The Future of Electric Cars

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Photo from USDA, under CC license

The big buzz right now for electric car enthusiasts is Tesla’s unveiling of its new “Model 3”, its first affordably priced EV. People have waited in line for days to pre-order, even though it won’t be available until late 2017.  Later this year Chevy plans to start sales for its new EV, the “Bolt”. Both cars are in the neighborhood of $35,000 and there are government tax incentives to sweeten the deal. I’ve seen the enthusiastic posts and articles from some of the “green” groups, this is not one of those.  I have nothing against electric cars, I think they are a great advancement, and auto makers like Tesla have revolutionized the market.  I also believe that electric cars are the only cars that we should be selling at all.  The problem is that cars continue to be marketed as something that everyone needs and should have.  Of course the car companies approach it this way, it’s capitalism, the more they sell the bigger the profits. But when I see those that identify as environmentalist joining the cheering squad, it makes me wonder what message that gives people.  Is the answer to the problems created by our car culture just replacing millions of gas powered vehicles with electric?  Should the government be rewarding the purchase of cars with tax incentives?

Here in the US cars are a big part of who we are.  I still fondly reminisce about my first car as though it was my first love.  As the parent of a teenager I’m reminded that learning to drive and car ownership are probably one of our culture’s biggest rights of passage.  Our world has evolved into one that makes it difficult to live without a car.  So replacing all of our existing cars with electric ones may be a simple solution, but not necessarily the best one.  Building new cars uses a lot of energy and resources, which is something we need to manage very wisely at this point. Car manufacturers that are marketing to the environmentally concerned are busy selling you on lower emissions, and long term energy savings, but it’s a lot like being seduced by a really great sale price.  Sure you’ll save money, but not as much as you would save if you didn’t buy it at all.  And even if resources weren’t an issue, there is still the problem of traffic.  We just need to get past the idea that everyone needs their own car, and work on creating a culture where more can live without one.  Then we can save the electric cars for the cases where a car is the only option, more of a last resort.

A lot of this comes down to people trying to hold on to a culture that they are used to.  But if we are to survive, we need to adapt.  We have built a strong tradition of consumerism where our answer to everything comes down to buying something.  But we can’t shop our way out of the problems we created, in fact consumerism is a large part of how we ended up where we are.  We need to weigh our purchases and resource usage carefully, we cannot maintain our current level of consumption and energy use.  Manufacture of cars, solar panels and more efficient appliances may be necessary to some degree, but we need to be cutting way back at the same time to minimize the amount of new technology that needs to be produced.  We can’t have everything that many here in the US have come to believe we must have, not if we want a more equitable world while dealing with climate change.  And in the process we may discover that many of the things we have been told that we can’t live without, we may actually be better off not having.