Electric Cars

Adam Schreiber, General Motors (1), 1939, 2009, Archival Inkjet Print, 24 × 30”. Courtesy of artist and Sasha Wolf Gallery.

Looking into the future, it would almost seem that the electric car is destined to almost exclude other vehicles from town roads, and the petrol-electric carriage to secure the first place for long-distance travel.
— W. Poynter Adams, Motor-Car Mechanism and Management: Electric and Petrol-Electric Vehicles, 1908

The moment when the lifeblood of our automobile culture oozes away over the wetlands and the wildlife and the sugar-sand beaches should, by rights, be the moment of the electric automobile. Its technical superiority over the straight internal combustion car will be abundantly clear to anyone who looks at the numbers. It’s more efficient, safer, and its carbon footprint is smaller across many dimensions. What’s more, the good people of America choose electric cars when given the chance. Hybrids from Toyota, Ford, and Honda often require waiting lists, while many nonhybrid models feature cash rebates to spur sales. General Motors’s EV1 and Toyota’s RAV4 EV — both straight-up battery-powered vehicles, no gasoline — found willing and loyal customers in the 1990s, so loyal that many lessees (the cars were never offered for sale) begged to keep the cars after the leases expired. GM said no, a bad PR move that sparked the film Who Killed the Electric Car? Toyota said yes, and hundreds of RAV4 EVs are still on the road. Toyota is now planning a next-generation version in collaboration with California-based Tesla Motors. New electrics are equally popular: 20,000 people have lined up to buy the 10,000 electric Leafs Nissan will produce over the next year; GM claims 25,000 people have joined its “enthusiast list” for the Chevrolet Volt, and has upped 2012 production plans from 30,000 cars to 45,000. Given these numbers, the question must be posed: Why can’t we have the cars we want?

L’Objet Roi

The simple answer is that our transportation system isn’t logical. More precisely, the logic of the system has political and cultural components that exert more force on the evolution of automobility than simple technical logic would dictate. Since their appearance a century ago, cars have become embedded in human culture in a profound way, and the government and industrial and social system that’s grown around them like a concrete sarcophagus will not easily be budged.

Henri Lefebvre rightly labeled the car “l’objet-roi”: the king of all objects. Not only do people spend enormous sums on their automobiles — more than any item save houses, which we treat as appreciable rather than depreciable investments — but producers spend extravagantly to influence consumer choices. At its peak, automobile production and sales accounted for one in six American jobs. Even in their attenuated modern form, these industries account for nearly 8 million jobs in the US — 4.4 percent of private sector employment. Automobiles don’t just move us through space; they reproduce social space, thereby facilitating the reproduction of a capitalist political economy.

This perspective on our automobile culture is as prominent inside the academy as it is invisible outside it. The historians, sociologists, and urbanists who advance it include David Gartman, David Harvey, Miriam Konrad, Peter J. Ling, and Edward Soja. But for most of them the actual means of locomotion remain out of bounds. Those who have studied the rise of the petroleum-powered automobile have generally succumbed to a post hoc technological determinism: internal combustion triumphed because it was faster, stronger, and meaner. What more is there to say?

And yet the internal combustion engine achieved dominance not in some purely technical sense, but within a specific sociohistorical context. In America and the Automobile: Technology, Reform, and Social Change 1893–1923, his study of the first three decades of automobility in the US, Ling emphasizes the degree to which the automobile is embedded in the capitalism of the late 19th century, and follows Marx in believing that its central role is to facilitate the movement of capital. Like the train before it, the automobile, “by incorporating hitherto self-sufficient or relatively isolated regions more fully into the cash economy . . . served to transmit the heightened pace of industrial production to other phases of the cycle of capital accumulation.” In other words, the automobile helped stitch the national market together, especially by bringing previously isolated villages into daily contact with booming urban centers.

In his book Down the Asphalt Path, urban historian Clay McShane shows that the steam automobile, invented in the 1780s, failed because it lacked a context — it was a solution without a problem. The inventor Oliver Evans ran a self-propelled steam vehicle down the streets of Philadelphia in 1805 that might have been the basis for a city bus, but where would it go and why? Streets were made of bumpy cobblestones, for the benefit of horses, and cities themselves were compact, pedestrian-sized. As Hiram Percy Maxim, son of the inventor of the machine gun and himself the inventor of, among other things, the car muffler and an electric vehicle (designed to be “operated, managed, and cared for by inexperienced and even unintelligent persons without danger of injury”), noted in his autobiography: “We have had the steam engine for over a century. We could have built steam vehicles in 1880, or indeed in 1870. But we did not. We waited until 1895.”

