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Addicts or Crackpots: Thoughts about Electric Cars

It was Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) who said that “we are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.” One of the responses in seeking to address this addiction is to resurrect an earlier idea and implementation of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford who by the turn of the 20th century had developed an electric car. Unfortunately, the words of Rabbi Riskin (b. 1940) were prescient: “When you’re one step ahead of the crowd you’re a genius. When you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot.” I recommend that you consider reading the history of the development and manufacture of these first electric vehicles and their demise.

Nonetheless, in the present, fossil fueled cars account for half the oil consumed in the U.S., about half the urban pollution, and one fourth of the greenhouse gases. Our choices for change are rather circumscribed by reality: reduce vehicle use, increase the efficiency and reduce the emissions of conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, switch to less noxious fuels, or find less polluting propulsion systems. The last of these—primarily through the introduction of vehicles powered by electricity–is ultimately the only sustainable option. Of course, as with most of life, there are pros and cons to this alternative too.

On the pro side, (1) electric cars are very quiet and very smooth. It makes most regular cars seem clunky and outdated. What surprises people more is the high torque (axle-twisting power) offered by electric cars. Step on the accelerator and power is delivered immediately to the wheels, providing an exhilarating driving experience. You can also (2) recharge them at home. Just pull into your garage or driveway, reach over for a plug, and push it into the charging inlet. It’s very convenient and takes all of about 15 seconds. Wake up the next morning, and you have a car ready to go another 80 to 100 miles—or longer, depending on the model. That’s plenty for everybody except long-distance commuters. In terms of operational expense, (3) given the considerable efficiency of electric cars compared to internal combustion models, the cost per mile to fuel an electric car is approximately one-third to one-quarter the cost of gasoline (on a cost per mile basis). And because electric cars don’t have exhaust systems and don’t need oil changes, maintenance costs are reduced. To maintain an electric car, just rotate your tires and keep them properly inflated. Finally, (4) there is the matter of polluting emissions. Almost all credible researchers believe that electric cars, even in coal-dependent regions, have a smaller environmental impact than conventional vehicles. In regions with a strong grid mix of renewables—such as hydro, wind and solar—or for electric car drivers with home solar, the emissions benefits are dramatic. Even though some analysts will argue the opposite, it’s incontrovertible that electric cars don’t have a tailpipe, and therefore provide a real benefit to improving air quality for you, your family, and your community.

On the con side, (1) electric cars currently have limited ranges. Most affordable electric cars only have about 80 to 100 miles of range, and take hours to fully refuel. Electric car advocates will argue that 100 miles is plenty for most driving. As a result, nearly all electric car drivers rarely if ever experience what has been come to be called “range anxiety.” It’s also true that the range and cost of electric car batteries is incrementally improving every year. Still, unless you drive an electric car with a back-up range-extending engine, you need to properly plan: to assure that routes beyond predictable local driving are within range (or allow for a time to recharge). In terms of recharging, there are also issues related to how long it takes to refuel an electric car. Electric cars commonly can add about 20 to 25 miles of range in an hour of charging from a 240-volt source of electricity. So, while you can’t run down to the gas station and add a couple hundred miles of range in five to ten minutes, and while many road trips are not advisable, drivers putting typical amounts of miles on their cars will not be impinged by recharging times measured in hours—as long as they remember to plug in before going to sleep. In Hudson, WI, we are working on getting public DC Quick Chargers, capable of adding about 50 miles of range in around 20 to 25 minutes. Another factor (2) is the higher cost of electric cars. Most current electric cars are priced between $30,000 and $40,000. That makes them considerably more expensive than comparably equipped small to midsized gas-powered vehicles. However, cost comparisons usually fail to consider a number of factors, including: incentives often valued at $10,000; competitive lease rates as low as $199 a month; lower maintenance costs; and a luxury feel and amenities that far exceed what’s found in those cheaper gas models. Finally, (3) the 20 or so plug-in electric vehicles on the market consist mostly of compact and sub-compact pure electric cars, and midsize plug-in hybrid sedans. (There are two stand-out exceptions, both relatively expensive: the full-size Tesla Model S sedan that commonly costs around $100,000; and the limited-run Toyota RAV4 EV small SUV, with a $50,000 price tag.) Choices will expand over time, but in an auto market with dozens of brands and hundreds of models, the choice for buyers wanting an electric car is currently limited.

It remains our future and our planet and, more importantly, the home of future generations. In the future, give electric cars a thought as an alternative resource for helping to heal our increasingly sick planet.