Dr. Harvey's Electric Car Manifesto
I was driving my red Chevy Volt to work the other day when I noticed something. Just ahead of me, and one lane over, was — another Volt! My heart raced. I sped up, and pulled alongside the other car. The stranger in the black Volt saw me and grinned. We waved to each other, and nodded knowingly. He rolled down his window, and motioned for me to do the same. Our brief conversation — through the sounds of rolling tires and whooshing air, and no engine noise at all — went something like this:
“Isn’t this great?”
“Other people just don’t get it, ya know?”
“I know! I know!”
“Oh! Right. See ya!”
With a hasty thumbs-up, we raised our windows and went our separate ways.
Such chummy exchanges are commonplace among the small but growing number of people who have ditched internal combustion in exchange for a vehicle that can be plugged in. Current options include the Volt, the practical Nissan Leaf, the jaw-dropping but expensive Tesla Model S, and a few others.
Enthusiasm and camaraderie among plug-in vehicle owners are high. Very high, in fact. Constantly frustrated by hearing others’ silly misconceptions of our electric vehicles, and dismayed by the oily misinformation that saturates media coverage of our beloved cars, we turn to one another for sanity and support. To us, the rest of the world just doesn’t get it. And we wish you did. On behalf of misunderstood electric-car fanatics everywhere, I’d like to explain a few things. Buckle up; here we go.
First, electric driving is dirt cheap. Electricity is about five times cheaper [PDF] than gasoline. Skeptical? Let’s compare. How much do you spend on fuel to drive 10,000 miles? For a gasoline car, you’ll typically need about 400 gallons, which costs around $1,500. For an electric car, you’ll need about 2,600 kilowatt-hours of juice, which costs around $300. Of course, your results may vary.
The cost difference has implications for daily driving. If my family goes out to dinner, we can use 40 cents worth of electricity with my Volt, or $2 worth of gasoline with my wife’s Honda CR-V. The Volt is more fun to drive than a gasoline car anyway, so the decision is always a no-brainer.
Second, we think electric vehicles will eventually trump gasoline cars in the marketplace. Sure, sales of plug-in cars are still small — representing about half of 1 percent of new car purchases in December 2012. But sales of current models are growing, and several new models are appearing throughout 2013. Aggregate monthly sales of plug-ins are triple what they were this time last year, and similarly rapid growth is positioned to continue.
Economies of scale will bring down prices of plug-in cars over time, and cheaper and better batteries are on their way as well. As electric-car prices go down and their capabilities go up, somewhere there will be a tipping point where gasoline cars become obsolete. Remember a few years ago, when flat-screen TVs became cheaper, and no one bought the old CRT clunkers anymore? It’s like that. The tipping point is getting closer. Bye-bye internal combustion, and good riddance.
Third, when gas prices go up, we don’t feel sorry for you. I still buy gas occasionally, since the Volt uses gasoline for long-distance trips. I fill up the tank roughly once every three months — which is just often enough for me to remember how to do it. In my world, the “problem” of high gas prices is already solved for good, and “gas stations” are mostly places to buy snacks.
In contrast, those around me complain endlessly about the cost of gasoline. One Facebook friend (whom I hope is not reading this) posted a livid, politically charged rant after spending $70-something to fill up his vehicle. Oh, please. He’s probably driving a gigantic gasoline-powered SUV to convey himself and his briefcase to and from work. Which part of that expense is someone else’s fault?
In his 2006 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush spoke of America being addicted to oil. I couldn’t agree more. The cost of the addiction is huge — with the average American household spending around $4,000 on gasoline in 2011. And the $4,000 figure doesn’t even count indirect costs, such as the long-term costs of CO2 emissions, and the added burden to our military to protect our supply. (And, um, wars.) Much like a person with an addiction to crack or whatever other drug, the oil-addicted society becomes fiscally challenged, angry, and a little bit crazy. And like other addictions, the problem is ignored — or even loudly denied — by the addicted.
To some, the solution is to drill more oil wells to try to push the worldwide markets toward cheap gasoline. The economic argument doesn’t work as well when you consider that oil is sold on a vast worldwide market. But here, too, the addiction analogy gets right to the point: “Crack is too expensive,” says the crack addict, “so we should solve this problem by opening up more sources of crack.” Yes, my SUV-driving friend — that is what your argument sounds like to me.
Fourth … OK, maybe I got carried away. And maybe likening you to a crack addict was a bit much. I was just trying to get your attention. In fairness, I know that plug-in cars are new, so most of you hardly know they exist. The purchase price of electric vehicles is still high, and the selection of models is still limited. And used plug-ins for sale are nowhere to be seen. I get all that. Also, it is smart to wait until a new technology is more established before putting down your hard-earned dough. I admit that my Volt purchase was something I would have put off for a year or two if my purchase were motivated purely by practical considerations instead of by desire. So you gas-car drivers out there deserve more sympathy than I am giving you. Sorry. My bad.
And fifth, let’s look into the future. A few years from now there will be a lot more electric cars around, and our smugness will be bolstered by even higher gas prices. And in that near future, all of the reasons for not buying a plug-in car will have vanished — or nearly so. When that day comes, any lack of sympathy we have for you will be perfectly justified. We will mock you, and you will have no defense. I just thought you’d like to know what’s coming. I’m only telling you this because I care.
I’m glad we had this little talk. Cheers, and happy driving.
Steve Harvey works as a physician in St. Louis. When not thinking about electric cars, he likes to read about paleontology and tend to his trilobite collection. His father and grandfather both worked in the oil industry, so he grew up thinking about oil, and was always aware that oil is coming to an end.
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