The future is coming, and it’s bringing more power cords.
Let’s talk about one of our favorite things: cars. And more specifically, how the internal combustion engine is on the verge of extinction.
Not only that, but we’re also being told that in five years we’re going to be driving self-driving cars. OK, that’s not accurate. They will be driving us — or at least some of us.
Unless you were at the beach and had your head buried in the sand because of worries about Russia’s determination to wipe out democracy on the planet, you undoubtedly heard that Volvo will stop making cars that run solely on gasoline.
Volvo announced that starting in 2019 all new models it introduces will be either hybrids or vehicles powered by batteries. While the new electric cars will initially be made in China, where air pollution is critically dangerous, a new plant is being built near Charleston, S.C., and some will be built in Europe.
Tesla, the posh electric carmaker, plans to sell hundreds of thousands of new electric models priced at “only” $35,000, which is substantially less expensive than most of the flashy vehicles it currently sells. The new cars will be serviced at 250 centers that don’t charge service fees! If you live too far from a service center, Tesla will send one of its 350 special vans to your home or office to repair your vehicle on site! The vans will have toys for children, espresso machines and, you won’t believe this, replacement parts. I know. I know. Except for the sticker shock, it seems like heaven.
Tesla, which makes nowhere near the number of cars that Ford and General Motors produce, earlier this year beat the two auto behemoths in stock market value because investors think the future is in electric vehicles. Part of this is urban congestion and part of it is climate change — carbon dioxide from burning gasoline depletes the ozone layer, playing havoc with climate patterns around the globe.
Ann Arbor, Mich., where I once lived, is described by The New York Times as the new hub for research into “autonomous vehicles.” Reporter Neal Boudette wrote: “Soon students and staff members at the University of Michigan will be able to get around the engineering campus on fully automated, driverless shuttle buses provided by a French company drawn to Ann Arbor by the university’s autonomous-car test track, known as MCity.”
Imagine, parents. You can pay $59,784 a year for your beloved child to ride in circles around MCity.
In Pittsburgh, The National Robotics Engineering Center is working on self-driving vehicles. Sorry, students. Robots preferred.
As usual in this country, these developments are controversial. Despite predictions that most new models produced in five to 10 years will be self-drivers, there are many who scoff at that. A lot of safety issues still have to be resolved. And a lot of us like to drive, although the self-parking part is very neat. (Why do so many men stop and smirk when a woman driver is parallel parking, even if she could be Danica Patrick?)
There are also many who think electric cars are not the wave of the future in the United States. For one thing, hybrid cars (gasoline plus electricity) still constitute only 2 percent of sales. That’s partly because we love our big SUVs, and the price of gasoline has been declining. Also, we don’t like to wait for lengthy charging times, and public charging stations are scarce. And we are used to driving long distances; electric cars don’t go much beyond 200 miles on a single charge.
But every major carmaker is investing in these technologies. The federal government has provided incentives to buy a $35,000 battery-operated Chevrolet Bolt, for example. The Obama administration actively encouraged the production of electric vehicles.
Actually, self-driving vehicles and electric cars are sort of connected. Apparently, it is easier to link self-driving software to batteries than to internal combustion engines. Who knew?
In Europe, grim statistics on health damage from diesel engines are sparking electric vehicle sales. One unknown in the U.S. is whether federal fuel mileage standards and pollution goals will be weakened as the current administration seeks to do. If so, this could dampen enthusiasm for cars that meet stricter health and environmental requirements.
But not for long. The future is coming, and it’s bringing more power cords and fewer smirks.