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.

Nissan's polar bear ad. It will take more than an electric car in driveway to save this species of ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charismatic_megafauna##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).

27 thoughts on Electric Car Fever and Polar Bear Halos

  1. The sad part is how slow the forecast adoption is.

    Hybrid cars have been around for over 10 years, and yet they still make up a tiny portion of the market. And even all the 2011 big new car launches are traditional gas, not hybrid. The Fiat 500, the Nissan Juke, the new Ford lineup…. more than ten years after the Prius (1997 release in Japan) made hybrids “mainstream” the technology is anything but.

    At this rate, how long will it take for lineups to be all electric? 30 years? How long until gas using cars are all gone? 60 years?

    And worse, even the two big releases this year are big disappointments. The leaf is useless for traveling. Live in the bay area and want to go skiing for the weekend? Not with the 100 mile range of the leaf. Going to Disney? Not an option. Even more shocking, apparently, as the battery runs dry, you’re suddenly limited to 50mph. Have fun doing 50 on a california freeway.

    The Volt is much better because it has a gas engine as well, but at $41,000, it’s a joke.

    On the plus side, it means there’s a ton of time yet to figure out how to fund roads with a mileage tax, because the gas tax will still be relevant in 20 years.

  2. I dont see electric cars as a very big improvement at all, just another enabler of sprawl and continued high energy usage. Plus, where the hell are we getting all the lithium?

  3. J:Lai, I think anyone who does not see the paramount need to get people to buy fewer cars and most importantly to drive less just isn’t an environmentalist.

  4. Being hit by an electric car will still kill a pedestrian 100% dead. That’s not much of an improvement. Heck, I was nearly run over by a Prius the other night; I wasn’t about to thank the owner for his/her supposed environmental consideration.

  5. Amen! I’m all for electric cars over of gasoline ones, but this article makes a great point I often try to make; that these new cars will do very little, if anything, to change our car culture/obsession and shift our focus to public transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements. Even if cars ran on Care Bears and only emitted rainbows, you’d still have all the parking lots, roads, freeways, garages, accidents, injuries, deaths, and sprawl that they create.

    We need to focus on designing our cities and towns around people, transit and bicycles, rather than around cars, and eliminate their need and/or convenience as much as possible.

  6. Note that in the Nissan Leaf bear commercial, the polar bear first checks out a railway track (its deserted), and finding no one to hug there, makes his way to the city and eventually out to the suburbs to find Joe Stockbroker getting into his EV. I like to imagine that after bear-hugging him, he sticks his claws into the guy and drags him to the closest rail commuter stop and they ride to the city…Joe comes to a new understanding of what we really need to do to stop climate change, and puts his overpriced, street-clogging EV on craigslist that night. That might be closer to truly ‘speaking for the animals’ than what Nissan imagines here…

    – J

  7. I like the idea of electric cars for people that make shorter, regular trips. When I owned a car in Astoria, it served 3 primary purposes. Trips to the beach, grocery shopping and visiting relatives. None of those trips was more than 50 miles roundtrip. But the electric car is not really a game changer until the oil gets really expensive (which it will eventually and probably bring down the economy again too).

    You know what electric works really great for? Rail transportation. How about just electrifying all the passenger & freight rail lines in the USA? That would save a lot of diesel.

    And dare I say it, the electric bike might truly revolutionize commuter / utility cycling.

  8. This is an issue where the interests of environmentalists and livable-streets supporters diverge.

    It really depends on the environmentalist. Those who only care about emissions might stop caring at this point. Those that care more deeply about ecology and land use ought to support livable streets.

    Although, sadly, many environmentalists associate cities with environmental degradation, and reject urban life as nonviable, falsely assuming suburbs and rural environments are more environmentally friendly. Another problem is many environmentalists don’t realize American suburban structures are a much larger source for greenhouse emissions than even American automobiles. The situation is probably very similar to problem with the contemporary American true conservative, the New Deal/Great Society “liberal” who sees the automobile as a sacred cow, and frequently inflicts his narcissistic ideology on New York City.

  9. Where I work, about 4 or 5 us bike in each day, and the bikes are clearly visible at the front of the office. Yet, when visitors come in and find out that the director drives a Prius 30 miles each way, he gets accolades for “saving the environment.” I’m not in it for the kudos, but come on!

