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.