Electric cars are terrible. They just are. They're a solution for a problem we don't have. Or rather, they're a solution for a problem we aren't about to change: our sprawling, big-ass cities filled with things we can't afford to buy yet must haul around. (Like kids.)
Modern electric cars make about as much sense as rooftop airports. They're fairy tickets to a more-or-less inevitable future that hasn't actually arrived. For most of the American market, the only advantage electric cars offer over gasoline-powered vehicles is the permission to daydream about a time when their decision to drive in the first place doesn't hurt the environment.
Even auto executives agree with me (as much as it pains me to say so): two-thirds of a couple hundred auto executives think electrics and hybrids combined won't make a dent in the market until 2025.
My sister just bought a few acres of scrub farmland outside of Kansas City, Missouri, on which she built a yurt. Her husband commutes 40 miles each way to work downtown. They spend a lot of money on gas, but far less than it would take to make the payments on a new electric car. That's pretty normal around those parts, as it is in all but the few densely packed coastal cities.
I was staying the week with a pal of mine in his new house in De Soto, Kansas, another theoretical suburb of Kansas City. To ride my motorcycle from my sister's place—where we'd just taken the kids through a nearby corn maze to show my niece and nephews what it looks like when five-hundred horny teenagers paw each other in a field—back to De Soto took over an hour. And that was normal. That's just what people in the midwest do. They drive and drive and drive.
When you think of the 1920s, you don't think of sleek diesel-electric locomotives. You think of coughing steam and whistles and buckets of coal peppered with miner's fingers at levels well below the federal limit.
But back in the '20s swish gentlemen with top hats and homburgs were clambering around on iron engines powered by General Electric diesel-electric engines, toasting their ingenuity with illegal tipples and proclaiming themselves heralds of the future of transportation.
They were wrong—or right—by about thirty years.
United States coal consumption for transportation—largely in rail transport (since those coal-fired steam cars wouldn't really take off until nerds started building them ironically in the '90s)—didn't really see a fall-off until the 1950s. Yet by 1960, coal was but a rounding error in American transport, down from 1,727 trillion BTU in 1949 to just 88 trillion BTU in 1959.
The vision of diesel-electric rail power was extant for half a century, but the infrastructure and technology took a long time to make economic, practical sense.
The Nissan Leaf, one of the best—or at least more car-like—electric vehicles on the market, has a full-charge range of 73 miles. I couldn't have made it back for dinner that night if I were in a Leaf.
Long commutes are not what an electric car is for, I'm told. But why not? The United States developed our cities around the ideas of cheap gasoline and cheap asphalt. (Still the most cost-effective road-creation system around.) If EVs like the Leaf aren't able to be used as sole transportation for a person, then we're selling $35,000 machines to people because as totems of a possible future, while telling them the hassle in the present is a mitzvah; drive an impractical, expensive car today and you're setting up a better tomorrow.
Except today, right now, electric cars are bad vehicles by dint of range alone. (I'll leave the cars-and-passion argument by the wayside for now; not every vehicle has to inspire a love of driving and sport, I suppose, although I will accept "Why not?" as a perfectly reasonable counterargument that. Another day.)
Hybrids are worse. Have you seen the fuel economy of the modern gasoline-powered small car? Ford Fiesta (A fairly fun car, by the way): 29 MPG city, 39 MPG highway. The more-or-less equally sporty (but far less roomy) Honda CR-Z? 35 MPG city, 39 MPG highway. Come on. We're still talking about vehicles in which 100% of the power derived from fossil fuels, with only a modest increase of fuel economy.
The notorious Toyota Prius gets you up to 50MPG—but then you're driving a Prius. A Prius that still gets all of its power from fossil fuels.
(I won't even try to advocate for diesel-powered small cars like those wacky Europeans love. We have a diesel infrastructure here in the United States, but it's far from ubiquitous after you leave the slabs of long-haul highways.)
You can abstract almost every discussion of energy down to raw power. And you should. There is a finite amount of condensed sunlight on this planet and a finite amount of raw materials. In 2010 the United States still made 83% of our energy from fossil fuels—much of which we burnt to generate the electricity that was sloppily sent down a creaking, inefficient power grid to fill up the batteries of our electric cars. Batteries which we made by expending more energy to pull lithium, copper, and aluminum out of the ground.
It's not that I think electric cars are doomed forever. It's inevitable that in another couple of decades, their range will increase as battery capacity improves. Maybe by then battery capacity will approach the astoundingly high energy density of gasoline. There's simply too much money being poured into battery research to stop innovation. (Even if it will just as likely come from companies focusing on making a better iPad battery: car battery companies are approaching market saturation in the current economy.) Plus, if China's any example, solar should be as cheap as coal in another five or ten years. At that point, the hazy sky's the limit.
But today, right now, in the middle of a terrible recession and a miasmatic material hangover from decades of unchecked consumption, I can't look someone in the eye who's about to buy their first car and say, "Look, buy this electric vehicle. It's not very fun. It's not what you want. You can't really haul anything. It's very likely not any better for the environment. But it is very, very quiet. Especially for the hours and hours it takes to charge."
Fortunately, it looks like Americans are smart enough I won't have to: According to a report released today, Americans bought a grand total of just 20,000 electric vehicles in 2011. (About a third of those sold were the Chevy Volt, too, which is only fully electric for the first 40 miles.)
Non-electric vehicles? Almost 14 million.
Update: Boing Boing's Maggie Koerth-Baker, my brilliant sister from another mister (wait...), takes on my position point by point in a "realistic sort-of rebuttal":
3) Screw you, electric cars are fun to drive.
Look, I know this is purely subjective. But "not fun," Johnson? Seriously? Have you gotten a chance to floor the accelerator on a Nissan Leaf on a stretch of empty one-way street? Because I have. And it's hella fun. Electric motors don't shift gears the way internal combustion engines do. Which means, when you accelerate, you just keep accelerating, without the slow-down that accompanies each shift up. Which means you're slammed back in your seat like you're riding a motherf***ing rocket ship to the moon. Only it's silent. How is that not awesome? If I buy an electric car, I am going to get sooooo many speeding tickets**. I think that's pretty much the all-American definition of a fun car.
P.S. Go Tigers!