The future of driving is here—and it’s electric

A green revolution in daily travel has begun. Battery-powered cars are selling fast, and automakers—nudged by governments—are phasing out gas vehicles.

Once seen as staid substitutes for gas-powered cars and trucks, electric vehicles are suddenly the rage, embraced even by drag-racing enthusiasts. In June, carmakers from EV West in San Marcos, California, test their Electraliner—built with a Tesla motor and battery pack—in the Mojave Desert. They’re aiming to break EV land-speed records. A previous version of their EV dragster averaged 229.363 miles an hour on two tests.
Stephen McGee

At Volkswagen’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, car bodies soar high above the concrete floor on conveyors, like seats on a slow-moving carnival ride. Every 73 seconds one gets lowered onto a power train, and soon body and chassis begin rising together. As I watch, workers in roller chairs carrying pistol-shaped power wrenches glide beneath a Passat sailing by at chest height. They fasten rock guards and skid plates to the undercarriage before holstering their tools to await the next car.

Across 3.4 million square feet, about 3,800 workers and 1,500 robots move in this stop-and-go rhythm all day, building some of the most recognizable gasoline-powered vehicles on the road—45 an hour, 337 per shift, more than 1.1 million since Volkswagen finished the plant in 2011.

This site has a complicated history: Beginning in World War II and periodically for the next three decades, military contractors processed nitric and sulfuric acid here to make TNT, storing the munitions in concrete bunkers in nearby forests. Toxic fumes from the factory scalded petunias and yellowed pine needles for miles. But today, in a city that once had America’s worst air pollution, on a former weapons site that contributed mightily to those filthy skies, a car company with its own messy legacy on emissions—Volkswagen cheated on pollution rules for seven years—is trying to help green the nation’s transportation system.

Soon this plant will roll out Volkswagen’s first U.S.-built electric vehicle. In 2022, it will begin mass-producing the car, a compact SUV called the ID.4, on its existing assembly line, splicing production between gas-powered models so that it can respond nimbly to changing demand. On my visit to the plant, the transition is well under way. A team of Volkswagen logistics experts ticks off the dizzying alterations as we tour the line.

All-electric vehicles are simpler than gas-powered ones. They have no gas tanks, no pistons, no spark plugs—and no tailpipe. “The basic idea is, there’s less parts,” assembly specialist Chris Rehrig shouts to me over the plant’s whir and hum.

On the other hand, they have enormous batteries. At Volkswagen, battery packs weighing more than 1,000 pounds will be assembled across the street and carted in on self-driving vehicles. Each battery pack, sheathed in a plate veined with cooling fluid, will be bolted by automated screw gun to a car’s underbody. The same machine, when a gas-powered car approaches, will instead screw in a heat shield. Making all this work smoothly will take “a bit of a dance,” says Rehrig’s supervisor, Noah Walker, with a hint of weariness.

That Volkswagen and so many others are now attempting such a dance suggests that we’ve reached a crucial moment for the planet. This company, and this industry, are pivoting away from what made Volkswagen the world’s largest manufacturing company by revenue: the carbon dioxide-belching internal combustion engine.

As more people and governments push for urgent action on climate change, cars and trucks are undergoing their greatest makeover since the automobile’s inception more than a century ago. Start-ups and standard-bearers alike are fighting for a toehold in what industry leaders suddenly see as their best path forward: vehicles without tailpipe emissions. By almost every measure, their popularity is surging. Virtually overnight, the era of the electric car has arrived.

And yet, by the timetable needed to address the climate challenge, the transition away from gas-powered vehicles remains far too slow. Global temperature records keep getting crushed as greenhouse gas pollution rises, fueling punishing droughts and wildfires from the Arctic to Australia. Melting ice sheets are raising sea levels, increasing flooding just as storms grow more extreme. To avoid peril for millions of people, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, the world needs to bring carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050, preferably much sooner.

With nearly a quarter of global emissions coming from all types of transportation, can we wean ourselves off petrol-powered cars fast enough to avoid the worst effects? And can we do it without sparking a new environmental calamity? Several upstart companies and quite a few from the stodgy old guard are now betting their future—and ours—that millions of consumers are finally ready to make the switch.

