The Monday Morning Commute: Ask traffic engineer Paul Basha: Will electric vehicles ever be commonplace?

By Paul Basha, traffic engineer, Summit Land Management

Will electric vehicles ever be commonplace?

First, imagine just before the turn of the century, not the last one, the one before that. Whenever you wanted to go somewhere, you walked. The wealthy might ride a horse, if the distance or appearance were long enough to justify the bother. The very wealthy had horse-drawn carriages, and servants to care for the horses and the buggy.

The first train was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1827. Conventional wisdom was that a steam engine could not travel on steep hills. The first passenger trolley (streetcar) connected Harlem to downtown New York in 1832.

So, sometime in the late 1880’s or 1890’s, while you were walking to get home supplies, a friend might explain to you that someone had invented a horseless carriage. All you needed to operate it was a never-before-seen store with a never-before-seen gasoline pump. These new transportation devices could travel an unbelievable 150 miles on one “tank of gas”. This friend suggested that one day every family would own one of these “cars”, and that one day these “gasoline stations” would be every one-half mile throughout the nation. Furthermore, just for these “cars”, people would create a hard tar substance out of oil and put it on the ground for thousands of miles throughout the 45 states.

“Not likely” would be the gentle logical response.

Then this fantasy begins to happen. In 1901 Ransom Eli Olds produced 425 cars. The first gasoline station (“filling station” as my mother called them) appeared in either St. Louis, Missouri in 1905; or Seattle, Washington in 1907; or Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1909.

In 1912, Henry Ford produced 160,000 cars. Then in 1915, the world’s oil supply was expected to be depleted by 1940. Your friend who generated so much skepticism in you in the very late 1800’s, tells you not-to-worry because large quantities of oil will be discovered on the Arabian Peninsula. And people would build huge ships to transport the oil to the now 48 United States.

Even though you knew in the early 1900’s that smart people 300 years earlier made fortunes by purchasing stock in the tulip shipping Dutch East India Company, you likely would not be one to buy stock in “automobiles” or in oil discovery and production companies, or in road-building companies, or in “gasoline stations”. The Rockefellers did.

What’s more likely: gasoline-powered automobiles without gas stations or roads 130 years ago, or electric vehicles now?

During the recent (current?) pandemic, car sales in Europe declined noticeably, except for electric vehicles. In the United Kingdom alone comparing 2020 to 2019, fossil-fueled vehicle sales declined 25%, while electric vehicle sales increased 167%. Electric vehicle purchase prices in Europe are nearing non-electric vehicle purchase prices. Currently the low electric vehicle prices are possible because of government subsidies. Don’t be angry, in the United States, the federal government has heavily subsidized oil exploration and refining continuously since 1916. (A Forbes December 2019 article reported worldwide oil, gas, and coal subsides were estimated at $400B in 2018 by the International Energy Agency and $5.2T in 2017 by the International Monetary Fund.)

Sure, internal combustion engines rule now. In Europe, electric vehicles are only 5% of new car sales. In our country, only 2% of new cars are electric vehicles. The European Union has approximately 200,000 public chargers, the United States has fewer than 100,000 public chargers.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, rotary telephones were the exclusive communication device imaginable, though mobile phones were invented in the 1950’s. Brick telephones became popular for some in the 1980’s. Flip phones were the rage in the 1990’s. Remember when twenty-somethings mastered the two-thumbed-triple-press-key action? Who were the smart people who put the asterisk and hashtag keys on the mobile phones before they were necessary?

Remember when recharging cell phones required all night, and the phone battery had to be drained to no charge to be properly recharged?

Only time before we plug-in our cars every night, and gas stations become as obsolete as telephone booths. Where will smokers get their death sticks?
No need for public charging stations as common as gas stations – Amazon sells home units for as low as $500. Compare that, plus the electricity charges, to your annual gasoline bill. Charging time varies from 14 hours to 2 hours, depending on the power of the purchased unit.

Perhaps ten years ago, automobile experts believed 2025 would be the beginning of the electric vehicle purchase surge. Volkswagen intends to introduce a mass-produced, competitively-priced, 250-mile range electric sport utility vehicle in the United States in 2021.

How long must we wait before oil and sparkplug changes become as irrelevant as 8-track players?

The electric vehicle industry believes the wait will end when battery packs cost less than $100 per kilowatt-hour. Then the cost of electricity-per-mile will be equal to the cost of gasoline-per-mile. Currently the cost is $150 to $200 per kilowatt-hour. Yeah, our children will be as quick to say “kilowatt-hour” as we say “miles-per-gallon”. A 50% to 100% decrease in the cost of energy is possible?! Well, the cost of battery packs has decreased 80% in the past 12 years. Trust capitalism.

The issue is battery power-per-weight. Quite similar to computer power-per-size advancements.

As we all learned in the film “Hidden Figures”, computer was first used to describe humans with calculating skills. That lasted from 1613 to 1970. As we all learned from the film, “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the first meaningful computer machine was developed in the early 1940’s to aid the Allies in World War Two.
First relatively common room-sized computer: 1950’s. First desktop computer: 1964 for $3,200. First laptop computer: early 1980’s for $1,800. First hand-held computer: 1989.

Fourteen years from room-sized to desk-sized computers. Sixteen years from desktop to laptop computers. Nine years from laptop to hand-held. Just like it states on your side view mirror (as emphasized in Jurassic Park), common electric vehicles are closer than they appear.

The real question is what will the Harley riders do for noise?

Curious about something traffic? Call or e-mail Paul at (480) 505-3931 and pbasha@summitlandmgmt.com.

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