The Guardian view on electric cars: they’ll change the world – The Guardian

The end of the age of the internal combustion engine is in sight. There are small signs everywhere: the shift to hybrid vehicles is already under way among manufacturers. Volvo has announced it will make no purely petrol-engined cars after 2019; the British government expects the all-electric future to arrive by 2040; and Tesla has just started selling its first electric car aimed squarely at the middle classes: the Tesla 3 sells for $35,000 in the US, and 400,000 people have put down a small, refundable deposit towards one. Several thousand have already taken delivery, and the company hopes to sell half a million more next year. This is a remarkable figure for a machine with a fairly short range and a very limited number of specialised charging stations.

Some of it reflects the remarkable abilities of Elon Musk, the company’s founder, as a salesman, engineer, and a man able to get the most out his factory workers and the governments he deals with. An LA Times investigation concluded that his enterprises have benefited from nearly $5bn in government subsidies, while the workers who actually build the cars used to have to put in 12-hour shifts, six days a week. The share price suggests that the company is bigger than Ford, though it makes a tiny fraction of the number of cars – and most years loses enormous sums of money. Mr Musk is selling a dream that the world wants to believe in.

This last may be the most important factor in the story. The private car is – like the smartphone – a device of immense practical help and economic significance, but at the same time a theatre for myths of unattainable self-fulfilment. The one thing you will never see in a car advertisement is traffic, even though that is the element in which drivers spend their lives. Every single driver in a traffic jam is trying to escape from it, yet it is the inevitable consequence of mass car ownership.

The sleek and swift electric car is at one level merely the most contemporary fantasy of autonomy and power. But it might also disrupt our exterior landscapes nearly as much as the fossil fuel-engined car did in the last century. Electrical cars would of course pollute far less than fossil fuel-driven ones; instead of oil reserves, the rarest materials for batteries would make undeserving despots and their dynasties fantastically rich. Petrol stations would disappear. The air in cities would once more be breathable and their streets as quiet as those of Venice. This isn’t an unmixed good. Cars that were as silent as bicycles would still be as dangerous as they are now to anyone they hit without audible warning.

The dream goes further than that. The electric cars of the future will be so thoroughly equipped with sensors and reaction mechanisms that they will never hit anyone. Just as brakes don’t let you skid today, the steering wheel of tomorrow will swerve you away from danger before you have even noticed it. There is still some way to go yet, as witnessed in the case last year of a Tesla owner who watched a film at the wheel and was driven at high speed into the side of an articulated lorry that may have looked to the sensor like a patch of grey sky. But it’s reasonable to suppose that there will be cars that can surmount most human stupidities within the next five or 10 years.

This is where the fantasy of autonomy comes full circle. The logical outcome of cars which need no driver is that they will become cars which need no owner either. Instead, they will work as taxis do, summoned at will but only for the journeys we actually need. This the future towards which Uber, another Silicon Valley firm that has attained an immense valuation despite almost breathtaking losses, is working. The ultimate development of the private car will be to reinvent public transport. Traffic jams will be abolished only when the private car becomes a public utility. What then will happen to our fantasies of independence? We’ll all have to take to electrically powered bicycles.

Comments

Write a Reply or Comment:

Your email address will not be published.*