The electric car has been a fixation of many within the modern environmental movement. Magazines, blogs, and the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica, which will have just passed by the time you are reading this, often drool over the latest electric and hybrid wonders.
I think there are some worthwhile advantages to using electric motors over combustion engines, and as long as cars are around I think we ought to be transitioning how they are powered. However I strongly believe the merits and advantages of converting to electric cars are overstated in light of the problems with trying to perpetuate car centric, and car dependent living, that go far beyond just emissions and fuel source, as well as the financial and resource limits we face.
I know I will take some heat for expressing these views in a town that has put as much weight behind electric and alternative vehicles as Santa Monica, but I felt that someone had to talk about the problems facing a conversion to such cars, and from an environmentalist perspective.
Let’s say hypothetically that tomorrow everyone in the Los Angeles region with a gasoline powered car suddenly had a fully electric car, the batteries doubled in charge life, and a renewable energy grid drops out of the sky leaving free solar panels on every home to power the cars. We would still have the same congestion, quality of life, and public safety problems we have because of car dependent society today. The 405 would be no less a headache. The death toll on our roads would be no less catastrophic.
A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded hybrid and electric cars pose a greater risk to pedestrians and cyclists because of their quiet engines. The first documented case of an American pedestrian being killed by an automobile driver, on Sept. 13, 1899, was hit by an electric car.
We would still have to maintain all the roads and over-sized highways being pounded by heavy traffic, at tremendous and increasingly unsustainable public cost to finance. New taxes would have to be created just to keep the whole roadway system from falling apart all together because the gas tax funds, which are already in decline, and pay for about half of highway spending, would suddenly evaporate.
Maintaining such a car fleet, with so many batteries utilizing rare earth metals, which are also finite and from a select few geographic locations, would still leave behind formidable environmental, economic, and international political dilemmas as all the batteries had to be replaced eventually.
I worry the enthusiasm for drumming up electric cars sets up an unrealistic expectation that we can keep our automobile centric lifestyle going unchanged, just powered by other means. Cars are an inherently inefficient and tremendously expensive (for private and public spending) means of transportation in urban centers, regardless of what powers them.
Given the direction of global oil production, political instability, and the economy, I do not believe it is even possible, let alone a desirable outcome, to convert the majority of the U.S. vehicle fleet to electric and hybrid cars in the time necessary for a smooth transition off oil.
With hybrid & EV’s sales representing only a tiny fraction of new sales, figures that have been stagnant for the past year, it could take essentially forever to have an all hybrid and electric American car fleet. To replace all 250+ million vehicles in the U.S. with hybrid and electric cars at the current sales rate of about 25,000 of such vehicles annually, according to my back of the napkin math, it would take about 10,000 years!
Those expecting an era of fossil fuel independence to arrive by car better start hoping those hybrid and EV car sales pick up fast, really fast, or they will be sorely disappointed.
Now I am not entirely down on alternative cars, but I see their adoption on a smaller scale than I think many advocates for these vehicles are hoping. Where I see the application of hybrid and electric cars having the greatest value, is getting them into car rental fleets, , taxi cab services and government shared use fleets. Such systems can serve many people with far fewer cars than individual ownership, and therefore it is much more feasible to scale up alternative vehicles for those applications.
As for other alt-car ideas, like bio fuels, and hydrogen fuel cells, they all have problems in trying to scale to meet American driving habits. Ethanol being blended into gasoline is already driving up global food price indexes, contributing to riots in poorer nations that depend on food imports. Hydrogen is energy intensive to produce and does not represent a net gain, it is merely an alternative medium for containing energy spent elsewhere. Energy that today mostly comes burning CO2 intensive coal, the same dilemma electric vehicles face.
If America wanted to preserve for my generation, and those that follow, a living pattern based around private motoring that was not dependent on diminishing finite resources, we have done too little, too late. That should have started in earnest during the 70’s when we got our first wake up call during the oil embargo.
The increasingly volatile oil market spiked to all time highs in 2008 just before the market crash. While this year’s did not reach quite as high, the new floor on prices has moved up considerbly. The United States is on track this year to spend more money on gasoline, $491 billion, than ever before.
If we are to successfully transition toward a post-petroleum dependent society, we have to focus on solutions that can be scaled up quickly enough to make a meaningful difference before prices skyrocket again or supply becomes disrupted. Risks I consider more likely to happen sooner than later after spending a lot of time following world energy news in the past year.
That means we need more investments in walkable bikeable neighborhoods, public transit, and intercity rail. Things like building expensive and parking garages at tens of millions of dollars, designed primarily to attract oil consuming cars, and calling them LEED certifiably green because we stuck in a few electrical outlets for plug in EV's, is not what I consider a valuable investment for a future of diminishing oil supply.
Los Angeles was a global leader of electric rail service in the 1920’s (check out the map of the L.A. rail network in 1925), and we could do it again rather quickly if we dropped the futile diminishing returns of more billion dollar freeway expansions and parking lot building, and got on with the real work that needs to be done. Electric rail is the most energy efficient means on land to move people and freight quickly, with far greater prospects for renewable energy supplies than automobiles and trucks.
We don’t need to sell a fleet of alt-cars to Americans maxed on debt, putting them deeper under water (sub-prime car loans are the new sub-prime mortgages). We need cost effective walkable neighborhoods, a backbone of efficient rail lines, timely bus service, and safe bike routes. Then driving becomes optional, rather than something people in Los Angeles County often feel compelled to do currently.
It worries me that selling expensive consumer goods like new cars, by wrapping them in a “green” banner, that we are losing the populism and accessibility of environmentalism. Going green becomes warped into an elite activity, with the flashiest new green technology becoming status symbols.
Really a much more sustainable option than buying a new electric car, from a life-cycle perspective, is often keeping an existing car, having proper tire pressure for it, learning to get by driving it less often, and car pooling when possible.
Sustainable transportation doesn’t have to involve rocket science, lithium ion, and costly monthly payments. It can be as simple as a good pair of walking shoes, a bike, and a transit pass. If we want those options to be more pleasant, safe, and timely, it's not going to happen unless we decide to shift our priorities.
I believe we will eventually view alternatives to driving as necessities in America, whether by choice or forced by unfortunate circumstance. Hopefully we plan appropriately, the time for kicking cans down the road is long gone.