As battery technology improves and governments pour more resources into infrastructure, the point at which electric cars become an ubiquitous competitor to diesel and petrol is drawing closer. And with 90% of oil produced used for transport, the results could be game changing.

So is it possible to estimate at which point the thirst for vast quantities of petrol and diesel will begin to drop off?

Speaking at this year’s World Energy Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, Shell New Energies Director Maarten Wetselaar suggested that it would require 50 million electric cars to threaten the multi-trillion dollar oil industry. But, in a world where demand for fossil fuelled-transport still vastly outstrips demand for new electric cars, would such a relatively low figure be enough?

Crunching the numbers

There are well over 1 billion cars worldwide, but of these only a mere one to two million are electric vehicles (EVs). This could be set to change however, with the EV industry growing faster than the conventional diesel and petrol automobile industry.

Sales of conventional cars grew by 6.3% in 2015, according to a Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) report published in January. This is in comparison to sales of EVs, which grew by 70% in 2015 over 2014 levels according to the SMMT, with 477,000 EVs sold worldwide.

In the UK demand soared, in particular for plug-in hybrid vehicles, which witnessed an increase of 133%. This contributed to an overall 72,775 alternatively fuelled vehicles currently registered in the country, increasing their share in the market to 2.8%.

The UK, along with other developed countries such as the US and Norway, is seeing a particularly fast uptake of EVs compared to the rest of the world. International Oil Economist and Visiting Professor of Energy Economies at ESCP European Business School in London, Dr Mamdouh Salameh, explains: “any future replacement of conventional cars with electric cars will happen initially only in Europe, Japan, and the United States. The rest of the world which I call the developing world which constitutes the biggest part of the global economy will take years and years.”

Given these numbers, just how long will it the world to reach 50 million electric cars on the streets? Not very long at all.

Reaching tipping point?

In 2015 there was a further 53% increase on the previous year’s total number of EVs purchased worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Technology Perspectives 2016 report. Should growth continue to increase year-on-year by this on average, within just five years we could see over 15 million EVs worldwide. This would then increase to over 50 million in eight years, meeting Wetselaar’s expected tipping point in 2024.

But if we look at car sales overall, in eight years if growth of the whole auto industry remains sustained at 6.3%, there will be almost 2 billion cars in the world. In that scenario, 50 million would still only be a small fraction of the cars on the road, at just 2.8%.

But for the oil industry, already struggling to maintain itself following the 2014 crash of oil prices, this would be a blow. On average a car uses £880 worth of fuel a year; if 50 million of these suddenly become electric, that could cost the oil industry as much as £44bn.

What are the hurdles to overcome?

The EV market still has many hurdles to face. For there to be a truly threatening electric revolution, the cost, range and infrastructure must first improve. If you total up the costs of two comparative cars for 2016, using average figures for a Renault Megane and an EV Renault Zoe in the UK, the diesel option easily comes out cheaper. To buy, tax, insure, pay London congestion charge and fuel the diesel vehicle will cost on average £25,601.90, while for the same costs the EV amounts to £27,769.40.

"Short range is a problem that has plagued EVs since their conception."

However, when you take running costs into account – at today’s prices – the tables are turned, with the Zoe costing just £33,867 compared to £44,209.50 for the Megane. This saving of over £10,000 can largely be attributed to the London congestion charge. Indeed, it is government allowances and subsidies worldwide that are currently giving EVs an economic edge within cities.

Costs notwithstanding, range is still a major issue. The Nissan Leaf, which is the bestselling EV globally, covers only 80 miles of real world driving on one charge. Short range is a problem that has plagued EVs since their conception, and although there are now longer range alternatives, these come at a price. “Most electric cars can now cover 100 miles on one charge, but if you want to increase the charge to 250 miles, the price will rise to $70,000-$120,000, which is prohibiting,” Dr Salameh says.

So is range a better barometer?

Earlier this year General Motors director of global transmissions and electrification Larry Nitz asserted that the EV reaching 200 miles would be the tipping point for parity. And that needs to be backed up by infrastructure.

For EVs to stand any chance of competing with traditional fuels, massive investment in infrastructure is necessary. Dr Salameh agrees, saying: “to make electric cars appealing to the masses like you and me, we need range like gas and diesel cars, we need infrastructure for recharging, and we need quicker charging where I can charge it in 10 or 15 minutes, no more, or I can charge it at home while I'm asleep. That infrastructure will cost trillions of dollars around the world.”

But this process has already begun. The number of petrol stations in the UK has dropped dramatically over the last forty years. In 1970 there were 37,539 petrol stations, whilst today there are only 8,472 – a steep drop caused in part by greater fuel efficiency in cars. In contrast, repowering stations are spreading fast, with a report produced by Nissan earlier this year predicting that by 2020 there will be more recharging stations than petrol stations in the UK, reaching 7,900 by August.

And will it require a global movement?

Dr Salameh claims that the adoption of EVs will happen first in developed countries, followed by developing countries, which together hold the greater bulk of the global economy. As such, instead of a 50 million EVs tipping point, as stated by Wetselaar, or even a 200-mile tipping point, as suggested by Nitz, Salameh suggests it will just fall to time. As such, he predicts that it will take 50 years for EVs to have a real impact on big oil.

Developed markets are certainly pushing the uptake, with the world’s largest EV markets in the US, Norway and China. Norway has seen widespread uptake of EVs, amounting to 25% of vehicles registered in the first quarter of 2016, 11,124 of which were plug-in EVs and hybrid vehicles. As such, the country is currently aiming to achieve 100,000 EVs by 2020, before banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2025. Meanwhile in Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City, the highest polluting diesel vehicles will be banned from the city centres by 2025, in a move intended to push residents towards using less polluting transportation.

"[Norway] is currently aiming to achieve 100,000 EVs by 2020."

Meanwhile, a number of other European governments are also pushing EVs. In France, the national postal service, La Post, has employed a fleet of 5,000 electric Renault Kangoos, and has plans to double this fleet by 2020. Similarly, in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, the city buses are electric, although Salameh is quick to highlight that this move towards more environmentally friendly transport comes at a cost. “They are very, very dear. A bus costs more than $6m, making its appeal very limited.”

So just how much of a threat is there to big oil?

We can see a clear push towards EVs, as well as developments in their technology and uptake, but it seems unlikely that this will have an impact on big oil any time soon. As IEA chief economist Laszlo Varro says, “electric cars are roughly 10 years behind wind and solar in terms of deployment and technology development.” It took decades for these renewable energies to affect oil sales, so perhaps we should expect the same for electric vehicles.

Dr Salameh believes that even when EVs become a real contender, oil will prevail. “There will never be a post oil era for us in the 21st century and far beyond. Instead what will change are some aspects of the multi-usage of oil in transport, electricity generation and water desalination, which will eventually be mostly powered by solar energy.”

It seems clear that EVs will impact oil, but 50 million vehicles appears a low estimate for any significant threat. Should the challenges that continue to hound EVs be overcome, the uptake would surely increase above its already impressive growth. But if the fossil fuel-driven automobile industry also continues to grow, as we have seen in the last few years, the overwhelming dominance of traditional fuels will continue to eclipse even impressive EV growth for years to come. As Dr Salameh suggests, for EVs to influence oil it will take time and developing countries will hold the key.