Can Electric Cars Save Sprawl?

50 years from now, I have no doubt that everything mechanical that moves over roads will be electrically powered.That said, electric cars are not the silver bullet that will allow us to hang onto our sprawling lifestyles.

Nature and the new economic world is killing sprawl. Between climate change and peak oil and globalization, we are quickly losing the ability to sustain it, proving once and for all that it was as unsustainable as we’d been told.

But watch and listen, in the next few months you will see and hear more and more about electric cars. They will be touted as the saviors for the environment, national security (oil independent), as well for the personal pocketbook. Electric cars will be better for our cities as they will reduce auto created smog. As they quietly hum along, they will make our cities more livable.

And all this is true generally. The problem lies in the execution. Electric cars won’t come on line fast enough, nor at affordable prices, until its too late to keep what we have. No, electric cars belong to a low energy future which will demand of us different living arrangements. We can’t save sprawl with electric cars.

Even if we were able to start today, how long would it take to replace every internal combustion engine in the U.S.? Well, there are over 200 million of those currently on the roads. At the auto industry’s peak, around 16 million cars sold per year. Thus, even if we started selling only electric cars in 2010, it would take 15 years at a minimum to replace current fleet.

And that is if they were affordable to the great majority of people in the country, which as of today they aren’t.

And that is if there was a nationwide system of recharging stations, for those who don’t have the easy ability to plug in where they live, and for those caught with a discharging battery.  (Where would you charge your car if you live an apartment building?  Or don’t have a garage, or even a driveway?)

And that is if all the rare minerals used to create those batteries are being hoarded by the countries where the deposits are located.

See, there are far too many “ifs” for the changeover to happen anytime soon.

So,if we’re not, why can’t we just phase electric cars in so that at some point, they have replaced the combustion engine?

This is exactly what will happen.  Someday all vehicles will be electric.  The problem is that peak oil will severely curtail our mobility in the interim.  Distance will matter a great deal, from everything to household products, to food, to where we work and where our children go to school.  We will be forced to reorder our lives to accommodate this new reality, which in many ways will be very positive.  Ironically then, by the time that electric cars could be poised to make a massive breakthrough, they will be no more than a niche for those who can afford them. Electric cars will never be mass market.

The days of “happy motoring” as James Howard Kunstler calls them, are drawing to a close.  Beware any techno-rescue touted to try and bring those days back.

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Filed under New World Planning, Peak Oil

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