The next transportation revolution is underway now, and it’s going to be awesome!
I’m looking at two photographs of busy traffic from street scenes in New York, one from 1903, the other from 1913, ten years a part. The former is crowded with horse-drawn carts. The latter is completely populated with cars.
In a mere decade, Henry Ford’s model T changed the landscape completely in the wink of a proverbial eye. Since then, almost exclusively, cars have been powered by internal combustion engines, fueled by liquid petrochemicals. That’s about to change.
Blacksburg’s David Roper is on the leading edge. An octogenarian and self-described geek, he sees electric cars as our future and has devoted considerable time and resources towards pursuing them. He made the grave mistake the other day letting me drive his new Chevrolet Bolt, a fully electric car.
Dave is a retired Virginia Tech physics professor, and he’s obsessed with graphs and mathematics. He’s convinced that within a decade, over half the cars on the road will be electric. The ramifications will ripple through the economy. I’ll tell you more about predictions he and I discussed in a moment, but let me describe the ride.
The Bolt is a small hatchback, with comfortable seating for four. The first thing you notice behind the wheel is that the two “dashboards,” the one in front of you and the one at the center of the car, are entirely digital, in effect computer screens. There is no key; it “starts” with a push-button. More than “quiet,” the car is utterly soundless, other than the radio and the ventilation system’s fan. Perimeter cameras give a 360-degree view of the surroundings, assisting with maneuvering out the garage. Once underway, the car responds briskly to the “throttle,” and accelerates quickly and seemingly effortlessly, from 0 to 60mph in 6.3 seconds. As we whoosh onto a busy city street, Dave tells me that the car’s required maintenance is to change the cabin air filter annually and rotate the tires. That’s it!
“Gasoline cars are inefficient, around 25-30 percent. Electric cars around 95 percent efficient,” he told me. “The miles-per-gallon equivalency for this car, the way I drive around Blacksburg, is around 138 mpg. I can drive 220-300 miles between charges. So gasoline cars really can’t compete.”
Knowing that the car is hyper-efficient, I floored the throttle, feeling none of the guilt associated with a joy ride in a typical vehicle.
Electric cars cost more up-front, but their reduced fuel and maintenance costs help them become competitive. And with ongoing advancements and price reductions, the balance will soon shift entirely towards electric cars, maybe in as little as three to four years.
David said he was less motivated by return on investment than pure desire.
“I bought this car because it was what I wanted. Nobody buys a Cadillac because of ROI.” He has also invested in solar panels, which cover much of his south-facing roof, to “fuel” his car and home. His motivation was not purely economical, but to help save the world from the myriad maladies of fossil fuel use.
So what will change when most of the cars on the road are electric? Who will be the winners and losers? It’s anybody’s guess how the future will play out, but these are likely:
• The petroleum industry will reel! We’ll no longer be making gazillionaires of the oil moguls, the Tillersons, Cheneys, Putins, sultans and Kochs of the world.
• No more poisoned air and water with ozone and particulate pollution.
• No more destroyed coal-bearing mountains.
• No more devastating oil spills.
• No more tyrannical petro-states and no more oil wars in the Middle East or elsewhere.
New electric vehicles are equipped to handle the upcoming software advances that will enable cars to drive themselves. Frankly, 15 years ago I was convinced that self-driving cars would never happen in my lifetime; now I’m equally convinced they are inevitable. Then what happens?
Think about this for a moment. Why do we use taxis so sparingly when we want to go somewhere? Because they’re expensive. Most of the money we pay for a taxi goes to paying the driver. If there’s no driver, the cost will plummet. If you have two family cars now, you may go to one. If you have one, you may go without.
Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft will proliferate, and they’ll by cars in bulk, likely directly from the manufacturer, killing the traditional dealership model.
Whenever you need to go, you’ll summon a car on your smart phone and one will appear to take you. So you won’t need a garage, driveway, or car insurance. Repair shops will wither and die, as will insurance companies.
There will be no parking lot at your office, factory, school or church. Crashes will diminish, because computers frankly are better drivers than we are.
The forces that benefit from the current system will resist mightily. But there will be no turning back, just as there was no turning back to horse-drawn carts in 1910.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.