36,000 passenger car models. We estimated econometric models to explain the technology choice of car producers, which show that the slow expansion of electricity infrastructure had a key impact. We estimate that a 15 or 20 year earlier diffusion of electricity grids would have tipped the balance in favour of electric vehicles, most notably in metropolitan areas. In the context of the current climate crisis, the results support the notion that large-scale investment in infrastructure is critical to achieve sustainable socio-technological transitions.

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Fig. 1: Production of personal vehicles and prices in the United States.
Fig. 2: Location of automobile producers.
Fig. 3: Marginal effects of standardized variables.
Fig. 4: Electric vehicle adoption under the counterfactual assumption that electricity diffused 15 or 20 years earlier.

Data availability

The data that support the figures and other findings within this article are available at https://doi.org/10.5878/j8af-b705. Data for Supplementary Fig. 2 and Supplementary Notes 8 and 9 are available upon request from the corresponding author. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

Most data cleaning and analysis was performed using Stata. Maps were produced using ArcGIS and Moran’s I using R statistical software and spdep packages. The code that supports the findings of the main study is available at https://doi.org/10.5878/j8af-b705. The code that supports supplementary results are available upon request from the corresponding author.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge funding support from the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius foundation (grant nos W2015-0445 (J.T.) and W2017-0025 (H.N.)).

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Authors

Contributions

J.T. conceived, designed and analysed the hedonic price and logistic regressions and curated the main data. H.N. conceived, designed and analysed the spatial location and spatial autocorrelation and performed data curation. Both authors wrote and revised the manuscript and discussed the results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Josef Taalbi.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review informationNature Energy thanks Massimo Guarnieri, Gijs Mom and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1–9, Figs. 1–8 and Tables 1–11.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Statistical source data for Fig. 1.

Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data for Fig. 2.

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data for Fig. 4.

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Taalbi, J., Nielsen, H. The role of energy infrastructure in shaping early adoption of electric and gasoline cars. Nat Energy 6, 970–976 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-021-00898-3

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