So why can’t I go out and buy an electric car today?
The truth is I can. Kind of. Recently I promised to write about the lack of reasonable choices for full electric solutions. It’s time.
First the good news. There is more and more news about electrics hitting American streets, including the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. The bad news? These cars always seem just out of reach or ridiculously expensive. We’ll see in a year or two if we have some real choices.
In the meantime, we occasionally get to see an electric car in a parking lot and we all walk up to it and marvel. But if you’re like me and don’t have a lot of friends with Teslas, most of the electric cars you’ve seen up close are glorified golf carts such as the GEM.
Why is this? Because without proper safety equipment, the law limited many of these Neighborhood Electric Vehicles to roads with posted limits of 35 mph or less and the speeds limited to 25 mph. Weak! There is a Medium Speed Vehicle classification as well and many NEVs can be modified to go 35 mph. But the crux of the issue remains the same. Electrics are at a power disadvantage compared to internal combustion-based cars and thus have a harder time pushing the weight of all that safety equipment around. This might be the second greatest irony of Ralph Nader’s life.
Now don’t get me wrong. This safety equipment has been a positive development. It’s probably saved my own life and lives of many people I know. And no wants to scrape brains off car batteries, so of course safety laws make sense.
But we already have various classifications of vehicles. For example, motorcycles are already allowed on public roadways, including highways. No one would argue that they’re safer than a large SUV in a collision. People accept the risk and the law requires the minimum safety equipment such as helmets and headlights. Should people who want to drive electric cars should be allowed to accept some larger amount of risk in exchange for some loosening of safety requirements? Or should larger vehicles pay more in taxes and in insurance rates since they’re doing more damage?
I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s obvious that we’re in a vicious circle right now where vehicles continue to get larger and heavier to defend themselves from other large, heavy vehicles. Would we even need, for example, side impact air bags if cars had evolved to be smaller and lighter in stead of bigger and heavier? As bumpers get heavier, more padding and beefier car frames go up in defense. At some point this has to stop.
That’s why this news today came as a welcome development:
TACOMA, Wash. – Two Washington legislators are looking to move golf carts from fairways to roadways. A bill by Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood would let people drive golf carts in bike lanes and on sidewalks throughout the state.
I’m not sure about the sidewalks part, but this is the future. I can easily envision cart paths separated from normal roadways for longer distances and allowed anywhere cars are allowed on roads of 25 mph or less. Recently on a trip to Catalina Island, I tooled around in a golf cart, mingling with traffic just fine. (OK, a little scary at first, but it was fine once you get used to it.)
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s clear to me that the dynamic we’ve been operating under for decades needs to shift. My job is a relatively short 9 miles from my house. I drive to work since I sometimes need to drive during the day, although I carpool, which definitely helps keep the carbon down. But it just feels silly to haul all this metal around everywhere I go. So it’s not going to be enough to simply replace gas engines with electric motors. Cities need to adapt now to face a gas-free future. Those that don’t face up to this procrastinate at their peril.