Electric cars and other answers to the wrong questions


So it turns out there are lots of reasons why people would take public transit if they didn’t have to.

You may have noticed that I omitted a discussion of the environmental benefits for public transit. There were a few reasons for this.

First, I didn’t want to turn the post into an environmental screed. We all know that single occupancy vehicles (SOVs) pollute the planet more than almost any other activity (except perhaps eating meat).

We all know these things. The problem is that the scale of the issue makes it seem intellectual, intangible, far away. It feels too massive, too overwhelming, and it’s easy to avoid and just not think about it.

But another reason why it’s not worth getting into environmentalism is because people will often bring up electric cars. And that just makes me sad.

Electric cars are cool (obviously)

First of all, I want everyone who hasn’t already to go over to The Oatmeal and read about his experience owning a Tesla Model S.

No seriously, click this right now.
No seriously, click this right now. you’ll thank me.

If you don’t want an electric car by now, then I’m going to have trouble relating to you.

While no Tesla, I’ve been enamored with the Toyota Prius and its partially-electric propulsion since I first heard about them. I finally purchased one a few years ago. And it’s awesome. And while I wouldn’t call it a “magical space car”, it does often feel like I’m driving a video game. The 40-50 MPG doesn’t hurt either. (Nor does the fact that I bought my Prius for approximately 15% of the purchase price of a new Tesla.)

All gushing aside though, I’m under no delusion that the solution to our woes is for all of us to go buy electric (or even hybrid) cars. Even if someone magically gave one to each of us, Oprah-style.

What problem are we trying to solve?

It’s not hard to find someone talk about how electric cars will solve the pollution problem.

The idea being that the internal combustion engine (ICE) in a car is pretty inefficient. This makes sense: you get zero economy of scale (since every ICE is autonomous), and the fuel needs to be portable (since you transport it wherever the ICE goes).

This might have made sense 100 years ago, but certainly there’s a way to improve the structure of things.

Instead, if we took the source of the power generation somewhere outside of the car, then we could improve the cleanness of the power generation. We could replace our fossil fuel sources with something like solar or wind or hydro or thermal.

This makes a lot of sense, and probably should be done anyway. But the problem being is that it’s not the electric cars that necessarily do anything to fix the emissions issue. If we do nothing else, will it really be appreciably different if our cars are powered by coal-fired plants in our local jurisdiction or a gasoline-fired plant between our legs?

Moreover, some studies say that tailpipe emissions are only a small fraction of our emissions problem.

Another reason that electric cars are problematic is that the plug-in architecture assumes a reliable place to charge the car. And unless you park your car in a garage or a driveway, that’s a false assumption. Are we to make sure that everyone has a garage and driveway now?

Electric cars are cool. But even if they aren’t an environmental answer.

What problem are we trying to solve (again)?

At some point, someone is going to mention self-driving cars, so I might as well talk about them here.

Traffic problems? Let self-driving cars lead the way!

Ever since Google surprised pretty much everyone with driverless cars, people have been salivating over their potential. Specifically, the idea that self-driving cars can eliminate congestion by eliminating inefficiencies. Here’s one such article.

And if they don’t, I guess you can still read a book while you’re stuck in traffic.

I personally believe that this is all pretty silly. Not only are the practicalities insane to imagine (Will we all have to buy new cars? Will we have one driveable and one non-driveable car? A kit to convert between one and the other?) but this seems like yet another attempt to let technology come to the rescue to solve a problem we’re unwilling to solve by ourselves.

And you can imagine how I feel about that.

The real problem we are trying to solve

Want to eliminate the congestion? Why not drive less?

Want to reduce tailpipe emissions? Why not drive less?

Oh you can’t, because you live 30 miles away from anywhere you’d want to go. Because you live in an area so spread out that you can only see a few other neighbors from your front door.

Now we’re getting to the real problem. It seems to me that we want things to change, but we don’t want to make any lifestyle sacrifices in order to make it happen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

Now, you are not responsible for the way your environment is built. You didn’t put that strip mall in, and you didn’t widen that road and take out the sidewalks. You didn’t move out to that spread-out area. (Well, maybe you did that.)

There are ways you can make places more people-friendly. These may have the by-product of making places slightly less amenable to cars, while making them more amenable to transit and other active transportation (such as walking and biking). Now that’s environmental.

It’s always a good idea to ask what problem you’re trying to solve. Self-driving cars won’t likely fix the traffic problem. Electric cars won’t likely fix the pollution problem. They are pretty cool, though.

But enough about me. What do you think about electric (or self-driving) cars?

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