Maxim’s own explanation for why the car took off when it did? The bicycle! It “directed men’s minds to the possibilities of long-distance travel over the ordinary highway.” But the bicycle alone did not beget the car. It was the electric streetcar, which ran on wires strung above the streets, that stretched the urban fabric in the 1880s and 1890s, creating places for cars to go. Urban industrialization and immigration, meanwhile, created places that car owners wanted to get away from. In this context, the privately owned automobile solved a constellation of problems. It liberated the aspiring middle class from the hoi polloi and the miasma of the industrial city; now those new streetcar suburbs could be reached in private comfort.

But why the internal combustion engine and its century of discontents, rather than clean, quiet electricity or powerful steam? In fact, both technologies outsold the internal combustion car in the early days, and skeptics of internal combustion argued (correctly) that it was loud, uncouth, and dangerous. “Who would willingly sit atop an explosion?” asked the American engineer Albert Pope, many decades before the overturned exploding automobile became a fixture of Hollywood chase scenes.

Reconstructing the path that led to internal combustion hegemony is difficult and in some sense useless. Most early auto historians subscribed to a “survival of the fittest” explanation, arguing that the internal combustion engine had greater efficiency than the steam engine and more range and speed than the battery. True enough, but insufficient, and when the attack on the gas-powered automobile began in the 1970s, critics sought other explanations. One argument that has gained currency in recent years posits that internal combustion cars were greasy and manly, while electrics were demure and ladylike. This distinction was both a cause and an effect of the selling of early electrics to “ladies who lunch.” Similarly, it has been suggested that the thrusting of pistons is distinctly masculine, while the spinning of an electric motor is feminine; this somehow explains why cars are combustion-powered and vacuum cleaners are not.

All that aside, there is still serious debate about the viability of the early electric car. Gijs Mom in The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age suggests that the electric car was not just viable but technically superior in the right context. For regular, high-intensity, and centrally operated routes, like those of taxi cabs and milk deliveries, batteries were cheaper and simpler. It was the boom in private car ownership that killed the electric car, plus the seductive power of petroleum: it turned out that people did want to sit atop an explosion.

Whether or not electrics made sense a century ago, they certainly do today, now that lithium battery technology has advanced and the environmental cost of petroleum has become clear. That doesn’t stop critics from spewing disinformation. Among the ideas that animate the editorial pages of organs like the Wall Street Journal are the following: 1) Bolivia is the Saudi Arabia of lithium, and so to go electric is to sell our souls to Evo Morales; 2) electric cars rely on electricity generated by burning coal, and are therefore just as polluting as gasoline-powered cars; 3) electric cars will overwhelm the electrical grid, causing rolling blackouts; and 4) Americans will never buy electric econoboxes with limited range.

It’s worth examining each of these in turn.

Peak Lithium

The technological breakthrough that has finally made electric cars a reality is the lithium battery, which came into mass use in the 1990s in cell phones and laptops. Lithium batteries have vastly higher “energy density” and better “energy discharge” than lead or zinc batteries — they store more electricity, absorb it faster, and release it more quickly. That’s the good news. The bad news — Bolivia’s supposed ironclad control of our automobility — is not so bad, though you would be forgiven for being confused after reading the conservative press. The US Geological Survey reports annually on metals production and reserves; it foresees no shortages. Certainly there will be some mismatches in supply and demand as the electrical vehicle market develops, but smoothing those over is what global markets do best. The USGS survey of Afghanistan conducted in 2007 — and recently reported as if it were a new discovery — shows that there is a good deal of lithium still underground, and as prices rise hitherto uneconomic deposits will begin to be exploited. It’s true that about half of the known supply of lithium sits in salt flats in Bolivia, and it’s true that Bolivians recently elected a left-leaning president who occasionally dons a traditional peasant costume when addressing his people. But it’s laughable to suggest that we’d be dealing with anything like the House of Saud, or even the House of Putin. In the absence of lithium, sodium and even zinc are available. Making the leap to electric cars will drive innovation in battery chemistries and fuel cell technologies. The key thing to remember is that using lithium does not mean using it up. Lithium is recycled and reused just like any other metal.


