New York - electric cars
Pixabay / PEXELS

Thomas Edison famously electrified New York City in 1882 when the first commercial central power plant in the world went online at 255-257 Pearl Street.  It took most of the next three decades to spread the blessings of electric power through the rest of the city, but it got done without much help from any government.  Electric lights were cheaper, safer, and just better than gaslight or kerosene lamps, and little government intervention was required to persuade millions of New Yorkers that going electric was the thing to do.

New York City now faces a new kind of electrification:  the electric car.  As an article in the New York Times recently described, the futuristic vision of having only all-electric vehicles inside the confines of the five boroughs that make up New York is being realised slowly, if at all. 

Powering up

One significant drawback is the lack of public charging stations.  Even after setting a modest goal of installing 120 new charging stations, the city ended up as #93 in a recent survey that rated 100 cities in terms of how electric-car-friendly they were.

New York City’s commissioner of transportation Hank Gutman is determined to change the situation.  His commission issued a report calling for 1,000 curbside chargers by 2025 and 10,000 by 2030.  Every municipal parking lot will have one-fifth of its slots equipped with chargers, if the plans in the report are carried out.

One might ask if those slots will be reserved for electric cars only, of which there are presently only 20,000 registered in all of New York City.  If only electric cars can park in those slots, all this means for the old-fashioned gas-guzzler driver is that the municipal parking lots will effectively shrink by 20%.

Environmentalism

The electric car is perhaps one of the few major mass-market items whose main selling point is ideological.  From a purely pragmatic individual point of view — whether you are looking at personal safety, saving money, or convenience — there is really nothing an all-electric car can offer that a gasoline model can’t also offer.

The ideological reason to buy an all-electric car is that it is one small step for a car buyer, but multiply that by a billion or so and it will be a giant leap toward a fossil-fuel-less future in which global warming is defeated.  And this reason cannot be discounted, because I think it is one of the main reasons people currently buy electric vehicles.

Whether it makes sense for someone to spend an extra ten to thirty thousand dollars on a car that requires careful logistical planning to make it between charging stations and may not in fact reduce carbon emissions at all if the local electric utility burns coal, is a decision that individuals are free to make.

But so far, despite the growing sales figures of upstarts such as Tesla, the prospect of gasoline vehicles going the way of kerosene lamps by 1910 actually looks pretty reasonable, if you give it another three or four decades.

Growing trend

In 1910, there were still lots of people who used kerosene lamps, and it would be another twenty or thirty years before such things were found only in extremely rural areas.  And it would take government intervention, in the form of the Rural Electrification Administration, to bring electricity to the remaining rural areas without electric power. 

Still, nobody was forced to put away their kerosene lamps and get connected.  People in rural areas had to wait longer because it cost more to install the lines than in urban areas, but they still wanted electricity as much as their city cousins did.

Until all-electric vehicles are cheaper and easier to buy and operate than gasoline-powered ones, it will be like pushing on a string to get most people to buy one.  Some of the string moves when you push on it, but most of it doesn’t.

Intervention needed?

There are those who feel that the chronic global-warming emergency is so urgent that fossil fuels should be effectively banned — taxed out of existence or otherwise made inaccessible to the average person.  This would represent a draconian market intervention by governments in an area where government has not exactly covered itself with glory, judging by similar historical interventions such as the price controls during the gasoline crisis of the 1970s.

The technological optimists among us (and on some days I count myself in that number) look to a day when some new and currently unthought-of technology improves battery storage capacity by another factor of 10 and lowers the price by the same factor.  If that happened, electric cars would simply out-perform and undercut the price of gasoline vehicles, which hold the record as being the most complicated mass-produced human-sized object in history. 

By contrast, the entire drive train of an electric car is a battery, some electronics, and electric motors hooked to the wheels.  The rest is software, and we all know how cheap software is.  I don’t think we’ll get to the point that companies will give away electric cars for free as long as you put up with the ads, but it might come close.

At that point, we won’t need government subsidies or carbon taxes or prohibitions to make the transition from gas to electric vehicles.  People will want to do it of their own free will, and the market will be more than happy to oblige.  But it might not happen for a while yet.

One of the most scarce commodities these days is patience.  Even with the vastly superior performance of electric lighting, which was not cheaper than gas to begin with, it took the better part of four decades before most people were able to make the transition.  Heavy-breathing global-warming alarmists may say, “We don’t have four decades! We’ve got to do something now!!”

We are just emerging from the results of two years of governments “doing something now” to fight COVID-19, and offhand I can think of only one of those things that had an unequivocally positive effect on the outcome:  the rapid development of vaccines.  Most other actions arguably did more harm than good, or at least mixed in a lot of harm with the good. 

Let’s not make that mistake again.

This article has been republished from Engineering Ethics with permission.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...