  10. Wow, tough crowd. I’m one of those who has been fighting for electric cars for most of the last decade after getting one of the RAV4 EVs from Toyota in 2002. For 8 years, I’ve driven 86,000 miles on sunlight. I generate all my kWh from the sunlight falling on my roof. I haven’t been to a gas station since 2002.

    I know that arguments you make about EVs not doing anything about the streets and dangerous traffic, etc., and that getting people on bikes and mass trans is the better effort, but the truth is we’ve been trying to get people to ride bikes and take mass trans for decades and have made very little progress. For those 200 million people driving cars every day, how many do you realistically expect to convince to get out of their cars? These are the ones that should at least trade dirty, expensive, foreign oil for clean, renewable, domestic electricity.

    That change will clean our environment, strengthen our economy and keep our country safer. Isn’t that reason enough to support it.

    I think being a purist on this issue isn’t helpful. For that, your time is better spent on the population issue. That’s another place I work hard to effect change.

  11. EVs are nice when you want to prevent climate change and reduce pollution. They’re a partial solution because of high costs and slow adoption, but they’re still pretty useful. They’re not going to solve transportation problems like the car addiction or congestion or the high costs of roads, or urban problems coming from sprawl; that’s what livable streets and transit are for. And they’re not going to solve other environmental problems, which are orthogonal to transportation, such as water. But as long as we know what they are and what they aren’t good for, there’s nothing wrong with them.

  12. I, too, would not be so down on electric cars. They do have advantages over internal combustion engine:

    1) They are far less smelly than regular cars. (Oh, how I hate breathing car fumes while I ride my bike.)
    2) They are far quieter than regular cars. (But not silent–if there weren’t so many darned loud internal combustion engines, the electric cars would be easy to hear.)
    3) They tend to be smaller than regular cars (easier to share the road with). Would you rather have a Leaf next to you or an SUV?
    4) Their engines are so much more efficient than internal combustion engines that they truly do produce far less emissions, even if the electricity they run on comes from coal. (Internal combustion engines are obscenely inefficient, a fabulous way to waste oil’s amazingly dense energy.)
    5) We all should have a high interest in small trucks getting fitted with electric engines since in the future (as in the past) truck farming will be the way most cities get their food from farms in the surrounding fifty miles or so. The days of the thousand mile salad are close to an end.

    Unless anyone has figured out a way to get rid of rich people, there are likely always going to be some private cars on the road. However, I wouldn’t worry that someday we’ll be overrun with electric cars just as we are with internal combustion engines now. Americans simply won’t be able to afford that many of them. What we should be demanding is that no more cars/trucks with internal combustion engines be manufactured at all. The technology is wasteful, obsolete, and destructive, the equivalent of burning down a forest to bake a loaf of bread. In addition, the billion dollars a day we spend on oil sucks an incredible amount of money out of our economy and balloons our trade deficit.

    As oil production starts to drop off–even at an optimistic rate of only 2% a year–we are going to be hard pressed to meet our current energy demand, much less allow for China and India’s burgeoning consumption, much less shut down our coal-burning power plants which are busy destroying our planet, much less refuse to buy Canadian tar sands which are a horrendous environmental disaster.

    Of necessity we will become more efficient, but in a lower energy world it will be difficult to develop, manufacture and put in place the new technologies we need. Nuclear power plants (even if we thought this was the direction we were forced to go) take a decade to build. Solar PV and wind require energy to build, transport and install. If we had any sense, we would have spent the last 20 years using a portion of our fossil fuels to build out replacement energy sources that were renewable/sustainable. We did not have any sense.

    To prepare for the energy-reduced future that is not all that distant, Americans should spend their individual money (if they have any) on: bicycles, cargo bicycles, electric bicycles. Maybe an electric scooter. Solar hot water panels, solar PV, house insulation. LED lights. Vegetable gardens, moving closer to where they work, rain barrels. A good pair of shoes.

    What Americans should spend their collective money on: rail freight, high speed rail, light rail. Bicycle infrastructure. Upgraded electric grid. Desert solar. Offshore and midwest wind. (Not wars, banks, subsidized corn, tax breaks to oil companies. Talk about throwing money down ratholes.)

  13. Unfortunately, electric cars will not save the earth. They still require oil to manufacture and run. When the oil runs out so will the ability to make rubber tires. Better pick up spares for your bicycles before that happens.

