How fast could we end fossil-burning cars?

Scenarios for an expedited transition to electric vehicles

Jonny Axelsson
8 min readNov 20, 2022

The point of this exercise is not really about EVs, but that our timelines are constrained not by what we are able to do, but what we think there is political will to do.

Prequel: An ICE-free planet

This article was triggered by the below one, that had built a strawman so huge, burning it could power a small town.

The gist of it is posing the question “What would happen if we stopped eating meat right now?”, with the answer that if we had meat as a major part of our diet, and didn’t replace it with any other food, we’d eventually die from starvation. Conclusion: Eat meat or die.

What really rankled was the attempt to sell the internal combustion engine (ICE) car as “efficient”. Driving in an ICE car is monstrously inefficient use of primary energy.

Now, purely seen as a piece of engineering today’s internal combustion engine is vastly better than the ones a century ago.

We have gross energy inefficiencies in our system. This chart over energy use in USA (2021) shows how most energy is lost, creating nothing but waste heat. (Heat is also a resource, especially in colder conditions, and shouldn’t be wasted, in hotter conditions it is more a problem that requires more energy to move somewhere else.)

This graph from energy sources to energy consumers shows that most energy is lost. Of the 97.3 Quads (28.5 PWh) energy produced in the US in 2021, only about ⅓ was not wasted.

If not this year, then when?

But it leads to a more interesting thought experiment: How fast could we replace ICE vehicles globally if we REALLY wanted to, optimising for lowered emissions? Should we try?

This scenario here is “no ICE”, excluding non-fossil fuels like biodiesel and hydrogen, and going for fully electric vehicles (EVs). It does not exclude airplanes or really ships (or power plants), because they don’t really use internal combustion.

In a “no fossil fuel” scenario, green hydrogen would have a second shot, out of desperation if nothing else. This would make land logistics easier, but sea and air much harder. While we can and do have electric ferries and small airplanes, scaling them up to continent-spanning ships and airplanes would be extremely difficult.

The electric thirties

As a wild unsubstantiated guess we probably could end the internal combustion-powered vehicle in about a decade instead of the “mostly by 2050–55” pathway we currently follow: All new cars will be EVs between 2024 and 2040, depending on locale, all new cargo trucks between 2035 and 2050, and a sunsetting period of about 15 years per vehicle.

However, doing so would entail completely redesigning we do transport and logistics, and would come at the cost of, well most everything else we do.

We’d have to convert existing ICE cars to in addition to scaling up EV production, as we couldn’t add a whole new car park in a decade. We would have to rethink and rebuild public transport and logistics chain, greatly scale up battery production and the grid from the bottom.

Alternatives to cars would be preferred in cities and built-up areas, an eBike consumes less power than an eCar. So do eBuses, eFerries and eTrains.

Rideshare in different forms and shapes outside cities, at least until EV fleet builds up.

And Work From Home to the greatest extent possible. #WFH

In our scenario, logistics would likely be second hardest problem. Train logistics would have to scale up, as we couldn’t rely on heavy trucks alone for land transport. There are electric trucks for sale and in use, but they are yet niche and the infrastructure doesn’t really support them. That would have to change.

The (relatively) quick fix could be the “trolley truck”, using overhead power wires and #pantograph. Wiring motorways and main transport arteries would be costly and require a lot of wires, but is feasible.

Which leads to the biggest challenge: The electricity to feed these vehicles and the batteries to store them. Primary use of batteries in the decade ahead is for EVs, and there is no short or medium-term alternative to Li-ion. We would also have little time to improve them.

Given this short time span those “look at all the lithium you have to extract to power the electric fleet” articles would now be generally true. And lithium would not be the only metal we suddenly would need a whole lot more of.

This would be a top-down project, with unprecedented international cooperation. “Achieving the goal, before this decade is out” would require government intervention, sustained will, and likely eminent domain. Starting now.

Power to the people

On our current more leisurely path towards transport electrification, EVs wouldn’t take up much of the total power consumption, and would actually stabilise the grid, charging at low demand periods. On an expedited path we would not have that luxury.

We would need to generate far more power, particularly in areas with low level of electrification today. We would have to build as much grid in a decade as we have built in a century. This would be on the critical path as building new power lines is an exceedingly slow process today. The average construction time is over a decade, something that must be greatly speeded up.

Little of that time is spent actually building the lines. Even so the critical constraint might not be metal, or money, but manpower. Many new engineering schools would be needed across the world to facilitate this.

Similar problems would face power generation. It takes a year or two to actually build a wind farm, but it can take a decade to get the required permissions. New solar photovoltacis (PV) would dominate power generation, and could be used for gridless charging points.

Battery factories would have to multiply like convenience stores in a new market.

Extracting the future

A rapid transition would create a logistic bottleneck. The grid, batteries, PV panels, wind turbine would all require metals and minerals not available today, and because we in this scenario would require it ASAP, there is not much past resources to reuse. We would have to start digging as soon as we are able.

We would be a massive increase in extraction. Instead of “organic growth”, we would have to go all in, preparing all new mines practically at once. It would still be many years before any of them would actually provide ready minerals.

In parallel factories would be built for each step to finished product, like here for PV arrays. Same goes for the other components needed in the transition.

By working in parallel little would seem to be happening. Change would be slow at first, and then all at once.

So, should we try? Would it be worth it?

Almost certainly not. It would reduce CO₂ emissions with 6 gigatons every year, give or take, or about the emissions of the US. Not a trivial amount. But we could likely achieve more for less. We would still have the rest of our emissions, and those yet to come. Buildings and infrastructure, particularly in emerging markets, could easily swallow up these gains from the transport sector.

We should also keep in mind that expediting a process can be expensive, error prone and not very efficient. But unnecessary delays are also costly. This is not any deep attempt to uncover what is on the critical path in the transition from ICE vehicles to EVs either. That is not the goal.

The point of this exercise is not really about EVs, but that our timelines are constrained not by what we are able to do, but what we think there is political will to do.

I am all for realistic timelines, however this puts us at a disadvantage. This will not be seen as the less-than-optimum, but more manageable approach. Instead it will be taken as the starting point for further delays, even as an “extreme” approach.

While many organisations have put up faster-than-mainstream scenarios, few have really made As Soon As Possible scenarios. What are the constraints, the costs in these cases? It could even be useful, not just for finding the technical critical path, but also in trade-offs. “OK, we can delay and dither on this, but in that case we should to compensate do that other thing according to the ASAP plan. That would cost us this much, and have these consequences.”

Crisis? What crisis?

We have just had two predicted crises in a row, pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. A decade earlier we had a global financial crisis. When there is a crisis we do react at speed. EU in the wake of the Russian invasion is an example. When Putin made us short 1/12 of our power generation and 2/5 of our fossil gas consumption, this triggered a rapid transition to renewables in #REpowerEU.

Crisis management is still “expensive, error prone and not very efficient”. It would have been much cheaper to have sped up the green transition away from coal and gas and oil before Russia invaded Ukraine, rather than trying to fix things after.

Remember that these are predicted crises. We know there will be more of them. There will be another pandemic, another financial crisis, another political crisis. A coup in Saudi Arabia perhaps, or a conflict with the US and China on opposing sides. Just like we don’t know which pandemic will be next (#H5N1?), or which financial sector will crash first, we can rarely predict the precise nature of the next crisis , but we have a pretty good idea what the consequences will be.

So instead of waiting for the next global crisis, be it in 2025 or 2026 or whenever, wouldn’t it be better to be prepared?

This article is an edited version of an older Twitter thread.