Walsh: Traveling short distances smartly

A flying car with leather seats under a domed windshield cruising high above the urban spires is a quintessential vision of the future. It is not a noiseless vision, but one accompanied by a high, soothing, almost extraterrestrial whir. And while this reality remains distant in time, the automobile industry is undergoing an intermediate step: the plug-in electric vehicle.

This past year, performance reviews of cars like the Tesla Roadster, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf predominated auto-show media coverage. The sleek designs graced car magazine covers.

But criticism abounded. The New York Times commented on the rather slow recharge rate, in which one hour is required for every five miles driven. The Economist described challenges of electric generation and distribution capacities if electric cars too quickly replace conventional internal combustion engines. And Car and Driver complained about declines in performance in high-end electric cars like the Audi e-tron and Mercedes SLS AMG eDrive. Finally, there was much consternation about relatively short driving ranges. The Roadster advertises 240 miles on a full battery, the Leaf 100 miles, and the Volt only 40 miles.

All well and good, but such criticisms are legitimate only if we accept the automobile possesses some immanent purpose — to drive far, often and powerfully. I believe few would accept this logic. For all the criticism about short driving ranges, even the Volt offers a functional driving range for 75 percent of American commuters.

The electric car, then, provides us a rare opportunity to rethink the role of the automobile. We currently have the chance to question what a car is used for — or, more incisively, what a car should be used for. We have the chance to reconsider how we plan, design and build our cities. And we have the chance, unusual as it is, to effectively govern an emerging technology.

To say a car does not go far enough or does not have enough power conjures the ludicrous assertions of Dr. Pangloss, who expresses his profound unwisdom in the first chapter of Voltaire’s “Candide”: “Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings.” Faulting the electric car its short range or slow recharge rate is, in some fundamental way, a misapprehension of context. Could our criticisms, should our criticisms be turned from failings of the car to failings of our use of the car? Perhaps cars with internal combustion engines are designed to go too far, be driven too often and all with too much power.

Though the analogy with Dr. Pangloss is imperfect, it opens possibilities for large-scale reconsideration of how cities, infrastructure, public transportation, and communities can be planned and retrofitted to promote this new type of automobile. These are considerations of particular significance given the global growth in urban populations and expanding middle-classes in countries like China and India. When we think of the urban future, it is necessary for us to be creative. Rather than glinting Babelesque spires to suit the endlessly mobile flying car, why not compact downtowns and reticulate train networks to accommodate a limited battery life?

To be sure, achieving the vision of such a city will require smart policy.

And such policy for new technology is often hard to come by. When new products emerge, we cannot easily predict how they will be used or the impact such use will have on our lives and our environment. And by the time we understand the essential uses of these products, it is often too late to design and implement policy that governs effectively. Once a use, whether destructive or not, has become entrenched, new policies are unlikely to have an effect.

The electric car, however, is an opportunity to avoid this so-called Collingridge dilemma. The electric car is a car, but it is a new type of car. After a century of use, we can describe the automobile’s essential functions. But we can also consider it an entirely new technology, something unconnected with the destruction that haunts the internal combustion legacy.

The electric vehicle, therefore, offers a second start, not of loud chugging pistons, not of whirring generators, but of electrical silence in which we can think deeply about the implications of this modern relic.

Dylan Walsh is a first-year student at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.


  • Doris

    Perhaps we are moving closer to the inventions pictured in the Jetsons.

  • David G.

    I think this article hits it right on the nose.

    We currently accept that a 2 seater sports car with no trunk sells without problems. Right?

    No one is screaming “How can you only build a 2 seat car with little trunk space?”

    Take the Nissan Leaf with its 100 mile range. Most families I know have two vehicles. One vehicle used for long distance trips and driving back and forth to work. The other vehicle used for going back and forth to work and around the town things (shopping, parks, sports, errands, etc).

    I find it hard to believe the american family can not adjust to “Ok, so we have the one vehicle to go on long trips and the other for around town.”

    Because that is exactly what happens now.

    Is the two seater sports car guy going for a Leaf? No. If you’re single and this you only have one form of transportation, are you going to buy the Leaf? Probably not.

    So simply focus on the millions of families who this makes sense for. Don’t try to capture every car demographic. Capture the most prolific demographic: Family of 2 adults and 2 kids who own two vehicles in that family who live in a suburb of medium – large cities.

    That is an unbelievably large market.

  • Yale 08

    Let’s reorganize the entire infrastructure of the country to support electric cars limited capabilities!

    Surely that won’t cause a net loss to the environment!

    And while we are at it, let’s take over all of health care too! It will be easy!

    Just ignore the Post Office’s recent cries for help! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! I’m from the Government and I’m here to help.

  • @#3


    your sarcasm is so thick, any semblance of a point is lost. you should try to actually read and understand the article on its own terms. better luck next time?

  • Egalitarian

    What about plug-in hybrids? Even if we sometimes need to use gas for longer trips, being able to run on electricity for local driving certainly seems like a winner. It will reduce pollution, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and save us money, too. What’s to lose?

  • BK ’12

    Hey what I don’t understand is how electric cars are any more environmentally friendly than gas…

    Their energy comes basically from 50% coal production here in the US and has inefficiencies in the transmission of electricity…

    It’s goal vs. gas… I’d think that environmentally, we’d pick gas.

    Of course, we have tons of coal here in the US, but hey, don’t we always pick the economy over the environment? (in a way it’s kind of true here; there’s no real improvement)

  • RonF

    Transmission losses = 6-8% max.
    The end-to-end effiency (wellhead to wheels for gas/diesel) is very much less than that of “fuel source to DC into the battery”. That’s the difference.

    The AC generated at the power plant (fired by coal, NG or nuclear, or by wind turbines or solar) has to be transmitted and massaged to get to the batteries. Those losses coupled with the significantlt HIGHER effiency of the EV drive train mean lower net losses than “infernal” combustion provides.

    Many studies have proven that an EV powered by coal is today is still cleaner than gasoline, even in a modern hybrid. Look at EPRI reports, and others published at EVS-23, for example.

    Then there is the maintenance of an ICE which is a mess and costly: oil changes, smog tests,
    fluid flushing (trannie and coolants), the inevitable wearout at 100K miles. There are belts, hoses and filters need replacement. Too many moving parts, too complicated! Electrics are simple by comparison, which is beautiful.

    IBM just devised a new process that can very probably bring the cost of solar (PV) fabriction below that of coal in terms of $/kWh. Coal is so last century! 😉

    What isn’t ever talked about is the ‘hidden cost of petroleum’ usage to society, those intangibles, the externalities. Taxes subsidize gas but the real cost per gallon is much higher.

    RonF (driving ‘on sunshine’ for free for over a decade)

  • Jay

    Bk, it’s not economy over environment for most. It’s using domestic supplies so we don’t have to send young men into the desert…

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