  14. For those 200 million people driving cars every day, how many do you realistically expect to convince to get out of their cars?

    How about we stop being purists about offending them, and start offering them alternatives to cars? I don’t think it’s necessary to stop all driving, but bringing it back to a realistic, sustainable level makes sense. EVs are a very small start.

    Other intermediate steps that would make sense today include mandating smaller cars (or at least heavily taxing larger ones).

  15. High fuel efficiency is like cheap gas for hybrids owners. My prediction is that hybrids will be driven more, enough to compensate for their increased efficiency.

  16. “The truth is we’ve been trying to get people to ride bikes and take mass trans for decades and have made very little progress. For those 200 million people driving cars every day, how many do you realistically expect to convince to get out of their cars?”

    The truth is that, due to 80+ years of political decisions favoring car-centric development at the expense of mass transit and bicycling, for many people in the US, these transportation alternatives do not exist or are grossly inadequate. One reason I moved to New York City was to have a comprehensive 24-hour mass transit system available that would enable me to give up my car. When I lived in upstate New York and used mass transit, I had to plan my trips very carefully. Even then, I still needed a car or my professional and social opportunities would have been severely limited.

    I imagine that many, if not most, people are not inherently hostile to transit; however, on a practical day-to-day basis, transit is not going to get them where they need to go or when they need to go there. As for bicycles, many people live too far away from their workplace to make it practical and we all know how challenging and hostile drivers can be to cyclists.

    So, I don’t think there’s any great mystery about why people prefer to remain in their cars in the face of inadequate mobility alternatives. This is not a contest of equals. When we live in an environment where mass transit is comprehensive, frequent, and fast and where the bicycle infrastructure is robust, then we’ll see people making different choices (such as in Manhattan, where the vast majority of households are car-free).

  17. I’m really glad to see serious discussions of this. I think, unfortunately, the idea of electric vehicles function as an enabler of a pernicious fantasy. That fanasy is global warming, or no, I’ll be able to live just the way I’m living now. I can have my 2,000 square foot suburban house (getting bigger as families get smaller), I can drive 3 miles for basic errands, I can commute 30, 40, 50 miles and think nothing of it. Now I’ll be doing it in a virtuous electric vehicle.

    We haven’t even talked about where the electricity comes from. If there were a magic mass conversion of cars now, the answer would mostly be coal. Great.

    The message should not be “You can live your life this way with one little change.” It should be that you can have a decent life–Americans didn’t by and large live this way before 1945–but that fundamental change is needed.

  18. It seems most of the arguments I see against EVs are more an argument against a growing population. This is where your efforts should be directed as you’ll have a much better chance of affecting the negative consequences of more traffic by reducing the number of people wanting to drive.

    As for the comment about EVs running on coal energy, I can only ask, why are you running your house on that dirty energy if you find it so harmful? Most Americans waste more kWh than they’d use in an EV. And yes, we did discuss where the energy comes from. I stated that I’ve been generating my kWh from sunlight for 8 years and found it to be quite affordable. If you don’t have the roof for solar, call your utility and ask to join their renewable energy program, then, once you get your EV, all of your driving will be pollution-free, well-to-wheels. If your utility doesn’t offer a renewable energy option, become an activist and insist on it.

    And just because you are driving without pollution doesn’t mean you are now going to drive more. That’s just silly.

    I support all of the things you guys advocate here, walking, biking, mass trans, nodal communities, etc. It’s just that I live in the real world and I see millions of people who will not do any of those things ever, and no amount of cajoling by us enviros will get them out of their cars. So, it seems the smart thing to do is to offer them an option of using renewable, domestic energy as a substitute for dirty, foreign oil.

  19. You need to expand your time horizon back, Paul. Before 1945, tens of millions of Americans were using mass transit and walking as their primary means of transport. Some American families had cars, but they were largely excursion vehicles, to go out to the country, a trip type that transit can’t handle well. Much of the world actually still looks like this.

    It took the creation of a brand new urban landscape to chain Americans to their cars. In many cases, not only were brand-new, auto-access only places built, but the old pedestrian-access places–the neighborhoods around city downtowns–were bulldozed as blighted. Places can be changed around new technologies, that’s in fact more typical than them not changing.

