By Tom Bergin
LONDON (Reuters) - The biggest oil companies in the world have calculated that few, if any, of today's drivers will see electric cars outnumber gasoline and diesel models in their lifetimes.
While politicians and green lobby groups insist the future of transport is electric, in the past two months BP and Exxon have released data which points to electric cars making up only 4-5 percent of all cars globally in 20-30 years.
Meanwhile some governments are targeting as much as a 60 percent market share for electric vehicles over a similar period.
The oil company forecasts may appear self-serving, but if they are widely accepted could provoke a policy shift that offers greater incentives for electric cars to end our addiction to oil.
And unlike more optimistic predictions from consultants like McKinsey, these forecast are backed by cash. They guide tens of billions of dollars in long-term investment in oil production and refining and it is oil that stands to lose if they get it wrong.
They don't, of course, take into account a major breakthrough in battery technology that could give electric cars a cost and performance edge over the internal combustion engine.
In its Energy Outlook for 2030, released earlier this month, BP predicted that electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, will make up only 4 percent of the global fleet of 1.6 billion commercial and passenger vehicles in 2030.
"Oil will remain the dominant transport fuel and we expect 87 percent of transport fuel in 2030 will still be petroleum based," BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley said as he unveiled the BP statistics on January 18.
The balance is seen coming from biofuels, natural gas and electricity.
Plug-in hybrids can be powered from the mains and only rely on their small gasoline engines when the battery dies.
Standard hybrids are principally driven by an internal combustion engine whose efficiency is boosted by the recycling of energy generated from braking.
Exxon Mobil, the biggest oil and gas company in the world, says the continued high cost of electric vehicles compared to petroleum cars, means take-up won't even increase much during the 2030s.
In its 2040 Energy Outlook, released in December, the Texas-based company said electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and vehicles that run on natural gas would make up only 5 percent of the fleet by 2040.
Peter Voser, Chief Executive of Royal Dutch Shell, the industry number two, sees a rosier future for electric vehicles. He predicts they will account for up to 40 percent of the worldwide car fleet, although only by 2050.
A $50 BILLION-A-YEAR OPINION
The statistics published by Exxon and BP, Europe's second-largest oil company by market value, are perhaps the most detailed long-term forecasts on electric vehicle take-up.
These Energy Outlooks guide how the oil groups allocate their annual investment budgets - among the biggest in the world, at over $50 billion combined for BP and Exxon.
The expected continued dominance of petroleum partly explains the scaling back in BP and Shell's solar, hydrogen and wind power ambitions in recent years, and Exxon's continued reluctance to get involved in renewable energy.
Insofar as the companies are active in green energy, it is mainly in the production and blending of biofuels. This is driven by U.S. and European governments' insistence that a percentage of motor fuels sold must come from plant-based sources.
If the oil companies are wrong about electric cars they will find their investments in big and expensive new oil production projects, which increasingly need crude prices around $80 per barrel to be profitable, not paying off.
The companies do see an easing in the addiction to oil, though.
Despite increased car ownership in China and India, Exxon predicts "global demand for fuel for personal vehicles will soon peak" due to an increase in average fuel efficiency.
BP expects the efficiency of combustion engines to double by 2030, with a third of vehicles on the road being hybrids.
This trend will be driven by more stringent fuel economy standards in the U.S., CO2 reduction legislation in Europe and an end to oil subsidies in developing countries.
Increased airline and commercial vehicle traffic will counterbalance some of the efficiency gains from cars but BP predicts that, helped by increased use of biofuels, demand for oil for transport overall will plateau in the mid-2020s.
GREENS FUME, POLITICIANS SEE QUICKER ADOPTION
Green groups reacted with suspicion to the oil industry forecasts.
"Exxon would say that, wouldn't they. A big take-up of electric cars is not something they would like to see," said Jos Dings, director of Brussels-based sustainable transport campaign group, Transport and Environment.
"The future for petrol and diesel doesn't look good," he countered.
Nonetheless, environmentalists like Dings fear political complacency about improving vehicle efficiency could prompt governments to ease targets to cut vehicle emissions, which could in turn delay the electrification of transport.
Big Oil's pessimistic outlook for electric cars is at odds with many governments' plans.
Electric vehicles barely register on the statistics of car sales at the moment. Nonetheless, China is targeting 5 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2020, according to media reports. This would represent around 3 percent of its predicted fleet.
The Australian government's main energy adviser, the Australian Energy Market Commission, has predicted electric vehicles will make up 20 per cent of new car sales in Australia by 2020 and 45 per cent by 2030.
The UK's Committee on Climate, which advises the government, has predicted electric vehicles will reach around 60 percent of new cars and vans by 2030. And New Zealand hopes to get to 60 percent by 2040.
The U.S. has more muted ambitions. President Barack Obama said he wants to put 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015, a figure that would represent less than half of one percent of the total fleet.
Many U.S. experts and officials predict a tipping point in the uptake in electric vehicles in the latter part of this decade, as technology improves, economies of scale kick in and consumer fears about being stranded when their batteries run flat, or "range anxiety," eases.
However, data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration may explain the lack of an official U.S. target. Last week, the agency released an 'abridged version' of its Annual Energy Outlook 2012, due to be released in full in the Spring.
Tables used in formulating the outlook show electric vehicles and plug in hybrids are expected to account for only 1.3 percent of the U.S. fleet in 2030.
Furthermore, the agency predicts that neither consumers, nor carmakers, will get over 'range anxiety'. By 2035, the agency sees few, if any, electric vehicles on U.S. roads that can travel for 200 miles without recharging.
CARMAKER ENTHUSIASM COOLS
Many of the headlines out of autoshows in the past couple of years have been captured by the launch of electric cars such as Nissan's Leaf, the Tesla sports car, plug-ins like General Motors' Chevrolet Volt, and the latest incarnation of the Toyota Prius.
Other manufacturers including BMW, Rolls-Royce and Porsche have presented electric-powered prototypes.
On the basis of this, one could be forgiven for thinking the auto industry is betting big on electric power.
Yet few auto executives share the optimism of Renault and Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn who has repeatedly said he sees electric vehicles making up 10 percent of all sales in 2020.
A survey of 200 auto industry executives conducted by KPMG released earlier this month gave an average forecast for electric vehicles to account for 6-10 percent of global auto sales in 2025 - more bullish than Exxon and BP but hardly a revolution.
"Certainly a year ago or so, you could have gotten the impression from reading the press that everyone is driving electric cars in two years time," Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said at a roundtable at the sidelines of the Detroit auto show last month.
Zetsche said he did not see "an explosion of demand for this product."
Echoing comments from the oil companies, Gerd Kleinert, CEO of KSPG, the automotive parts business belonging to German group Rheinmetall, says take-up of electric cars will be curtailed until batteries can store energy using as little weight as gasoline does, and can be recharged as quickly as refilling a fuel tank.
"When that world exists, then we will all be driving electric cars starting tomorrow. But I personally don't see that happening, not even a hundred years from now."
(Additional reporting by Christiaan Hetzner in Frankfurt; Editing by Chris Wickham)