Could Electric Cars' Range Be their Biggest Benefit?


Image credit: Frank Hebbert, used under Creative Commons license.

Whether it is cnet uk arguing that electric cars still suck, or Top Gear's allegedly deceptive review of the Tesla Roadster, range is often one of the biggest flaws that critics of electric cars like to harp on about. Yet, from a sustainability perspective at least, electric cars' range may actually be their biggest benefit. Sure, I may have a hard time convincing your average motorist—used to driving where they want, when they want—of this fact, but the limited capacity for long distance travel in an electric car actually sounds quite appealing to me. As has often been noted, the sub-100-mile range of most electric cars on the market today meets the needs of well over 90% of the car journeys that most people make. Usually, that leads advocates to argue that any longer journeys will be taken in the family's second car and/or the driver can rent a car with better range. (Let's leave aside the possibility of a network of fast-charging stations and/or battery swapping facilities for now, as that is still some way off being realized.) But, let's not forget that two other possibilities exist:

One: An owner of an electric car with limited range may be more likely to take public transportation for longer journeys. After all, while jumping in the car for short to medium distance journeys may often be the fastest solution (not forgetting that bikes are still often faster), the longer distance you travel, the more likely it is that trains or other modes of transportation offer a better solution. This does, of course, apply more to New York than Indiana but still, anything that encourages car owners to consider mass transit can only be a good thing. Whether it also encourages aviation is another matter.

Two: An owner may be discouraged from taking the trip in the first place. Just as the introduction of bicycles, cars and trains led to increased travel to the next village, and consequently social and professional networks with extended geographical reach—which eventually led to an increased 'need' to travel, so too a limitation in our ability to travel may result in an increased localization of our networks, and or a virtualization of our long distance communications. I doubt this will be any kind of selling point for each individual electric car owner ("Gee, I can do less with this thing than my previous car!"), but assuming the running costs, incentives and environmental benefits sway enough people to start using electric cars, and assuming that gas prices keep getting more expensive, it is possible that this decrease in absolute mobility would encourage a shift toward localization.

As I say, these are hardly selling points worth pushing to each individual car owner—but they are a potentially interesting factor to watch out for as electric cars start rolling out of the factories. I'm sure that the "bigger is better", "more is simply more" mentality of some will see my argument as being anti-progress but I am not talking about forcing anyone out of their gas-driven cars. As we already know, denser, walkable settlements create happier, more productive communities. There is nothing inherently good or pleasant about traveling longer distances for the sake of it, so if the limitations of the electric car can help wean us off our addiction to distance, then I am all for it.

Sadly, I have no idea how to sell that to the general public.

More on Electric Cars, Range and Distance
Do Electric Cars Still Suck?
Top Gear Produces Deceptive Review of the Tesla Roadster
How Fast are Electric Car Fast-charging Stations? (Video)
Better Place Explores Battery Swapping in Tokyo

Tags: Cities | Communities | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles