When General Motors' EV1 rolled out in 1996, there was no infrastructure for it, gas was about ten cents a gallon, and cars were turning into military vehicles. And I still wanted one. But then it was gone.
Flash forward to President Obama saying we'll have a million electric cars on the road by 2015. Pundits expressed immediate doubts about this number, but today we have two big reasons to believe we can get there.
First, we have to look beyond the options we have today. They're expensive, and charging stations are more a novelty than a fixture.
Sadly, if the future were left to Detroit, I too would call the electric car a heartbreaking but undeniable fad. Detroit reminds me of a guy who trashes therapy, makes fun of people in therapy, and then goes to see a therapist when his entire life falls apart. It turns out therapy's not so bad, but it's nothing he'll brag about on Superbowl Sunday, which had six car advertisers (not all domestic) and not one mention of plugging in.
And the primping, pumped-up free market would rather Detroit guy block his symptoms than really face his issues, so no help there with a longterm solution.
In other countries, however...well, it's way different. Every car company is working on an electric car. Volvo's R&D means we'll see a safe car with fast-warming seats. Volkswagen wants to be an EV leader, which means we'll have innovation with a hypnotic, persuasive soundtrack. And perhaps a flower in a symbolic tailpipe.
And then, worst of all, there's Hyundai. Worst for us, because Hyundai will take an electric car and make it as normal and inexpensive as that Ford sedan you scrape up to afford after college. With a third the fuel costs.
And what about those charging stations? Who will cover that? For starters, hotels, colleges, and Starbucks. Also, just a thought -- Whole Foods can offer free grid-tied solar charging stations to lure back the thousands of people who boycotted them after John Mackey wrote that health care editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
So that's the car and the charger. They will change, with or without Michigan.
And what about us? Will we change? The truth is, we already have. That's the second reason this EV revolution will take.
The United States has an impressive yellow brick road on which to roll out the electric car: the Main Streets of its small cities.
I'm not talking about big cities like New York, where they're already foregoing cars or driving little things that look like children's sneakers.
In smaller cities, people might not want a car that looks like a Sketcher, but they still drive only thirty miles a day.
In the early nineties, these cities reminded me of carefully hollowed out Easter eggs we made as kids. It was as if someone had plinked a small hole at either end of Main Street and blown the contents out. I saw boarded up windows, dusty pawn shops and confused people shopping at big box stores before the term "big box" had even been coined.
By the late nineties, I saw a full-tilt small urban turnaround. Main Streets from Rockland, Maine to Oakland, California revived old theaters with music, dance and classic movies, general stores came back again (with a few extra frills), and old brick buildings became exposed brick cafes. Small businesses opened upstairs from music stores. And I saw gardens, fountains, footpaths and rail trails that increased daily multi-generational traffic. Some pedestrian boulevards have been gentrified, pure and simple, but generally, these walking (and walker)-friendly city streets were and are a populist renaissance.
So we've got the car, the charger, the demographic, and now the math to show why this matters so much:
According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, if we plugged in during off-peak hours to cover our daily commutes (30-40 miles), over 70% of our energy needs would be met without building another power plant.
Yes, that means an abrupt cut-off of oil and emissions with 70% of the energy supply already spoken for. Overgeneralization? I'm sure. But if it were only half true, it would still be a revolution.
This is an environmental game changer, and this time it's not going away. Of course I'm hoping that Detroit can release its bottled emotions, feel its feelings, write in a journal, and create the world's leading EVs and hybrid EVs with just a little nudge from the world's competition, but the new car is coming no matter what. Meanwhile, this country's cities are growing and greening from the inside out, and I hope they'll see their farmers market, local coffee glow in the mirror and know it's time for a plug-in car.