Then there are those who argue that, because we get electricity from burning hydrocarbons, electric cars are just as bad as gasoline cars. This criticism rings hollow when it comes from global-warming deniers, who don’t think gasoline cars are bad at all. But those who distrust big business and its Washington servants also wonder whether the promise of a green techno-utopia is overblown.

Skepticism of technological promises from government and industry is healthy. The history of the hydrogen car, pet project of the George W. Bush Administration, offers a cautionary tale. You may remember, a few years ago, seeing a reporter on TV standing at the tailpipe of a hydrogen-powered car and saying, with a straight face, “The only emission from this car is water!” (Cue closeup of tailpipe dripping water.) What no one told the fresh-faced journo is that hydrogen is a wonderful fuel for nuclear fusion at the center of a star, but down here on earth it is at best an energy storage mechanism, and at worst a fossil fuel distilled from methane or natural gas. Most studies suggest that hydrogen as currently produced is as carbon-intensive as petroleum. (Ditto for ethanol, promoted since the Carter Administration.)

Electric car enthusiasts sometimes ape the hydrogen lobbyists in declaring their vehicles to be emissions-free. And it’s true that electrics have zero “tailpipe emissions,” and are therefore a great way to reduce urban smog. But most of our electricity comes from burning coal, and the greenhouse gas impact of burning coal is tremendous. Nevertheless, the environmental benefits of switching to electric cars are real.

Diving too deeply into the details of where that electricity in the wall outlet comes from can get scary, but grownups should know that it isn’t delivered by a stork. About 70 percent of our electric power comes from fossil fuels (mostly coal and natural gas), nuclear accounts for 20 percent, and most of the balance is hydroelectric — those dammed rivers. Although we count hydroelectric as renewable, it does have significant environmental costs, as any salmon can tell you. Other renewables, including wind, geothermal, solar, and that old favorite, burning wood, account for a mere 3 percent.

You might imagine that adding electric vehicles to the demand side of this equation would simply result in additional contributions from the same mix of fossil fuels and nuclear. There are two reasons why this is not the case. The first is that electric motors are far more efficient than internal combustion motors.

There are many ways to measure efficiency, but the IC engine falls down on just about all of them. Most of the energy generated by burning gasoline in a car engine is lost to heat. In fact, so much heat is generated that unless it is quickly removed from the engine, the whole thing will melt into an ingot. That is why cars have cooling systems, and why your cat likes to fall asleep on the hood of parked cars in winter. On top of that, there is the problem of how poorly IC engines cope with various loads. At highway speeds, your engine uses only a third of its power. But it has to get rolling to begin with, and so carries a good deal of reserve power in the form of a large engine. Because the engine has a limited range of speed and torque, it must be linked to a transmission, a system of gears that raises and lowers the torque and speed, before it links to the wheels.

Compare this to an electric motor, which retains all of its torque even at a standstill. Although many electric cars do use transmissions, they tend to have fewer speeds. The Toyota RAV4 EV, which debuted in 1997, featured a single speed, while its IC counterpart had five. And the electric motor is always ready, meaning it can shut down at a stop sign or traffic light. Isn’t it bizarre that an IC car should keep running while standing still?

The second reason electrics would help the carbon/electricity equation is that the current system of producing and consuming electricity creates an enormous amount of wasted energy — energy that could both charge and be stored for use in other electric vehicles. With the caveat that we should be careful about any sweeping claims for a new technology, try on this sweeping claim: the use of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles would reduce the carbon footprint of not only the transportation sector, but also the electricity-generation sector as a whole.

To understand how this counterintuitive conclusion was reached by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2006, we have to learn a bit more about how our power gets to the wall plug. Traditionally, electricity must be generated when it is needed; unlike gas (or oil or water), it is not stored for later use. Demand fluctuates during the course of the day and with the seasons. Aggregate demand is generally predictable, but the grid must be able to respond in milliseconds to sudden increases. Power companies rely on fossil fuel plants to provide this flexibility — recall that coal and natural gas account for 70 percent of our electrical production. The output of these plants can be adjusted more easily than that of nuclear or hydro plants, and so these latter technologies tend to provide the base load, with coal and gas providing additional load when needed.

What is true for nuclear and hydro is even more true for wind. Although we can predict in the aggregate the amount of energy it will provide, we cannot order it up on demand. In other words, given our current energy grid, wind is not a realistic broad-based alternative to coal and gas. But if we could time-shift renewable energy generation — i.e., produce wind power when we need it rather than when the wind gods choose to bestow it upon us — windmills could play a much bigger role in providing electricity.

