Electric Cars: Dumb Stuff That's Supposed to be Green

Randy Salzman's critique of America's obsession with technology instead of re-evaluating our consumptive way of life, and that includes electric cars.

Published: 23-Jan-2012

With the recent Detroit Automotive Show focusing on electrics and the Sierra Club having an electric car columnist, America continues to believe technology will save us. Let's see how that's working.

In 2011, only 17,345 Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs, 38 percent below projections, left U.S. showrooms while the percentage of hybrid vehicles dropped from 2.4 to 2.2 percent of auto sales. These are echoes of natural gas vehicle results and should be reminding us that the ethanol program is a debacle and the history of the CAFE, Corporate Average Fuel Economy, standards is the epitome of counter-productivity.

Australians call our American obsession with something new a “technological trap,” and I argue that it’s a key component of our national state of denial. There is no way we’re going to get out of our oil vulnerability, health, foreign policy, pollution, and greenhouse emission quandaries without addressing our individual consumption of energy, especially gasoline and diesel. We must change our lifestyles. No new product, even one with $7,500 federal subsidies like electric cars, will do the trick.

While the evidence is clear that there must be individual behavioral change, as the author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, notes, we keep producing technological “solutions,” like electric cars or florescent light bulbs, instead of dealing with our daily per capita issues. Changing every light in the house (while throwing working incandescent bulbs into landfills) will affect only five percent of the typical household’s energy consumption, yet that’s our primary national household program?

Since the first oil embargo in 1973– which spawned CAFE– Americans have obliterated CAFE’s meager effect by increasing our driving four times population growth. In spite of 40 years of CAFE history illustrating convincingly that the “rebound effect” wipes out energy gains from increased fuel efficiency, our federal government demands higher fuel standards while, at the same time building more highways and penalizing mass transportation by neglecting to support transit operating budgets?

Pouring alcohol into gasoline, meanwhile, is today decreasing vehicle mileage, further diluting CAFE, while producing the need to truck alcohol from corn fields in the Midwest to mix in oil refineries on the coasts. It takes four gallons of fuel to produce five gallons of ethanol while sparking food riots around the world and turning the Great Plains into a mono-culture; about the worst thing you can do for any environment.

How about electric cars? If they were the solution, eCars would be rolling out of showrooms, and buyers wouldn’t need to be bribed with $7,500 from a nation that's $15 trillion in debt. Even if, somehow, every car sold today was an electric, it would still take 15 years to turn over the American car fleet.

Electric cars have two huge negatives which the Sierra Club, the Obama Administration, and Detroit refuse to admit. One is “range anxiety,” as potential buyers worry about running out of juice in the heavy traffic that, for example, a snowstorm produces. Two, electrics are just too expensive to be second family cars as they are presently marketed.

With gasoline still costing against income what it did in the 1920s and facing long interstate highway trips, few choose to have an under-powered vehicle which can’t be refueled in any reasonable time frame. In my household, this becomes apparent every time we leave town. Even though my 2001 Prius has more power than either the Leaf or Volt and can be fueled at any station, my wife argues for her “get up and go” Volvo though it gets half the gas mileage and has little trunk space.

If an electric second vehicle is a plus for commuting and short trips, as marketed, an electric bicycle is simply more reasonable. An eBike can be bought for five percent or less the eCar price and can always be pedaled home. But no one is subsidizing eBikes although 40 percent of American trips are under two miles and over 80 percent of car drives are in single occupancy vehicles.

Furthermore, when Tata imports its super-cheap 4-seat Nano to America– as it plans next year– it will take 337,000 miles (beyond the lifetime of most cars) at $4 a gallon to make a Nissan Leaf a more rational economic purchase.

All the boosting by the Sierra Club, the Obama Administration and Detroit, in short, does not change reality. Gasoline won in the original, unsubsidized, battle for powering automobiles for good reasons, and it will continue to win for the same reasons boosted by one huge modern concept. Infrastructure for powering gasoline and diesel engines exists along every significant roadway in the nation and infrastructure for any alternative must be built.

America should join the rest of the world today and bring our brains to energy discussions. Unfortunately, while everyone doing the research concludes that it’ll take individual behavioral change, no American politician dares challenge drivers who are also voters. Consequently, we continue to promote driving with roads like Charlottesville’s Western Bypass instead of discouraging it as other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries are doing with higher gasoline taxes, congestion pricing, traffic calming, and limited parking.

Those nations, therefore, have funds to build better mass transit and bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure while today– even in the wake of 9/11, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, regular Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, and four wars in oil fields– we’re spending 8 in 10 American transportation dollars on highways.

And hoping that technology will save us.

A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is the Charlottesville transportation researcher who, one spring (right before BP's blunder), penned the prescient essay predicting a massive underwater oil platform leak.

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