An electric-converted Toyota Land Cruiser is test-driven at Kenya’s Ngong Hills Wind Power Station. Renewables now make up more than two-thirds of the energy in the country, which has set ambitious targets for reducing its carbon dioxide emissions. Greening transportation would be a major step. In Kenya, most cars, trucks, and motorcycles are imported as used vehicles and run on gas or diesel.
An electric-converted Toyota Land Cruiser is test-driven at Kenya’s Ngong Hills Wind Power Station. Renewables now make up more than two-thirds of the energy in the country, which has set ambitious targets for reducing its carbon dioxide emissions. Greening transportation would be a major step. In Kenya, most cars, trucks, and motorcycles are imported as used vehicles and run on gas or diesel.
Photograph by NICHOLE SOBECKI

It’s hard to argue that what we’re witnessing is anything less than a revolution. In the 1990s, General Motors introduced an electric car, built fewer than 1,200, and recalled them. Today the pace of change is blistering.

The number of all-electric and plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles, or EVs, rose by nearly half last year, even as car sales overall fell 16 percent. The types of models available to drivers worldwide increased 40 percent, to about 370. In North America, the variety is slated to nearly triple by 2024, to 138. Already there are electric Mini Coopers, Porsches, and Harley-Davidsons.

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Governments from California to China, Japan, and the United Kingdom recently announced plans to ban sales of new passenger vehicles powered solely by gas or diesel by 2035 or sooner. Automotive giants from Volvo to Jaguar now say they’ll phase out piston engines by then anyway, while Ford says its passenger vehicles in Europe will be all EVs or hybrids in five years and all electric by 2030. GM has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2040. President Joe Biden has vowed to transition the federal fleet of more than 600,000 vehicles to EVs, and his administration plans to tighten fuel-efficiency standards.

Wall Street and investors are betting big. For a while last year Tesla, responsible for almost 80 percent of all U.S. EV sales in 2020, was worth more than oil giants ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP—combined. New electric-car and electric-truck companies keep popping up: Bollinger, Faraday Future, Nio, Byton. Others are coming on strong. A two-door electric micro-car with a top speed of 62 miles an hour and a sale price that starts below $6,000 has been outselling Tesla in China, home to more than 40 percent of the world’s plug-in vehicles.

The days of light-duty combustion engines finally, truly, seem numbered. “The dam is breaking; the tipping point is here,” says Sam Ricketts, a member of the team that wrote Washington governor Jay Inslee’s climate action plan during his presidential run. Many of Inslee’s ideas later found their way into Biden’s climate plans.

“Electrifying transportation is our future. I think that train has left the station,” says Kristin Dziczek, an economist with the Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan-based organization partially backed by car manufacturers.

How did we get here?

Even before Toyota successfully mass-produced the Prius hybrid more than two decades ago, some climate-conscious nations had begun tightening emissions standards. Countries such as Norway, where half the new vehicles on the road in 2020 were electric, started offering tax savings for electric cars. In China, cities with air pollution problems made it faster and cheaper to register EVs than vehicles with internal combustion engines. The U.S. government offered consumers up to $7,500 off the purchase of EVs and hybrids and sank research and development money into batteries. Then, in 2009, Tesla got a $465 million Department of Energy loan to jump-start production of sedans. Battery prices fell 89 percent in the next 10 years, and Tesla went on to sell 1.5 million plug-ins.

Yet there is a long way to go. Roughly 12 million plug-in cars and trucks have been sold globally, nearly 90 percent of them in just three regions: China, Europe, and the United States. But some 1.5 billion gas-guzzlers still crowd the roads, and the total number of passenger vehicles of all kinds may grow by another billion in the next 30 years, as incomes rise in underdeveloped countries.

Whether drivers across the globe adopt EVs quickly depends on several factors. Industry is whittling away at some of the biggest barriers to entry for consumers: range, recharging times, charging infrastructure, cost. A lab prototype of a solid-state battery may be the first step toward recharging electric vehicles in just 10 minutes. Tesla and Lucid Motors are already building all-electric vehicles that could exceed 400 miles per charge. Lucid claims its car will top 500, while Aptera maintains that some drivers of its three-wheeled, aerodynamic, sun-powered machine may never need to visit a charging station. For now, most new EVs are luxury cars that few can afford. But investment bank UBS and research firm BloombergNEF predict that electric cars could reach cost parity with conventional vehicles in five years or so.

Still, analysts insist more needs to happen to accelerate this transition. No one expects the variety of options for consumers to match today’s gas-powered cars soon. Government incentives, such as renewal of the $7,500 tax credit, which is no longer available for some automakers, may be essential to attracting buyers.

