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Take A Picture Of Your Car — It’s Likely The Last One You’ll Drive That You Can’t Plug In
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Go out to your garage—after you finish reading this, of course—to take a picture of your car. Someday your grandchildren are going to ask you about it—the last car you drove that you couldn’t plug in. (Disclosure: my wife owns Tesla stock.)
Before you poo-poo this notion, I want you to consider the fate of the extinct beast known as the Hummer. You remember them; just a few years ago they dotted the highways, oozing testosterone as if they ran on the stuff.
Hummer lineup, Wikipedia
But they didn’t. They ran on gasoline. A lot of gasoline. And there came a day in 2008, when suddenly it was no longer socially acceptable to drive a car that boasted about its fuel inefficiency. According to the New York Times, sales dropped 67% from 2008 to 2009 and the GM unit was shuttered in 2010 after a deal with a Chinese buyer failed. The vehicles were never cheap, so their extinction had little do with economics. The folks who owned them could afford to fuel them.
It just happened that all of a sudden you couldn’t be seen dropping off the kids at school in a Hummer. It was like spanking them in public, simply verboten. (This is not intended as an endorsement of privately spanking your children.)
There were a number of factors that combined to kill the Hummer—and they’re lining up to kill cars with traditional gasoline engines.
The perception that gas is too expensive. Gasoline is expensive in the volumes we need it to drive the typical American commute of about 30 miles per day. But it isn’t really too expensive and won’t likely become too expensive for most Americans to afford to drive a plain old car with a gasoline engine. The cost of gasoline, however, is likely to remain high enough to keep reminding us that we should be driving more fuel efficient vehicles.
Anti-pollution sentiment. You don’t need to be the least bit bent toward tree-hugging, radical ideology in 2014 to feel strongly about air quality. In most major cities it remains a major problem and in many, like mine (Salt Lake City) air quality issues seem to be getting worse. If everyone agrees—and we do—that our cars produce much of the pollution the social pressure to drive a car that is radically less polluting builds up in our minds.
Social awareness of global warming. Despite the fact there is near universal consensus about climate change among scientists, much of the public remains skeptical. Having a sense that the consensus of opinion among our friends and neighbors is that global warming is real and human caused won’t require anything like the consensus in the scientific community; it will require only a clear, outspoken majority to quiet most naysayers, creating the impression that “everyone” is on board.
Availability of alternatives. The Hummer died off quickly, in part, because there were plenty of viable alternatives. It wasn’t hard to go to the car store and pick up a more socially acceptable car because every other car on the road was more socially acceptable. Only a few years ago, it was difficult to name a car company other than Toyota that made a hybrid and virtually no one made a car you could plug in. Today Porsche makes a plug-in electric hybrid Panamara four-dour sports car. BMW makes a tiny all electric car with a range-extending gasoline engine option. Nissan sells the all-electric Leaf. Toyota makes more hybrid models than I can count. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to walk into a new car showroom today and not find at least one car you can plug in. We are not far from the point when it will simply become too easy to buy an all-electric or plug-in electric hybrid; there will be one for every taste and you’ll be left with no excuse.
Convenient infrastructure. In order to abandon a Hummer, a driver didn’t need to find a entirely new fuel source or pattern for obtaining it. To switch from a gasoline engine driven car to one with an all-electric engine would. Tesla is working frantically to make that happen, but it may be unnecessary. In order to drive a plug-in electric hybrid with a 300 mile range and a fuel economy rating of 100 miles per gallon the only change required is an extension cord in the garage. Even I could handle that.
When all of these factors align, triggered perhaps by a shock to the supply of oil or perhaps by a natural disaster attributed to climate change, the shift will be unmistakable and sudden. Without a formal agreement, without a memo, without another blog post we will all decide that our next car will plug in to power up.
Cars with diesel engines may not die out as quickly as their gasoline-based cousins as they are substantially more efficient, but I suspect the death of the diesel engine-only cars will follow shortly behind their gasoline cousins. Old fashioned hybrids that you can’t plug in will also have lives that extend past the switch, but not by much. It just won’t be cool enough to say, “my car has batteries” when your neighbor says, “I plug mine in at night.”
The sudden shift I predict away from gasoline-only cars won’t happen as quickly as the extinction of the Hummer, but it will be remarkable. And it is coming soon. I will be shocked if we can’t recognize that it has happened before the end of this decade. While a few gasoline-only models will likely survive, they will include only low end, high-mileage small cars and some specialty cars and trucks.
Consider the ramifications of being a manufacturer that is behind the curve. If you don’t offer a plug-in vehicle when the shift happens, something very much like that may end up scrawled on your shuttered doors.
Similarly, there are opportunities for companies like Tesla and other entrepreneurs preparing to service a market for electric cars.
So, if you are among the vast majority of Americans who drive a car like mine with a gasoline engine only, be sure to take some photos, make some journal entries and prepare to tell your grandchildren about the olden days when you didn’t plug your car in at night.
What do you think?
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