Electric Car Fever and Polar Bear Halos

Over the next few months, electric cars will start rolling out of showrooms and onto American roads. They’ve been a long time coming.

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Nissan's polar bear ad. It will take more than an electric car in driveway to save this species of charismatic megafauna.

For years, Chevy has been trumpeting its yet-to-be-released Volt. Journalists test drove a version of it over eighteen months ago; it’s been a perennial feature at auto shows; this summer President Obama sat for a photo op behind the wheel of a pre-production model. All of this advance marketing seems to have paid off — a Google search for “Chevrolet Volt” returns more than 800,000 hits. Compare that to about 450,000 hits for the Chevy Traverse, a popular vehicle that consumers have been able to buy, own, and drive for several years.

More than 75,000 people are Facebook fans of another phantom: Nissan’s all-electric Leaf, which they can’t test drive, much less own, yet. Drawing on environmentalist sentiment, the Leaf “Polar Bear” commercial has been viewed on YouTube more than 850,000 times. Business journalists argue about which automaker will “win” the electric car race. Pundits like Thomas Friedman fret over which country will.

So, how excited should we be when America’s first widely available electric vehicles finally arrive?

On the one hand, environmentalists, critics of resource wars, and citizens concerned about pollution’s health effects have long called for cars less dependent on oil. While electric cars for the time being must rely on the burning of mountains of coal, at least some of the energy used to power electric vehicles is both clean and domestically produced.

And it is a step forward when the automakers choose to cast the glow of cutting edge techno-genius on their brand with an alternative fuel vehicle, when in the past these companies’ “halo cars” have been high horsepower, high polluting sports cars or SUVs. The redirection of even a portion of the industry’s tens of billions of marketing dollars towards convincing Americans that modernity equals sustainability is something worth celebrating.

The pitfalls of succumbing to EV fever are, unfortunately, numerous.

First, estimates of the portion of the car market that electrics will account for by 2020 range from one percent to six percent. If driving does not increase, that will mean fewer emissions. Still, news story after news story and ad after ad touting electrics can, like any greenwashing, mislead us into believing that their positive impact will be profound. This could relieve what pressure there is on the automakers to offer a more eco-friendly fleet overall, on car owners to drive less, or on policymakers to invest more in transit.

Meanwhile, recent real world tests by automotive journalists suggest that GM’s claims that the Volt could achieve 230 mpg have been exaggerated by a factor of five to eight and that it may be a stretch to call it an electric vehicle. In other words, while Leaf marketing greenwashes the Nissan fleet, Volt marketing has been greenwashing the very car with which it means to compensate for its higher-selling, more gas-guzzling products.

Additionally, even assuming EV market share estimates are low and the shift to electrics will be more dramatic, our nation’s future would remain hitched to Big Oil. We should wonder who would benefit from mainstream consumer adoption of EVs — it may be the selfsame corporations that benefit from our dependence on vehicles powered by internal combustion. Some, like Chevron, already own coal-mining operations, and they can acquire more. In the meantime, coal company CEOs like Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship could make BP’s Tony Heyward seem like not such a terrible guy after all. In the end, the combined power of the energy and auto industries to influence our politicians is unlikely to be shaken.

Most critically, the fervor surrounding electric cars keeps us wedded to car culture and to our current transportation system and the politics that perpetuate it. Reducing the flow of gasoline into our tanks only ameliorates one plague from the Pandora’s box of health and social ills unleashed by our dependence on privately owned vehicles.

Even if we could fill our gas tanks with water from a garden hose, tens of thousands of people will still die and millions will be injured in car crashes each year; American workers, over a lifetime of earning, will still spend hundreds of thousands of dollars owning vehicles, money that could go to satisfy other needs or to retirement; and we would still be more sedentary than is good for us, making it difficult to reverse the obesity crisis or the resulting health and financial costs.

And as Henry Ford Jr. pointed out in a 1973 op-ed recently excerpted in the New York Times [PDF], no matter how much safer or greener we make our cars, their numbers will continue to clog our roadways, elevating our blood pressure and squeezing out productivity and profits. Of course, when he penned this, he didn’t dream we’d reach our current levels of sprawl, car ownership, and miles driven.

Even Rush Limbaugh gets it, kind of. When he attacked tax breaks on the pricey electric cars as a move benefiting only the rich, Limbaugh launched the right missile — just at the wrong target. It is the top dogs in the auto, finance, and insurance industries, not the well-intentioned buyers of these cars, who will make out like bandits. Rush also missed the bigger point about the many billions of our tax dollars that have already gone to bolster the oil and auto industries during Republican and Democratic administrations alike, a drain on our national finances that will continue if we remain so heavily dependent on automobiles.

Each advancement in alternative fuels for cars requires substantial government and household investment that could go toward improving our transportation options. By spending less on new roads, regions and communities have more money for new rails. By spending less on car loan interest, households have more money to ride the train or the bus, or to buy bikes that can be used for shorter trips.

So, pop the cork. Just make ours a split, not a magnum. We’ll toast now to those who’ve been fighting the good fight for alternative fuels and electric vehicles, pragmatists who understand just how deep car culture runs. But we’ll save the big celebration for the wins to come for those who’ve been fighting to loosen the grip of the automakers and energy companies on our tax and transportation policy and get us a better system of mobility for everyone.

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and banker, and Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at the Watson Institute at Brown University, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan).