The short future of the electric car

Indian car manufacturer Tata recently debuted its “Nano,”  a people’s car priced at one lakh — two grand, American. It’s a no-frills four-wheeler positioned to satisfy the mobility aspirations — upward and otherwise — of the masses in a country whose burgeoning population includes a middle class that’s larger than the total population of our own. The company expects to have an export version for the US market.

Back here in the US, where our legendary love affair with the automobile shows distinct signs of cooling, news of the Nano appears to be meeting with mixed reactions. They might be summarized thus:

  • Cool! When can I buy one?
  • Darn — all those pesky American safety regs are going to quadruple the price.
  • Meh. Puny deathtrap. You can’t even get a whole soccer squad into it.

…and among the more environmentally-aware:

  • At least it won’t pollute as much as all those motorcycles and Tuk-tuks they’re driving now
  • Those Indians and Chinese are using up all our gasoline
  • Looks like it’ll be real easy to convert to electric. When can I buy one?

It’s not surprising that the Nano’s introduction turns out to be yet another springboard for discussion of our own automotive future. Whether or not we’re still in love with The Automobile, it arguably remains one of our most dominant institutions, and few would pretend that it’s possible to be a first-class citizen here without owning a car.

Personal motoring is so deeply embedded in the assumptions about how things are laid out and how we are supposed to inhabit them, that when confronted with adapting to the necessities of climate change and oil depletion, we immediately ask “Well, what kind of car will I need to drive?”

A quick — and very compelling — answer is, of course, “Electric.” However, the answer should have an asterisk after it.

First of all, it seems most likely that a successful transition to a low-energy, low-emissions future will mean an end to the car monoculture, in favor of a greater mix of modes, including urban rail, scooters, bicycles and plain old shank’s mare, along with a refitted infrastructure to make lower-energy methods of transport both practical and attractive.

Electric vehicles will undoubtedly be part of the picture. Assumptions about them are the tricky part, however. Part of the challenge of transitioning to electric vehicles has to do with what we think of as “a car.”

A “car,” if we can summarize the popular standard, is a personally-owned, two-ton, mile-a-minute lounge on wheels that can accommodate an entire nuclear family and X amount of stuff. It’s an extravagant creature whose evolution was shaped by a temporary abundance of cheap fossil energy. In this sense, an EV isn’t meant as a direct substitute for a car. After all, the very point of EV’s is to be more modest in the use of energy.

I think it’s very unlikely, once the transition is widespread, that the EVs in use will fully meet the criteria we have in mind right now when we imagine a “car” that happens to be electric. Such a car would certainly fit comfortably into the current context, but it’s also the context itself that needs some shifting.

The question is often framed in terms of needing “highway safe” EVs. It would perhaps be more productive to turn that around and start considering “EV safe” highways. Among other things, they’d be the perfect setting for a battery-powered version of the Nano.

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