Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Future is Here

Now that the clunker of a Jeep Wrangler has been traded for a hyper-efficient Toyota Prius, I’ve been in awe of modern Japanese technology. Being eternally vigilant of keeping my smug emissions to a minimum, I can only heap praise upon the ultra-light, aerodynamic, hybrid-electric which stands as the most fuel-efficient gasoline-consuming automobile ever mass-produced thusfar in the history of human civilization.

It is a pleasure to drive, the built-in GPS and rear-monitor make driving and parking incredibly easier, and with an average of 48 miles per gallon on highways and 51 miles per gallon in cities I hardly ever have to fill up for gas. When I drove the Wrangler I could hardly drive from Vista to Vermont without having to fill the tank, but on a recent road trip I was able to drive the Prius from Amherst, Massachusetts to Alexandria, Virginia – a total of 8.5 hours and 401 miles – without having to stop for gas! And if that weren’t good enough, it only cost me $29 because the Prius gas tank is so small to begin with! Forget about carbon emissions; the expense of this car will eventually pay for itself in savings on gasoline consumption!

Though it is the most fuel-efficient car on the market, the Prius isn’t necessarily the superlative most cost-efficient when it comes to fuel consumption. Though the Prius II gets 48/51 miles per gallon it costs a whopping $22,800 – whereas the Honda Civic gets a mere 40/43 mpg it also costs only $15,800. Of course, if private consumers as well as policymakers in business and government are trying to figure out ways of minimizing CO2 emissions, they should focus more on those models that can reduce fuel consumption the most cost-efficiently. Hybrid vehicles are only going to be practical solutions to the macroeconomic issues of air pollution and climate change when they are sold at a price that not just the sons of doctors and real estate brokers but also middle-class and working-class consumers can afford such an unwieldy investment.

So the other day I was driving around doing errands when I stopped in a parking garage and saw something which put my puny Prius to shame: a Tesla Roadster.

I was just dumbstruck standing there for what must’ve been five minutes admiring this beautiful, sleek and unarguably sexy car as though it were Lea Michele posing there in the parking garage in lingerie and stilettos… (drool)…

And this Jamaican delivery guy parks next to me, sees me and laughs a good hearty belly laugh, “Ho ho ho! Dis electreec ca! De man paks his electreec ca hea every day! It ees de Futah!”

“Yeah… I know…”

“You know how much money I spen’ on gas? Hundreds and hundreds o’ dollas every week! If I had an electreec ca I could deeliver my packages and not spend no money! I’d just plug eet in and feell eet with electreecity!”

And for the rest of the day, I couldn’t help but think of that Jamaican dude in the parking garage. In all probability this guy making $15,000-$20,000 a year can’t afford to go out and buy a Tesla Roadster. And he’s probably not in line to buy one of the first Chevy Volts for $32,780 or one of the Nissan Leafs for $25,280. But what if one day five, ten, twenty years from now the Volt or the Leaf or one of their progeny is produced on such a scale that he can afford to buy one?

These electric cars are being marketed as being able to run on $1.50 worth of electricity per day. If you can charge your car up at home or at the office then the cost would just be added to your overall utility bill – but a great deal of commuters who need to drive long distances every day would need to be able to recharge at private recharging stations en route. A small business owner like a package deliverer, a carpenter, a cable repairman or Joe the Plumber who drives from house to house for business might have to recharge multiple times every work day! And of course, no country has ever had a full-scale economy of electric-charging stations and we can only speculate as to how this hypothetical market is going to function.

But could the recharging of electric cars really cost only $1.50 per day – even for someone like the Jamaican delivery guy whose job consists of driving around town all day long? And wouldn’t charging a commuter fleet only be adding to the burden of our already-strained electric grids? Maybe in a market along the swaths of California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas desert that will soon be electrified exclusively with solar and wind energy a fleet of electric cars could have a miniscule carbon footprint - but here in New York where so much of our electricity is derived from oil, coal and gas of course electric cars would only have a marginal effect on reducing our greenhouse emissions for staving off the most disastrous global climate change. Electric cars could have only modest improvements on our environmental degradation in a cloudy region like New York without a massive reinvention of our energy grid - which for now remains untold generations away, so they can really only be rationally superior products in this market if they offer genuine economic benefits in terms of saving on transportation costs.

I must concede my own ignorance on the matter – and beseech you all in the peanut gallery for some answers. At the moment I’m only tangentially interested in electric cars in terms of air pollution or carbon emissions – I'm much more interested in the potential for electric cars to improve the traditional indicators in our economy. If a typical commuter who drives from, say, the suburbs of Westchester County to Madison Avenue five days a week were to drive a Tesla Roadster, a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf, how much money would he be saving on gas? In the case of the Jamaican delivery guy who is driving not just as a commuter but as an operating cost of his business, how lucrative would his investment in a Volt be over the course of 10 years? Is this fuel-saving technology something that could help small businesses stay afloat in this perilous economy – and if so, to what degree? Could it help small and large firms save so much money on gas that they could actually afford to invest and expand their production and start making new hires? And considering that many of these cars are going to be manufactured here in the United States and they will be using less Middle Eastern oil, how will the growth of electric cars effect our trade deficits? Can the gradual conversion from a fleet of gasoline-fueled cars and trucks to vehicles powered by electric batteries contribute to the overall solvency of the United States economy?

If any of you can find any good data on the economic benefits of electric cars – or even just personal anecdotes or musings on your own household budget, I would much appreciate it. Here’s to making Zacstravaganza more of a two-way conversation in the new year!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Even though electricity may rely on fossil fuels such as coal and oil, its clearly easier to manage the pollution coming from concentrated plants rather than individual cars.

(Oh hey, Zach, I'm just a random reader who stumbled across your blog through Peace Corp Journals.)