“There isn’t a market in the world that can do this without some kind of public investment,” Dziczek says. The Biden administration wants to spend $15 billion to help add 500,000 charging stations, but many in Congress have balked.

The price and sustainability of EVs also depend on raw materials. EV batteries rely on lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite. Most of those materials are mined in just a few places, and much of it is refined in China. With demand surging, EV-manufacturing nations are scrambling to secure supplies—there are plans for a lithium mine in Nevada, for example. But “there’s no point in having a lithium mine in America, shipping the lithium out to Asia for processing, then shipping it back to America for use in your batteries,” says Jonathon Mulcahy of the research firm Rystad Energy, which projects potential lithium shortages later this decade.

At the same time, extraction of these metals has led to ecological and human rights abuses. Governments such as the European Union are wrestling with ways to make supply chains stable, ethical, and safe, while automakers, including Volkswagen, are establishing auditing and certification systems to make sure battery suppliers comply with environment and labor rules. Consumers may hesitate to trust such commitments, however. Automakers have disappointed them before.

When things go wrong on Volkswagen’s Chattanooga assembly line—if tools or parts break—workers yank cords that grind production to a halt, and one of a few easily recognized songs blares across the factory floor. Managers use these tunes to quickly identify the holdup. During my tour, I heard Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and noticed things around me had stopped moving. But there was a lot going on that day. The special robots needed to make EVs already had been installed. Buyers were locking in new parts suppliers; executives were readying for a hiring binge of hundreds more workers.

The seeds of this moment were planted in 1979, when Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander flew to Japan with maps and a satellite photograph. There he convinced the chairman of Nissan that his state offered ideal manufacturing land linked by rail and highway to major population centers on both coasts. Other carmakers followed—and today, this conservative state is a player in the move to climate-friendly cars.

Since 2013, the Nissan plant in Smyrna, outside Nashville, has built the electric Leaf, the world’s first commercially successful modern EV. At less than $25,000 after tax credits, it remains one of North America’s cheapest. Forty miles away, GM is spending two billion dollars to redesign its Spring Hill factory so it can assemble an electric Cadillac, the first of several EVs that will be built there. By 2023, that entire operation will be solar powered. The company also is investing $2.3 billion in a battery plant that will employ 1,300. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs hydroelectric dams and other power plants, plans to fund fast-charging stations every 50 miles along Tennessee’s freeways.

Then there’s Chattanooga. In 1969, a year before the Environmental Protection Agency was created, the U.S. government declared the city’s particulate-matter pollution the worst in the country. Its ozone pollution was second only to Los Angeles. Decades of revitalization led to one of the most celebrated environmental achievements in history. In 2008, not long after the city finally had met ozone standards, Volkswagen broke ground on its new plant.

The Volkswagen Group, which includes Audi, Porsche, and nine other carmakers, has embraced EVs. In part that’s because of the emissions scandal, revealed in 2014, which led to billions of dollars in fines, the recall of millions of cars, and the indictment of its former CEO on conspiracy charges. A settlement with the EPA for installing devices on some 590,000 diesels sold in the U.S. that made them appear less polluting required the company to make huge investments in EV charging. But that alone doesn’t explain the depth of Volkswagen’s conversion.

The company is investing more than $40 billion worldwide to design 70 new electric models and produce 26 million by 2030. With partners, VW expects to install 3,500 fast chargers in the U.S. by year’s end, and 18,000 in Europe by 2025. Volkswagen has pumped $300 million into a battery start-up that hopes to cut charging times in half. It’s building and expanding battery plants across Europe, aiming to halve battery prices.

“Credit where credit is due: It is absolutely clear that VW, among the large automakers, is by far making the largest investments in EVs,” says Nic Lutsey, director of the electric-vehicle program for the International Council on Clean Transportation, which produces data and analysis to help governments green transportation. It was Lutsey’s organization that caught Volkswagen cheating on emissions. “Those investments have them on a path far greater than what is required” by any legal settlement, Lutsey says.

Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, grew up in the 1970s on Long Island, squishing into the wayback of his family’s VW Beetle. He studied comparative literature in college and worked on development projects in Bolivia before finding his way into the auto business, first at Mercedes-Benz and later at Audi. In 2018, after the EPA settlement, he took over VW’s North American business.

The emissions scandal is “a corporate disaster, and certainly a bruise and a scar, if you will, that we will have with us,” Keogh says when I connect with him by Skype. But “the company came together and said, ‘What do we do? Do we just survive this crisis? And maybe move a little effort here or tweak a little bit there and just kind of survive it? Or do we come out of this crisis stronger, better, smarter, and with a purpose?’ And thank goodness the company selected the latter.”

