Economics will ultimately favor electric cars, GM vet says

Electric cars currently represent a very small portion of new-car sales, their numbers bolstered by government incentives and the enthusiastic campaigning of early adopters. But the economics of the car industry could eventually shift to favor electric power, argues a former General Motors researcher.

Soon, it will simply become easier to build electric cars, Lawrence Burns, who was GM’s corporate vice president of research and development from 1998 to 2009, told Forbes in a recent interview. Burns also headed the Program for Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University, and is now a consultant who advises companies like Google and Allstate on mobility.

“Set aside all the motivations with climate change, oil dependence–it’s just a better way to do a car. It’s simple,” Burns said of electric powertrains at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He believes automakers will eventually shift to electric cars en masse, because they’ll find that building new zero-emission vehicles from scratch will be easier than reengineering existing internal-combustion cars to meet ever-stricter efficiency standards.

The use of electric powertrains will also coalesce with other technological developments, like autonomous driving, to make the current way cars are designed obsolete, Burns argued. He’s not alone: many analysts believe the combination of electric power and autonomous driving is about to fundamentally change cars, although we’re not quite there yet.

This technological trend won’t just lead to a proliferation of electric cars, but also a fundamental shift in the way cars are designed, Burns said. Future autonomous electric cars will be much smaller, with lower performance, almost like the self-driving cars currently being tested by Google. Burns argued that cars the spend most of their time creeping around in city traffic with one occupant don’t need to be able to go 100 mph, or carry six people.

“The car can be something we wear rather than something we drive, something we park in our closets rather than our garages” he said.