Saturday, April 11, 2009

The electric car cometh
Spring is here, and with it familiar feelings of fear and loathing have returned. Now that my bicycle is again my primary means of transportation, I’m remembering how much scorn I feel towards anyone who happens to be in a car. I realize that it’s unjustified self-righteousness, and I completely forget it when I’m driving one, but I really can’t help despising Montreal drivers during biking season. Rather than thanking me for getting myself around without contributing to the coming environmental apocalypse, I get the feeling that most drivers are about as fond of cyclists as cyclists are of them.

The problem for me is mostly the fear of being killed, but no less a source of frustration is the idea that I’m breathing in whatever the tail-pipe in front of me is putting out. There’s a reoccurring thought I have while on the road: future generations will look back on a time when the combustion-engine dominated our city streets, to the point that people shrug off frequent “smog warnings” as if it’s a normal part of the weather report, the same way we think of the coal-polluted London of the industrial revolution. Cyclists may continue to fear for their lives, but the electric car is coming, and soon.

The question isn’t so much “if,” or even “when,” but “who.” Last week, the New York Times had an article describing the Chinese government’s plan to establish an electric car industry. Since it currently doesn’t have much an automotive industry, in a relative sense anyway, China could leap over the old technology in the same way many parts of the country went straight to the cell-phone, skipping land-line technology altogether, while the west and Japan already have factories built for the old technology. According to the article:
Beyond manufacturing, subsidies of up to $8,800 are being offered to taxi fleets and local government agencies in 13 Chinese cities for each hybrid or all-electric vehicle they purchase. The state electricity grid has been ordered to set up electric car charging stations in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.
Of course there’s a part of all us that fears China’s march towards global domination, but I see these developments as a clear good. China has already become the world’s leader in global-warming causing pollution, and anything that can be done to ameliorate that will benefit everyone. Also, with any luck, the added competition should spur on the development of electric-vehicle technology everywhere.

The Chinese government isn’t the only one trying to get into the electric car industry. The GM Volt is a plug-in electric hybrid that should be on sale in 2010, and even more promising are the smaller start-up companies working on their own prototypes:

One of the coolest things about plug-in electric cars is the idea of "smart charging." Apparently it’s possible to have the car communicate with the power grid. It would only start charging during times of excess power capacity, late at night. On the CBC radio science show “Quirks and Quarks,” there was talk of future cars that are left alone for long periods of time – such as those sitting in an airport parking lot – buying power from the grid late at night when power is cheap and selling it back during peak hours when it’s expensive. The owner of the car would return from his trip having made money from his parked car. Cars would become batteries that would smooth out power consumption and actually be good for the grid.

Car sales have plummeted during this recession, but people will eventually have to start buying cars again. When they do, we should all hope the cars people are buying are electric. It’s, unfortunately, probably not reasonable to hope everyone will buy bicycles instead.

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