Volkswagen announced its commitment to EVs so early that when it presented the plan to U.S. car dealers, Keogh tells me, “I would say, overwhelmingly, it was met with … cynicism, I think, would probably be the appropriate word.” Even just a few years ago, dealers presumed EVs would remain a mere niche.

All that has changed, Keogh says. Research regularly reaches his desk suggesting that under some optimistic scenarios, car buying could be 50 percent electric within the decade. Suddenly, VW’s bets look “downright smart—and downright necessary,” Keogh says.

He doesn’t underestimate the challenge, however. Less than 5 percent of new-car sales in Europe today are all-electric vehicles; in the U.S., it’s 2 percent. (The number rises to 8 percent in China.) “And of course, we’re making investments and making projections that are going to put it, in 10 years, somewhere, let’s say 30 to 40 percent,” Keogh says. Counting on such a rapid growth curve is “something that’s certainly capable of keeping you up at night.”

But that’s also why Keogh doesn’t view Tesla or other EV producers as his chief competitors. The drivers he’s targeting are the ones shopping now for small gas-powered SUVs, such as Toyota’s RAV4 or Subaru’s Forester. “We’re laser focused on the 98 percent of the market that is not driving an electric vehicle.”

A similar battle for consumers’ hearts happened at the beginning too. In 1896, when horses and buggies were still competing with automobiles, prospective buyers at the first big car show in London could choose between electric and gas power. Some aspects of that choice haven’t changed.

“Electricity has the advantage that it works without smell and with less noise and vibration,” the British Medical Journal wrote in a review of the show, “but the disadvantage of the costliness of the accumulators [batteries], and the impossibility of recharging except where the electric supply is available.”

When the first U.S. auto dealership opened in Detroit a few years later, it sold only electric cars. In Austria, Ferdinand Porsche’s early designs also relied on electricity. His partner, Ludwig Lohner, said he favored electric drives because he found the air in Vienna already “ruthlessly spoiled by the large number of petrol engines.” But cheap oil and paved rural roads would soon cement a victor. Electric vehicles would be gone by the end of the 1930s.

In Normal, Illinois, I meet a man with a distinctive vision for how to bring them back. In 2015, Mitsubishi shut down its auto plant here, laying off close to 1,300 workers. Two years later, engineer and entrepreneur Robert “RJ” Scaringe converted the vacant space into a factory for his start-up, Rivian.

Tall and thin, in his late 30s, Scaringe is understated. I first glimpse him, in untucked flannel, standing alone in line at the cafeteria on a day when his company’s value is nearly $28 billion.

Even as a Florida teen tinkering on Porsches in a neighbor’s garage, Scaringe knew he wanted to make cars. When he was at MIT, where he got a doctorate in mechanical engineering, worry about climate change consumed him. As we stroll through the old Mitsubishi plant, before Rivian’s new vehicles are in production, Scaringe explains the task as he sees it: “How do we take roughly 90 to 100 million cars a year and get those to be electric?”

Scaringe decided his contribution would be to design EVs drivers might desire. And what do consumers want most? Some of the least efficient vehicles on the road. There are now more than 200 million SUVs worldwide, six times as many as a decade ago, and millions more trucks. In the U.S., together the two were 70 percent of the new-vehicle market in 2019. “Not only is it the biggest problem in terms of carbon and sustainability … but they’re also the most popular vehicle type,” Scaringe says.

Rivian’s first two EVs, a short-bed pickup called the R1T and an SUV called the R1S, will offer green alternatives for the outdoor set. Like Tesla, the company is building its own exclusive charging network: 3,500 fast chargers on highways, and thousands more in state parks and near trailheads. Scaringe felt he had no choice. Even though most charging takes place at home, a spotty and inconsistent charging network complicates long trips, he says, and remains “a reason for someone not to buy the vehicle.”

Rivian won’t have the truck market to itself. Tesla has unveiled its Cybertruck, and an electric version of Ford’s F-150—the most popular vehicle in America, with annual sales approaching 900,000 in 2019—is expected in 2022. The base price for the F-150 Lightning will be substantially less than Rivian’s high-end vehicles. Within a month of its unveiling, more than 100,000 customers had made reservations.

