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.