Electric vehicle sales may be driven mostly by policy and preference right now, but they’ll soon be powered by dominant economics—including a profitable symbiosis between electrical drive and autonomous control, according to a former researcher for General Motors.

“What is going to happen here, I believe, is it’s just going to become easier to build an electric car,” said Lawrence Burns, until recently the director of the Program for Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University and a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan. He served as General Motors’ corporate vice president of research & development and planning from 1998 to 2009. He know advises firms, including Google and Allstate, on mobility transformation.

“Beyond 2025, battery and fuel-cell vehicles could simply become the best way to design and engineer a light-duty vehicle,” Burns said tonight at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “Set aside all the motivations with climate change, oil dependence—it’s just a better way to do a car. It’s simple.”

Electric vehicle sales have been tepid and may remain tepid in the short term. Internal combustion engines will continue to dominate until 2025, Burns predicted, as the nation’s automotive fleet slowly turns over. “It’s just arithmetic.”

But as automakers strive to meet the 2025 fuel economy standard—54.5 miles per gallon—they will come to realize that reengineering traditional vehicles is more expensive and difficult than adopting an electric drive train that emits no carbon. They’ll be building electric cars anyway, because California and seven other states have adopted standards requiring 15 percent of new vehicles sold to be zero-emission vehicles.

“What Karl Benz invented was really quite profound,” Burns said. ”It was a mechanically driven car with a combustion engine, oil-based fuel, mechanical and hydraulic controls, stand-alone, human operated and general purpose.

“The good news is, we’ve entered into a period now where there’s a new DNA: electrical drive with electric motors, diverse energy sources, electronic and digital controls, connected, human coordinated, shared, driverless and tailored.”