Ford is an investor in Rivian, and Scaringe is sanguine about competition; he’s quick to pointout that a wholesale transition to EVs can’t beachieved by any one company. But he and histeam also see our relationship with vehicleschanging in ways that could help electrification.

“Fifteen years ago, if we wanted bananas, we’d go to the store. If I wanted new shoes, I’d drive to the store,” he says. Now, deliveries bring books and meals and groceries and shoes to our door. Others make trips for us. In that, Scaringe sees opportunity. What if he could switch a fleet of delivery trucks to EVs? “You may, as a customer, not yet choose to electrify on your personal vehicle. But because you’re handing over a lot of your last-mile logistics, you now are going to be electrifying whether you realize it or not.”

Rivian is making 100,000 electric delivery vehicles for Amazon, the retail giant. Some are on streets now being tested. FedEx also has announced that it will go electric. UPS took a stake in another EV company and is buying 10,000 electric delivery vans.

Scaringe is thinking beyond the U.S. to the developing world, where very few people own new cars and trucks, and relationships with vehicles are fundamentally different. He suspects new user models will emerge there: partial ownership, flexible leasing, subscription services.

Rather than watching new gas-powered vehicles take over places such as Africa and India, he says, “the right answer is to say, How can we innovate on the product, the business model, the ecosystem, to allow these markets to just skip what, you know, we in the U.S. or Europe or China went through? Which is these hugely inefficient, very dirty transportation ecosystems.”

In Kenya, Esther Wairimu is working on it. Deep in the heart of Nairobi’s industrial district, rows of warehouses the size of soccer fields house coffee roasters, paintsellers, furniture makers. But down one dusty lane packed with trucks is a different kind of business.

On a spotless floor framed by crystal-clean white walls, 88 employees, including Wairimu, spend days soldering cables and testing battery systems, plugging into one of the first vehicle chargers in Kenya. When photographer Nichole Sobecki met Wairimu there last spring, the 25-year-old was troubleshooting wiring on a beat-up matatu, a small, decorated public bus. She was trying to help make it run on batteries.

Wairimu is an engineer at Opibus, one of many start-ups hoping to bring electrification to developing countries. But the four-year-old company isn’t building cars or trucks. It’s converting old petroleum-powered transit vehicles into EVs and building new, cheap electric motorcycles—and helping Kenyans finance them.

“At the moment, things here are not so developed,” Wairimu tells me. “Many places in Africa don’t even have gas stations. We have a chance to have a better vision.” Though Opibus was founded by Swedish engineers, most Opibus employees, like Wairimu, are Kenyan, and 40 percent are women.

The developing world is a great untapped market, “but it’s very scary for traditional vehicle makers,” chief strategist Albin Wilson says.

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And yet the time to act is now. The number of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles in parts of East Africa is roughly doubling each decade. Most of them—about 85 percent of all vehicles in Kenya—are older ones imported used. Kenya limits importation to vehicles no more than eight years old and has established pollution standards for new and used vehicles, but more than 80 other countries in the developing world have weak limits or none. Few major vehicle manufacturers are focused on this emerging market, so it’s left to tiny outfits such as Opibus to try to lay the groundwork for change.

Opibus began by creating conversion kits for safari companies, subbing EV motors and batteries, which could be charged by solar panels, into the skeletons of diesel jeeps. But company leaders wanted to make a bigger impact, so they moved on to building electric motorcycles.

They’ve field-tested a hundred so far. Each costs no more than a conventional motorcycle—and fuel and maintenance cost less than half. In a place where many owners use their bikes as taxis or delivery vehicles, that’s appealing.

Those drivers tend to lack the attachment Americans have to petrol-powered vehicles, Wilson says. Their primary interest appears to be in whether electrification will make their lives better. “They want to know: Will this tool make me more money—yes or no?” Wilson says.

Rob de Jong, with the UN Environment Programme in Kenya, says similar efforts are popping up throughout the developing world. There are EV start-ups in Rwanda and Ethiopia. A city in the Philippines is experimenting with electric postal vehicles. Electric buses may come to the Seychelles. De Jong believes automakers should step up efforts to promote the trend.

The potential impact is great, Wairimu says. Climate change already threatens the rain-dependent agriculture that East Africa and her own family rely on. “If we go electric, we are really saving Africa,” she tells Sobecki. “If we go electric, we are protecting the entire world.”

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.

Staff writer Craig Welch and freelance photographer David Guttenfelder drove a series of electric cars on a road trip across the United States for an article that appeared in the April 2020 issue.  

This story appears in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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