The failure of the electric car

In our Inconvenient Truth world, popular desire is starting to change the way some companies think. We’re seeing large companies produce “green” products, such as biodegradable detergents, packaging from recycled plastic, and tables made from recovered wood. We’re asking our service providers to show us how they’re working to reduce their output, through paperless billing and electronic messaging.

A few years ago, the “hybrid” car was introduced, a shining new example of how to make vehicles more efficient, and spawned a new movement of environmentally-aware manufacturing. Today, Nissan stands ready to finally release the first mass-market all-electric vehicle, amping up the competition to become the centre of the environmentally-friendly transportation universe. I, for one, welcome the arrival of the electric car, long overdue from formal acceptance in North America. At the same time, however, I also curse its arrival because it doesn’t actually address a primary problem.

The electric car strives to perpetuate a bad idea: that we all need a car.

World War II changed the world in so many ways that it’s hard to keep track of them all. It ushered in our nuclear age, brought computers out of the closet and into our common perception, and brought about a new sense of prosperity and demand that the world had not previously witnessed — especially in North America.

The message was clear: prosperity through purchase. North Americans were told through the power of the media that they had to live the “American Dream”: own a large home in the suburbs, the newest appliances, fancy clothes, a television, and no home was complete without at least one car.

It was the car that became the shining star of the American household, and a symbol of freedom. No longer were you tied to others’ schedules — you were free to go where you wanted, when you wanted. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 gave birth to the Interstate Highway System, and forever sealed the dream in the minds of Americans, and the neighbours to the north (because, let’s be honest, as much as we Canadians want to be different than America, we want to play with the same toys).

Long-distance travel changed. It was now about driving long distances in cars. It was driving into the city. It was driving to the local store. Drive-through restaurants, drive-in movies. Driving.

The automobile as we know it — an individualistic vessel of identity — encourages people to live away from their daily lives. Instead of living in tall buildings, we live in spacious suburbs. We thrive for neighbourhoods with only houses, and drive to expansive commercial malls. We want industry away from our little edens, and don’t want to our daily grind anywhere near our castles. When we have to go to other places, we want to do so on our terms.

All of this has come at an expense: fossil fuel consumption never seems to stem, nor does our energy use to allow us to live apart and at a distance. Our land use spirals,  allowing some of our cities to resemble single-celled protozoa that expand to consume what’s near them. Calgary, in particular, has been listed as an “ecological disaster” on those very terms. I would be very curious to see a comparison with Manhattan, which I think it is likely the most efficient places in the world: over 27,000 people per square kilometre (most of them don’t own a car), hundreds of thousands commuting by public transit, and elevators use less energy than a refrigerator.

In our strive to achieve, we have forgotten the need to preserve.

Slowly, thanks to decades-long efforts and a few more mainstream mentions, the world is becoming attuned to alternative energy, with a notable focus on electric. It’s been a slow adoption, but the ever-present call to heed environmental changes and the need to act more responsibly has brought about mass demand for something beyond burning fossil fuels.

To be fair, there are three types of electric vehicles floating about. We have seen the parallel hybrids (Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, to name a few), the very long overdue series hybrids (notably the Chevrolet Volt), and the  pure electric (the failed EV1, and the up-and-coming Nissan Leaf). We have latched onto these vehicles as the saving graces for our obsession with the automobile. All of these have problems:

  • Parallel hybrids are an awkward mish-mash of traditional gasoline power and electric power, where the gasoline half is still largely in control, and even the slightest press of the accelerator can throw off your mileage
  • Series hybrids wisely disconnect the gasoline engine from the wheels and use it only to charge the battery when it starts to get low; diesel would be a far better choice for fossil power, though it is highly unpopular in North American-made passenger vehicles due to memories of the 1970s
  • Pure electric vehicles try to come off as the greenest options, but conveniently side-step the question of power source — unless you obtain your electricity from solar or wind, you’re getting it from falling water or nuclear (slightly less green), or from burning fossil fuels (electric is cheaper, no question, but you’re still burning)

And none of them address the original fundamental problem: they all perpetuate the bad dream. All of them remind us that if we don’t own a car and a big house, live in a nice suburb, and drive wherever we like, that — somehow — we’re not successful.

Meanwhile, public transit withers. Yes, for all my bitching about my local public transit, I still find it a far preferable alternative to a car — at least when the public transit offering is well-handled. However, therein lies the problem — all over North America (which, really, is the biggest problem in the world), public transit organisations have to reduce service and inflate prices to keep themselves afloat. Long-distance train travel has gone from our primary form of inter-city travel to mere tourism. The long-distance bus services are now regarded as “last ditch” options when you can afford nothing else.

You think public transit is awful? It’s an inconvenience? Talk to the millions of people who float in and out of major cities on a daily basis through buses and trains. Talk to your average Londoner, who is fined if they try to drive their car into the core of the city. Talk to anyone living in Japan about the difficulty not only of owning a car, but trying to drive it. Public transit remains the best option for moving large numbers of people. And yes, it is rather easy to adapt to a known schedule and not have it wreck your life.

While one dream lives on, another one dies. The dream of a utopia where people live quietly and closely, where automobiles are rarely seen and heard. That dream started dying a long time ago, and save for a few dedicated efforts to preserve the utopia, there are few places in the world the car has not touched. The utopia will one day be merely a thought, a vague entry in our collective memory, passing into the distance like a car into the fog.

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