Electric cars can provide this temporal shift by radically altering the demand equation. The 2006 NREL scenario suggests that 50 percent market penetration by plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles could more than double the amount of available wind energy. Why? Because the one device that can actually store electricity in basically the same way water or natural gas are stored is a battery pack. As of now the number of high-storage battery packs in the world is pretty low, and there’s no particular incentive for anyone to produce a lot more of them; wind farms that have experimented with using large batteries to store and rationalize their energy capture have found that with batteries costing what they do, it’s not worth it. A significant market penetration of electric cars and their battery packs into the gigantic American automobile fleet — 260 million cars, at present — could change all that. From several dozen thousand battery packs at present, we’d be looking at several dozen million. This would fundamentally change the way energy is produced in the US, transforming renewables from an afterthought to a coequal source. Without the development of plug-ins, meanwhile, future increases in generating capacity are almost sure to come from coal-fired plants.

Range Anxiety

A knottier question about the electric car is part technological, part psychological, and goes back to the very beginning of the battle between the IC and the electric. It is the problem of range. Elihu Thomson, one of the founders of General Electric and initially an agnostic when it came to automobile power sources, concluded in 1896 that the electric car is “like a calf. If you move it you have to take the cow along too.” Batteries were robust and simple, but they were also large and heavy relative to the charge they held. Thomson’s statement was one indication that the electric, in those years, was doomed.

The range of the internal combustion engine is not infinite; modern cars typically get 250 to 400 miles on a tank. Unlike electrics, however, gasoline cars can be refueled in a few minutes at nearly 120,000 locations around the country, thanks to an infrastructure of pipes, underground storage tanks, and tanker trucks — to say nothing of soldiers, transnational environmental criminals, corrupt government officials, and Saudi royals.

Certainly if range on a battery electric were a mere 20 miles, it would limit the machine’s usefulness (the average commute is 24 miles round-trip). But the two-seat Tesla Roadster has an advertised range of 245 miles and a record of 313 miles on a single charge. The company is planning a sedan for 2012 that seats seven (including two pint-sized seats) and has a similar range. This is plenty to satisfy most people’s transportation needs, most of the time.

But Range Anxiety is about more than range — it’s a philosophical and spiritual issue. What if you want to skip off to Vegas? Or more to the point, what if you simply want to know that you could skip off to Vegas at any moment? Maybe you just want to be the kind of person who drives the kind of car that could skip off to Vegas at any moment.

Like any mental disorder, Range Anxiety can’t be cured by statistics alone. Slow and steady acclimation will be needed.

Plugging in and Charging Up in a Market Economy

Range anxiety could be eliminated overnight by the provision of 120,000 electric charging stations across the country. But no one’s about to build that kind of infrastructure, and even if someone did you’d still have a convenience problem: the newest and best lithium-ion batteries take about an hour to charge. Nonetheless, imagining a fully electric system can help us think about many of the facets of transportation electrification and the relative power of government, industry, and the consumer.

Rapid, ubiquitous refueling of electric cars depends ultimately on standardization, just as it did for the gas-powered car. The simplest technical solution would be for vehicles to have batteries that could be easily swapped out, a dead one for a fresh one, as we do with power tools and cameras. An Israeli company with the quasi-religious name “Better Place” (Makom Yoter Tov) aims to provide such standardized battery packs, which can be swapped in and out at automated stations. The three-year-old company now has a pilot project with a fleet of taxis in Japan. In that context the system makes sense: taxis produce far more CO2 than private cars because they run almost constantly, and a taxi company can provide its own “refueling” station and a reserve supply of batteries. In fact, this is precisely the model for electric vehicles that Gijs Mom documented working in American cities a century ago.

A massive governmental push could overcome the difficulties in scaling up this swappable model. There would be ancillary benefits too, as we’ve said, as spare batteries could be tied into the electrical grid and used to smooth the peaks and valleys of electrical usage. But such intelligent and purely rational government action tends to remain in the realm of science fiction or collectivist fantasies.

The other possibility, which has attracted more interest in the US, is to provide a ubiquitous and perhaps even a “fast-charging” solution. A consortium of Japanese automakers has created a fast-charging unit for public locations: unlike gas pumps, which contain an expensive and highly combustible liquid, these could be placed in parking lots at retail outlets or on-street locations. The goal is a 50 percent charge in about ten minutes — enough for fifty miles of driving.