    What’s silly about thinking continued pro-car policies, whether those cars are electric or gasoline-powered, will lead to more driving? Until the current recession, vehicle miles traveled per capita went up and up and up. The task is not to sustain that growth, but how to reverse it

    People in California were “never” going to reduce the amount of water we use on our lawns, until we did it. People were “never” going to use solar panels, until demand now outstrips supply. And never underestimate the effect of generational change–the people who will “never” change gradually get replaced by the people who can’t imagine it any other way. If I really thought that tomorrow would be just like today, with electric cars, it would reduce my motivation to be environmentalist, because the current pattern is negative and unstainable in so many ways.

  20. I don’t know if global climate change is something I should be worried about.
    I do know that over-reliance on cars is a huge detriment to me personally and to our civilization.
    Thus, I would rather that cars keep using lots of gas (I assume this will lead to a long term trend of higher gasoline prices.) We lack the will to make gas more expensive by taxing it, so the next best thing is just to keep using it until the price goes up.
    Rising prices would have a tangential benefit of encouraging conservation and/or development of alternative energy sources.
    These incremental improvements, like electric vehicles, are just extending the era of cheap gas.

  21. Wanderer, good feedback, and I agree with most of what you say. My timeline is much shorter because of the imminent arrival of peak oil and the worldwide calamity it will bring. I’m not delusional enough to think our EV advocacy will stop the coming trouble, but to the extent we can replace gas burners with EVs, we’ll at least mitigate some of the negative consequences.

    I agree that a lot of progress has been made in water conservation, among other things, but I live in Santa Monica and travel all over the LA area in my job selling solar PV, and I see the millions of cars and the giant houses that are spread for 60 miles in every direction, and I know from talking to these people that getting them out of their cars or getting them to curtail their use of dirty energy is just not possible without a carbon tax that ramps up to pretty high numbers in short order.

    We passed an amazing bill, AB32, about 4 years ago that will do just that, but now we find ourselves fighting Prop 23 which is designed to overturn AB32. The oil companies funded this proposition and got it on the ballot. And this is one of the reasons I’d like a little more consideration for EVs from readers of this forum.

    The oil companies have so much power over Congress because of the huge sums of money they throw at them. When you switch to EV from gas, you no longer give the oil companies any of your money. This is a very significant aspect of EVs that is overlooked by the progressive community who only consider the enviro consequences of EVs.

    Of the $2,000-$4,000 the average American spends for gas each year, 60% leaves our country, but 90% of it leaves your local community. Consider the economic and political implications of this money staying domestic and circulating through your local economy. Instead of going to the oil companies where they will use it to buy political favor that helps them and hurts you, you’ll spend about 25% of what you were spending for gas for kWh. The utilities will get that. The other 75% stays in your pocket to be used for whatever you want. This is a significant amount of money!

    In my case, I bought a 3 kW PV system just before buying my EV about 8 years ago. My electric bill averages about $100 per year for both the house and car. I drive about 10,000 miles per year – on sunlight.

    This doesn’t solve a lot of the problems you guys are discussing, but it does solve some. All I ask is that you take the big picture view of what this technology can mean to both the environment and our economy.

    Oh, and we’ve never fought a war over electricity and we never will.

  22. @Herzog: high fuel efficiency does induce more driving, yes. I confronted DMI with this fact and was referred to a study showing that typically the effect of more driving offsets 20% of the fuel savings. Potentially this would be higher in a world with higher oil prices, as the price of gas would be a stronger limiting factor to driving, but it wouldn’t be 100% or close to it.

    @Paul Scott: everything you say is true. And yet, it would be equally true to say it about car companies. Unless you live in Smyrna, Huntsville, Cleveland, or Detroit, the money you spend on buying a car leaves the local community. The ownership cost is high; just depreciation on a new car is on the order of $2,000 a year. The money you spend on repairs and maintenance partly stays in the community and partly leaves it to be spent on suppliers, but in either case it’s money you can’t spend on other things.

    Thinking from a purely economic perspective, and leaving aside the issues of keeping Bangladesh dry and American cities clean, a primary problem of car-based transportation is its high cost. We’ve all heard about how ungodly expensive transit is, but it only looks bad because it’s bundled under one umbrella of operating costs, whereas cars’ costs are spread across the vehicle itself, maintenance, fuel/electricity, and road construction. Each of those costs about the same as or slightly less than the entire operating cost of even inefficient American subway systems. Cars look somewhat better per passenger-km, but because they force people to spread out more and travel longer distances to work, their per-passenger costs are brutal.

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