It hasn’t been a great month for America’s electric car fantasy. Elon Musk’s Tesla company — the symbolic beating heart of the fantasy — is whirling around the drain with its share price plummeting 22 percent, its bonds downgraded by Moody’s to junk status, a failure to produce its “affordable” ($36,000 — Ha!) Model 3 at commercial scale, a massive recall of earlier S Model sedans for a steering defect, and the spectacular fiery crash in Silicon Valley last week of an X model that may have been operating in automatic mode (the authorities can’t determine that based on what’s left), and which killed the driver.
Oh, and an experimental self-driving Uber car (Volvo brand) ran over and killed a lady crossing the street with her bicycle in Tempe, Arizona, two weeks ago. Don’t blame Elon for that.
There’s a lot to like about electric cars, of course, if, say, you’re a Google executive floating through life in a techno-narcissism bubble, or a Hollywood actor with wooly grandiose notions of saving the planet while simultaneously signaling your wealth and your “green” virtue cred. Teslas supposedly handle beautifully, ride very quietly, have great low-end power, and decent range of over 200 miles. The engine has something like twenty moving parts, is very long-lasting, and is easy to repair or change out if necessary.
Are they actually “green and clean?” Bwaahaaaaa….! Are you kidding? First, there’s the energy embedded in producing the car: mining and smelting the ores, manufacturing the plastics, running the assembly line, etc. That embedded energy amounts to about 22 percent of the energy consumed by the car over a ten-year lifetime. Then there’s the cost of actually powering the car day-by-day. The electricity around the USA is produced mostly by burning coal, natural gas, or by nuclear fission, all of which produce harmful emissions or byproducts. But the illusion that the power just comes out of a plug in the wall (for just pennies a day!) is a powerful one for the credulous public. The cherry-on-top is the fantasy that before much longer all that electric power will come from “renewables,” solar and wind, and we can leave the whole fossil fuel mess behind us. We say that to ourselves as a sort of prayer, and it has exactly that value.
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There are at least a couple of other holes in story, big-picture wise. One is that electric mass motoring — switching out the whole liquid fuel fleet for an all-electric fleet — won’t pencil out economically. We probably started the project forty years too late to even be able to test it at scale, because economic events are now moving so quickly in the direction of global austerity that the putative middle-class customer base for electric cars will barely exist in the near future. Americans especially nowadays are so financially stressed that they can’t qualify for car loans — and that is mainly how cars are bought in this land. The industry has strained mightily to bend the rules so that these days it’s even possible to get a seven-year loan for a used car whose collateral value will dissipate long before the loan is paid back. Hard to see how they can take that much further.
The usual answer for that is that you won’t need to own a car because the nation will be served by self-driving electric Uber-style cars-on-demand, which will supposedly require far fewer cars in all. That really doesn’t answer some big questions, such as: how might commuting work in our big metroplex cities? Even if you posit multiple occupancy vehicles, it still represents a whole lot of car trips. Oh, you say, everybody will just work from home. Really? I don’t think so — though I wouldn’t rule out an end to corporate organization of work as we’ve known it, and if that happens, we will be a nation of farmers and artisans again, that is, a World Made By Hand. Also consider, if the car companies only need to make and sell a fraction of the vehicles they sell now, the whole industry will collapse.
Another hole in the story is the universal assumption that the USA must remain a land of mandatory car dependency, hostage to the fiasco of our suburban infrastructure. I understand why we’re attached to it. We spent most of the 20th century building all that shit, and squandered most our wealth on it. It’s comfortably familiar, even if it’s actually a miserable environment for everyday life. But none of those monetary and psychological investments negate the fact that suburbia has outlived its limited and rather perverse usefulness.
We’re so far from having any intelligent public debate about these issues that the events now spooling out will completely blindside the nation.
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