But even fast charging doesn’t come close to providing the range and speed of refueling with gasoline. And it confronts problems of compatibility that don’t affect gasoline cars. In the early automobile days, before petroleum became the standard, cars had to be capable of running on a variety of fuels, including gasoline, kerosene, and alcohol — the Model T was perhaps the first “flexfuel” vehicle. But it won’t be so easy for electric cars, because different technical choices by manufacturers necessitate different types of charging stations. The wrong fast-charger can reduce battery life or cause other problems. When trying to create a nationwide infrastructure, tying a specific car to a specific type of charging station doesn’t hold much promise, though it’s exactly what might happen if the electrification of automobiles is left entirely in the hands of a few competing private companies, as the development of mobile phones has mostly been, with poor results.

The Government

As it proved in the last century, and indeed the century before that, government is the only entity that can rework the transportation system in its entirety. Without government, railroads would not have stitched the country together. Without government, highways and airports would not have replaced the railroads. The job of building the electric vehicle infrastructure, which includes not only roads but, as with petroleum, legal standards and energy pipelines, should fall not to industry but to government. But government is hamstrung by ideological and political problems almost beyond repair.

The trouble began in the 1980s, when in an effort to stem the tide of Japanese and German imports, the US imposed heavy import tariffs, leading foreign automakers to set up factories in traditional automobile manufacturing states such as Indiana, but also in Alabama (Mercedes) and Tennessee and Mississippi (Nissan). The nonunion “transplants” allowed these companies to avoid tariffs and, eventually, gain a foothold in Congress, where they are now championed by the Republicans, while the diminished Big Three still have traditional allies among Democrats. Of course the Republicans are ideologically opposed to government action, especially if it helps combat global warming. The result has been a stalemate in which government can’t do anything to help either side. Finally, there is the NADA, the lobbying arm of the nation’s automobile dealerships, which showed its muscle during the recent fights over consumer lending legislation and the auto bailouts. The NADA has 17,000 dues-paying dogs in the fight over the electric car’s future. Many people don’t realize that dealers are the actual customers of GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the others; mere civilians must buy from the dealerships. Dealerships don’t actually make much money selling cars, but they do make good money providing service. If electric cars don’t need much service, what’s in it for the dealerships? (California-based electric startup Tesla is selling directly to customers.) The result of these politics is stalemate, which protects the status quo.

There is also the problem of oil. Everyone can get behind the slogan of “energy security,” but the fact is we still drill a lot of oil in this country: about 9 million barrels a day in 2009, good for third place behind Russia (about 10 million) and Saudi Arabia (10 to 11 million), and well ahead of China and Iran (about 4 million each). Then we consume nearly 19 million barrels per day. Someone needs to refine, transport, and sell all of that oil. There is simply too much money flowing through the gleaming towers of Houston and Dallas, in other words, for immediate national interest alone to serve as the basis for the electrification of the auto fleet.

So the government has moved gingerly. Its first plan was the 1993 “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles,” which promised 80-mpg family sedans in ten years. The idea was to encourage Ford, GM, and Chrysler to build these cars with strong federal support (in the form of money). They did build these cars. Three of them. Three cars. Each company built one car. Each used turbodiesel engines and hybrid drives along with lightweight materials. Never mind that the BMW Mini Cooper Diesel achieves over 60 mpg on the highway and that Volkswagen sells four turbodiesel models rated at 42 mpg, all without billions in taxpayer money. The evident benefits of hybrid-electric diesels — namely, that they burn less oil — scared the Bush Administration. They pulled the plug on the Partnership and replaced it with — what else — the Freedom Car initiative. The nominal goal was hydrogen power, but the real plan was to keep people dreaming of cars that run on water while continuing to sell tax-broken Hummers. A lot of fascinating science experiments were conducted, and some fuel-cell cars and city buses are still in trials around the globe, but the hydrogen bubble went pop, with less fanfare though much more lasting damage than the Hindenburg.

The political climate today is different — but not much. In the face of a threat from California to unilaterally raise its fuel efficiency standards — meaning automakers might have had to produce a special “California model,” as they were forced to in the 1970s and ’80s — the Obama Administration significantly raised fuel economy standards for 2016, for the first time with a buy-in from industry. (Industry opposition has kept the figure at about 27.5 mpg since 1985.) Yet neither the Obama Administration nor congressional Democrats are behind recent efforts to promote the electrification of our transportation system. Instead, the capital is merely the arena where powerful interests collide: on one side the extractive and automobile industries that prefer the status quo, on the other those who stand to win big if a transformation occurs. For example, the Electrification Coalition, a “non-partisan, not-for-profit group of business leaders committed to promoting policies and actions that facilitate the deployment of electric vehicles on a mass scale,” includes the chairman of the largest US battery company, Johnson Controls; Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan Automotive, which will soon debut the all-electric Leaf; and the head of Cisco Systems, which stands to gain a share of the market for equipment to manage a “smart” electrical grid.

