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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
I’d like to say that I thought President Biden driving an electric truck last week was a signal that we are about to burst into a new era of environmentally sensible vehicles and that very soon we will all be humming around in silent little things that don’t spit toxins into the atmosphere.
But I can’t.
The president’s photo op was certainly entertaining, if you like that sort of thing, but I think we are still a generation or more away from a real transition out of the fossil-fuel era.
As eras go, this one hasn’t been all that long. Motorcars have only been around for 135 years or so. By comparison, we used horses for thousands of years longer. Steam trains, which were heralded as one of the great leaps forward in the modern age, lasted only a fraction of that time, being replaced by diesels and then by electrics in far less than a hundred years.
You’d think we would move just as swiftly away from the internal combustion engine as we did steam. Alas, this hasn’t been the case.
Electric cars have been around for quite a while, too. Much as it took decades for gasoline-powered vehicles to become “efficient,” it’s taken ages for scientists to design batteries that can actually do the job. They still haven’t perfected it. Electric cars still need charging for hours after they’ve been driven from one town to the next, and there aren’t a great number of convenient places to do the charging, either.
Used to be, if you ran out of gas, you’d flag down another car or walk to the nearest house and ask for a little fuel. Can’t do that with an electric car. Can’t stand beside the road holding an extension cord and expect anyone to be able to help.
Okay, you might find a few people in Texas who drive around with generators in the backs of their trucks, but you probably won’t in Delaware.
Besides, generators run on… what? Yeah. Kinda defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
There are clearly some massive challenges ahead if we are going to make a concerted effort to switch from gasoline to electricity. For one thing, we will need batteries that can actually make it across Texas distances. For another, we will need to replace them with fresh ones at electro-stations, instead of sitting there six hours munching Ding-Dongs and slurping Slurpees. Batteries will have to be smaller, portable, universal, and must be popped into cars in quicker time than it takes to pump twenty gallons of unleaded.
Another option is to charge a car by driving over a conductor rail on the interstate, although I’m sure you can already imagine what sort of carnage that would produce. Embedding a high-voltage conduit in the asphalt is about as smart as marketing a bathtub toaster, so you can breakfast while shampooing.
Overhead power lines are another option, and they seem to work quite well for trolleys, trams and trains, but I challenge you to design a system that won’t be fouled by people changing lanes, going the wrong way in grocery parking lots, or gluing googly eyes to their pantographs.
No, we still have a long way to go before the electric car becomes a household standard. The modern motorcar came of age during the First World War, and was mass produced for the common people in the decade that followed. We’ve had a handful of opportunities to hasten the development of the electric vehicle, such as the golf cart we drove on the moon, the gadgetry we’ve dropped on Mars, the submarines we’ve driven to unimaginable depths, and the robots we’ve taken onto the battlefield, but we’ve yet to really nail it.
It may take a crisis to push us; it may take popular opinion. Whatever it will be, there must come a time when going to the shops in a fossil-fuel station wagon will be about as absurd as putting all the kids on a donkey.
Meanwhile, I’ll have a chuckle at the old geezer grinning through the window of his hummy Humvee.