While the internal combustion engine (ICE) is still king of the road, sales of these vehicles peaked in 2017, according to a report by industry analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Since then, as sales of electrified vehicles — electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids (mild, plugin, and hybrid vehicles) — have increased, the demand for fossil-fueled transport has been in permanent decline.

What is more, sales of EVs are expected to triple from the current levels by 2025. And with legislation set to add further impetus to electrification, manufacturers, governments, analysts and the public are asking: When will EVs and hybrids outnumber combustion vehicles?

This a simple question that unfortunately has no simple answer.

The time it takes for EVs to overtake ICEs in the sales race will be significantly shorter than the time it will take for EVs to dominate the roads. To complicate matters even further, there are differing definitions of what constitutes an EV, and of course, the phase-out of ICEs will not happen simultaneously across the globe.

Legislators are loading the dice in favor of EVs

Driven by the need to curb GHG emissions that are largely responsible for climate change, regulators around the world are pushing for an end to ICE sales by the mid-2030s. By the end of 2022, 22 governments had set ambitious 100% ICE light-duty vehicle phase out targets that are intended to put a stop to ICEs by 2050.

These phase-outs vary not only in their timing, but also in the definition of what qualifies as an electric, or non-ICE, vehicle. In California, for example, Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order of September 2020 declared that 100% of new passenger car and truck sales will be zero-emission by 2035.

Two types of vehicles indisputably fall within California’s targets: Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which run exclusively on electricity and produce zero tailpipe emissions.

Plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs), however, present a somewhat different case. The California Air Resources Board has determined that PHEVs may account for a maximum of 20% of a manufacturer’s zero-emission vehicles.

Hybrid EVs (HEVs) present yet another case. At the end of December 2020, Japan announced plans to achieve 100% electric passenger car sales by the mid-2030s at the latest. Unlike other markets, under Japan’s Green Growth Strategy, HEVs would also qualify as EVs.

To complicate matters further, some governments have adopted a phased approach. The U.K., for instance, plans to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, with all vehicles being required to have a significant zero emissions capability (e.g., plug-in and full hybrids) from 2030 and be 100% zero emissions from 2035. Based on today’s technologies, the proposed 2035 target would only allow the sale of new BEVs and FCEVs.

Sales of EVs are expected to triple from current levels by 2025. Source: Michael Fousert/UnsplashSales of EVs are expected to triple from current levels by 2025. Source: Michael Fousert/Unsplash

So, the first hurdle to overcome when trying to predict when EVs will outnumber combustion vehicles is to get a common understanding of what legislators around the world classify as an EV, and which markets will drive the timing for the adoption of EVs.

Irrespective of when regulators decide to phase out the ICE, it will still take more than a decade to replace these vehicles with true ZEVs without ICEs.

How long will it take for EVs to dominate?

Analysts predict the fleet turnover will be slow because conventional gasoline-powered cars and trucks are becoming more reliable, thereby extending their presence on the road. The average light-duty vehicle operating in the United States today is more than 12 years old, according to IHS Markit. That is up from 9.6 years in 2002. The situation is similar in Europe and most other developed regions.

With projected annual global sales of between 80 and 90 million, it is safe to assume many of these vehicles will be driven by ICEs and remain on the road for at least 10 or 20 years as they are sold and resold in the used car market. And even after that, many developed countries will export used ICE vehicles to less sophisticated markets where they will see service for many more years.

What is more, several economic studies suggest, that phasing out sales of new ICEs, could extend the life of the ICE beyond current predictions. This, as consumers, unable to afford newer, pricier, electric cars turn to cheaper used models.

However, achieving the International Energy Agency’s “Net Zero Emissions by 2050” objective requires an electric car fleet of over 300 million by 2030 with electric cars accounting for 60% of new car sales. On the other hand, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that EVs will only make up 31% of the global light-duty vehicle fleet in 2050.

To speed up the phasing out of ICEs, policymakers may need to consider additional strategies to clean up transportation. These could include policies to buy back and scrap older, less efficient cars already in use.

But while creative policies could speed up the phasing out of the ICE in developed markets, developing nations lacking the financial resources, are likely to continue their reliance on older ICEs.

Currently, the only country in Africa to have a plan to discontinue the sale of combustion vehicles is the island state of Cape Verde, which is targeting to prohibit the import of ICE vehicles that use fossil fuel from 2035. The only country in South America to set a target that excludes all new ICE car sales, Costa Rica, is almost 30 years away from its deadline.

So while it would be expedient to predict a world where EVs outnumber combustion vehicles by 2050, this is highly unlikely. In fact, the phasing out of the ICE may follow the same trend as that of the discontinuation of leaded gasoline.

Although Japan first banned leaded gasoline in 1980 the last drop of the fuel was pumped in Algeria in 2021 — more than 40 years after the first ban. Thus, although it is quite feasible that by 2050 EVs and hybrids could dominate the roads in major markets such as America, Canada, the U.K., and Europe, the combustion vehicle will remain the primary means of transport for many developing nations for many more years.

About the author

Peter Els is a South Africa-based former automotive engineer. This includes time with Nissan South Africa’s Product Development Division, Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, Fiat/Alfa Romeo, Beijing Automotive Works (BAW), as well as tier-one suppliers Robert Bosch and Pi Shurlok. After consulting to the local industry for 15 years, Els has ventured into technical writing and journalism about the latest trends, technologies, opportunities and threats facing the new world of mobility.

To contact the author of this article, email GlobalSpeceditors@globalspec.com