The point is not that these business leaders are doing something nefarious in Washington. It stands to reason that Kevin Czinger is president and CEO of Coda Automotive, just as he is a member of the Electrification Coalition, because he wholeheartedly believes in the need to transform our transportation sector. The point is simply that our elected representatives are neither leading the way nor responding to the popular will in promoting (or failing to promote) the development of grid-enabled vehicles. They are instead reacting to well-organized and well-funded interest groups made up of American businesses. If the electricians win the day, we will get electric cars sooner. If big oil and auto prevail, the Chinese will be enjoying electric cars while we keep riding in IC rickshaws. And the corollary point is that as motivated, organized, and well-funded as the electricity interests are, they are no match for the largest industry in the world.

This state of affairs in the affairs of state is sad on many levels. Certainly it is business as usual. But it is especially painful because government could step in and make things much easier for everyone, ensuring a smoother, faster transition to the cleaner electric car.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the stimulus bill — does contain a $7,500 tax credit for plug-in vehicles, but the fine print shows that we could be doing more. The $7,500 credit begins to phase out when an automaker has sold 200,000 units worldwide of a given model (cumulatively, not per year). The same basic formula has been used for hybrids in the past, so that the Toyota Prius no longer qualifies. Given a US fleet of 260 million cars and annual sales of 10 to 14 million more, a couple hundred thousand electrics is a drop in the bucket. It’s a policy designed to create a niche, and no more. The government could do so much more, and more quickly. First, the national government should massively subsidize the purchase of large-format lithium ion cells to help scale up domestic production and drive the real costs of these batteries down. Second, state governments should make it cheaper and easier to own a second or third car if that car is an electric. Changing insurance and registration requirements so that they follow the driver rather than the vehicle would be a good first step. Just as small cars entered the US market as secondary vehicles, so too can electrics. Eventually, they can become our primary vehicles. Third, local governments should make flexible charging stations part of the infrastructure, just as parking spaces and roads are today. Federal funding could offset the costs.

Of course, we might settle for Senate passage of the current cap-and-trade legislation that squeaked through the House. It sets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent of current levels by 2050. It is not enough, but it is better than nothing, and it’s a start.


The coming diversity in transportation options — diverse, at least, compared to what has been on offer for the past half century — suggests that we are on the cusp of fundamental changes in our transportation ecosystem. What we don’t yet know is how Americans will respond. The two current independent leaders in electric car manufacturing, Tesla and Fiskar, believe they can shift from makers of luxury toys to become something like the Big Two of America for the 21st century. GM is counting on perpetuating Range Anxiety to sell its Chevrolet Volt against the competition. Nissan believes there are enough customers for it to make and sell Leafs without going bankrupt. But they are directing their sales efforts only at markets, like Orlando, Florida, that have already agreed to install the municipal-funded infrastructure. Given what we’ve seen with hybrids — consumers way out in front of government — that may be a self-limiting strategy.

The most likely scenario for the foreseeable future is an America in which electrics provide a 100-mile driving radius and rely on slow, steady overnight charging. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods might provide free chargers for their Southern California customers, but for most Americans recharging will happen at home or work. Some electrics might find a niche in the networked fleets of carshare cults such as Zipcar. Without significant government involvement — or a radical, sustained spike in gas prices — that will be as far as it goes. Oil will continue to be drilled, further and further out at sea, and coal will continue to be mined, clearing mountaintops and poisoning streams.

Fortunately for the globe, though perhaps less so for the US, electric cars will remain a pillar of China’s five-year plans. China suffers neither the broken democracy of the US nor the obduracy of a century-old system to serve a mass market of IC fundamentalists. Change will come much more slowly here. But the change will come. The gas-powered pickup truck might always be a better choice for the Montana rancher, even in some far-off Mad Max future, but for every Montana rancher there are thousands of suburban commuters, and for every mile that Montana stake truck travels, those commuters clock hundreds of thousands. For those miles — that is, for most of us — the future will be electric, and it can’t come soon enough.

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