Electric Cars: An Update

Doors rattle, touchscreens melt

Julie Libersat, Parking Lot Maze. 2014, digital archival print. Courtesy of the artist.

Charles Fine, David Gonsalvez, and Venkat Sumantran. Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility. MIT Press, 2017.
Edward Niedermeyer. Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors. BenBella Books, 2019.
Daniel Sperling. Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future. Island Press, 2018.

In 1977, less than three months after taking office, President Jimmy Carter told the nation that we needed to have, in his own words, “an unpleasant talk.” Unless we changed our ways, “our cars would continue to be too large and inefficient. Three quarters of them would carry only one person — the driver — while our public transportation system continues to decline.” Gasoline had grown dear, and soon we would run out altogether. The foundation of the next state of human civilization would be based on “strict conservation . . . the renewed use of coal, and . . . permanent renewable energy sources like solar power.”

The gasoline speech genre had emerged under Nixon during the 1970s energy crisis. The nation never really recovered from the shock of having to wait in line at the gas station, and serious people were saying that the planet was running out of oil. A second oil shock hit in 1979, prompting the President to interrupt prime time again with a speech about America’s “crisis of confidence,” which he titled “Crisis of Confidence: Energy and National Goals.” We needed not just better gas mileage, he preached, but a new transportation ethos:

Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. . . . But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We have learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

An automobile bought to keep up with the Joneses, to signify social status, to try to fill the spiritual void could only carry us down the road to perdition. Here was energy policy as sermon, transportation policy as — to cite an earlier Carter speech — the “moral equivalent of war,” a war we must win if we “hope to have a decent world for our children and our grandchildren.”

In 1979, the best-selling electric vehicle (EV) in America was powered by a six-horsepower General Electric motor. It had a cruising speed somewhere in the neighborhood of forty miles an hour and a battery pack that provided up to fifty miles of range on a good day. Some — OK, most — would have called it an ugly wedge of a car. The Joneses would look upon it not with envy but a feeling of schadenfreude. The Comuta-Car, which had gone on sale in 1974 (under the name CitiCar), was the opposite of the “too large and inefficient” American automobiles of the day, better even than a VW Beetle for greening the soul.

Embracing the Comuta-Car scale and its range—six to ten times shorter than a gasoline car—need not have meant giving up the sex appeal of a red sports car, a family vacation in a wood-paneled wagon, or the “fine Corinthian leather” interior of a luxury Chrysler Cordoba, in the words of Ricardo Montalbán’s legendary commercial. It would not have meant an end to racing cars, customizing cars, or envying one’s neighbors’ cars. It need not — would not — have turned the US into a Soviet republic. It would simply have meant decoupling our transportation system — our quotidian mobility — from the overpowered, overlarge, and inefficient American automobile that had Jimmy Carter beating his breast. Needless to say, that’s not how things worked out.

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