TGIF: Will your future automobile have an electrical cord?

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

Having been a car buff since childhood, I’ve watched the development of electric-powered vehicles for a while now. And frankly, I’ve been watching this development with measured skepticism.

Nevertheless, I had decided that it’s inevitable that such vehicles would ultimately have a prominent place in, or even dominate, the automotive world. But I didn’t think I’d live to see it. Now I’m not so sure, and I’m certainly not ready.

I realize more than ever that each day is a gift, and tomorrow is promised to no one, but things are happening quickly in this industry. Major automakers have announced timelines to discontinue production of internal combustion engines — powered by gasoline or diesel fuel — and those timelines are certainly within (the good Lord willing) my life expectancy.

To make a long story a bit less long, I’m trying to get my mind around the idea of driving electric. That will mean stopping at charging stations instead of filling stations. “Filling station” and “service station” were the terms my father used interchangeably for any gasoline retailer in the 1950s.

Two years ago in May, I wrote a column about the looming possibly of autonomous vehicles — cars and trucks capable of driving themselves from one place to another after appropriate coordinates were programmed into its computer. Those computers will allow vehicles to communicate with a network and navigate traffic. They’re still a definite possibility, but it appears that arriving beforehand will be the electrification of many, and ultimately most, vehicles on our streets and highways.

You don’t have to read many press releases from the automotive industry to know that manufacturers are scrambling to introduce the newest and best battery-powered cars and trucks.

Of course, a lot of questions need to be answered before any massive transformation on our highway transit system can take place. Right now, the big issues are (1) boosting the vehicles’ range between recharges, (2) the distances between rapid recharge stations, (3) how much more than a traditional vehicle will they cost, and (4) how long will governments be willing to subsidize purchases?

Those first two questions loomed large in my mind this month as my wife and I turned off an Interstate highway to drive some West Texas backroads, and a Tesla whisked past us before we reached the exit ramp. If drivers of electric cars stay on Interstate highways, they probably won’t have much difficulty recharging. I’ve read that access to a network of charging locations is offered as part of any electric vehicle purchase, but no single source for all the locations and their different capabilities has been created yet. They’re still working out certain details.

The main questions facing an automobile owner considering an electric vehicle remain range and location of charging stations, but governments must also get ready for a future that’s apparently closer than some had thought.

Gasoline highway taxes fund much of the highway infrastructure in every state, so how is that revenue replaced when fuel sales sag? What will oil-producing states like Texas do to support their economies? Petroleum has many important uses besides gasoline and diesel, and it will be decades before all our internal combustion engine powered vehicles wear out, so demand for fuel will at least level out before it eventually declines.

I hadn’t even considered one other major hitch until someone else pointed it out to me. The electrical power grid, in Texas at least, is already unable to keep pace with customers’ demands during the most severe weather conditions — including searing hot and subfreezing cold temperatures. What must be done to prepare generation capacity for a time when everybody is charging their vehicles, never mind trying to heat or cool their homes and businesses?

Futurists are projecting that electric vehicles could be only one step toward even more drastic changes in the way people get from one place to another. I read an article that sounded rather extreme, but who knows any more? A visionary projected that many of the world’s environmental and overcrowding problems will ultimately need to be addressed by the elimination of personal vehicles, regardless of how they’re powered. This would require relying on expanded mass transit systems, plus ride-sharing and hourly vehicle rentals.

I imagine this would work in metropolitan areas, but what will those of us in rural areas do?

Smarter brains than mine will no doubt figure all this out before long, but will it happen in time to make the transition a smooth one? Or will those smart brains figure out something else entirely — maybe an emissions-free, gasoline-powered vehicle getting 100 miles-per-gallon?

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.