Detroit Electric car charging circa. 1919

I Can’t Wait to Buy an Electric Car

A couple of years ago I walked into the Tesla store in Washington Square Mall in Portland, Oregon and I was instantly and abjectly in love with the Model S. It sat shining — almost glowing — in the modern, minimalist showroom and attended by staff straight out of the Apple Store who were completely charming. Apart from being about $115K short of the $120K I needed, I was sold. Without a doubt, someday, I was going to own one. But facing the arithmetic squarely in the eye at the time, I bought the travel mug and branded tote bag and left.

The recent success of Tesla’s crowdfunding campaign for the Model 3 is impressive and underscores the fact that I am not alone. There are approaching 400,000 new Tesla aspirants out there, a number which shocks even Elon Musk. Time will tell, however, how many of those refundable $1K deposits actually turn into vehicles on the road. Thinking about my shopping mall dream a couple of years ago, I feel like putting $1K down myself just so I can live up to that commitment to ‘own’ a Tesla one day. That, and so my 20-something-ish niece and nephews will think I’m way cooler than I really am.

“I was instantly and abjectly in love with the Model S. It sat shining — almost glowing — in the modern, minimalist showroom and attended by staff straight out of the Apple Store”

But my desire for an electric car wasn’t for the reason you might expect. Sadly, it was not a sense of duty to the planet by lowering my carbon footprint. It should have been, but it wasn’t. It was for a much more old-fashioned, red-blooded male reason: it just looked so seductively gorgeous and, based on the pure physics of electric motors (which deliver 100% of their torque from the first turn), had utterly startling driving performance. How could I lose?

Well, as it turns out, in quite a few ways:

First, how environmentally responsible I’m actually being will depend on where I drive my car. Drive it in China, it turns out that 75% of the ‘free’ electricity used to charge that car is generated by the star of that other revolution — the 19th century industrial one — by burning coal. Drive it in India and 73% of the electricity will be from the black, dusty stuff. In the US? 39%. In Canada, just 10% (hooray!) and in Paraguay, of all places, none. So while I will have a right to feel fairly good about the reduced carbon footprint of electric miles driven in some parts of the world, in many other, highly populated places, electric cars make no sense if all they do is push up the demand for more of that coal-fired electricity. The fact is for now, if you drive a car in the US that gets more than 40 miles per gallon, taking everything into account, you are actually more carbon efficient than the best electric car.

Then, did you ever notice that nothing quite matches that first, virgin charge on a brand new smartphone or tablet? It just seems to last — well — forever. Within a relatively short period of time, though, the battery life is still pretty good but not quite as good as that first time; it never is, is it? By a year or two later, you have developed a kind of sixth sense for locating power outlets and carry your charger with you everywhere just in case that infernal battery is out of charge. Again. What you are up against is basic chemistry. Degrade over time is just what exotic lithium-polymer batteries do. There’s no fighting it any more than we can fight to repeal the law of gravity because it discriminates in favour of thin people.

It is grating enough to have to take my laptop in for a new battery every couple of years. That’s a couple of hundred bucks. It’s quite another to take my electric car in for a similar overhaul at a cost of thousands of dollars. 200–300 miles on a charge sounds pretty good, particularly when that charge is ‘free’. Factor in the absolutely inevitable degradation to 100–150 or fewer miles on a charge, how happy am I going to be? Keep in mind that any sort of guarantee against this is the 21st century equivalent of an unfunded pension liability. The provider of that guarantee is inevitably going to go broke because they will eventually have 100% of their customers making a claim.

“if you drive a car in the US that gets more than 40 miles per gallon…you are actually more carbon efficient than the best electric car”

Then there’s the fact that the lithium used to make lithium-polymer batteries has already been pushed into shortage to the point where prices have begun to spike periodically. So if you get tired of worrying about the price of oil, you can always start worrying about the high price of its replacement.

But even taking all of that into account I still really want an electric car. The heart wants what the heart wants. Any model’s capabilities far exceed my typical, five-day-a-week, 20–30 mile-per-day loop to work, the grocery store and the movies. Those miles will slip by effortlessly — I’ll just flip on autopilot and read the newspaper while the car does the driving. (Don’t kid yourself; there’s a significant chunk of drivers who think that’s exactly what they will be able to do.) Also, never mind that the city in which I live has trouble keeping the potholes filled when they’re not creating new ones paving around manhole covers. My faith in them being able to provide the infrastructure to support driverless or autopiloted vehicles? Let’s just say I’m ‘faith challenged’. Besides I’ll be too busy dodging the drowsy, newspaper-reading drivers heading more-or-less in the direction of the grocery store.

But because they look so achingly beautiful and with shattering performance that seemingly defies the law of gravity, I still just have to have one. Isn’t marketing wonderful? However, if I truly, madly, deeply want to reliably reduce my carbon footprint I may have to think the absolutely unthinkable. I will have to get on an old-fashioned, diesel-powered bus.

Better yet, so long as I’m fit enough, weather permitting and don’t have any baggage, I’ll ride my bike.

©2016 Terence C. Gannon

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