As I've been writing for six months now at the Shifting Gears blog for Slate's business and finance site, The Big Money, 2010 is the Year of the Electric Car. I've debated electric cars with the New York Times' Jim Motavalli. I've driven electric cars (absurdly fast and expensive electric cars). I've talked with Dan Rather on TV about electric cars. And I'm convinced: Before the first year of this new decade has passed, we will see what was once a dream become a reality. Americans will have electric cars to buy and drive.
And we will be forever changed.
The two big arrivals will be the extended-range electric Chevy Volt and the all-electric Nissan Leaf. But there will be others. Plus, Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley startup that brought flash and sizzle to the EV world with hot, hot, hot electric Roadster, staged an IPO this week, signaling the beginning of a revolution in cleantech finance. Toyota will soon offer a plug-in version of the Prius. In five years, we could have dozens of electric cars to choose from. The BP oil spill disaster will push people who were on the fence over the edge.
But who will pilot these chariots of the future, these zero- and ultra-low-emission solutions to our oil problem and our global-warming problem? What kind of owners, enthusiasts, early-adopters, evangelists--what kind of automotive demographic will define the electric car era, as it dawns?
It certainly won't be the demo that defined the previous century. For 100 years, cars have been, indisputably, a guy thing. We've even rubbed it into our collective lingo. The USA, and really the whole wide world, is full of "car guys." Sure, there are some women who love cars. But not like men love cars.
Cars are, quite often, the first things that men love--the first thing after their mothers, anyway. It at times seems genetically hard-wired. Almost as soon as he could make sounds and consider walking upright, my son was pondering...cars. When he wants to watch a movie, he invariably chooses...Cars. If he had to pick something to sleep with at night that would make him feel happy and secure and wasn't a parent, he would choose...a car. The most alarmed I've ever seen him in his little life was when something went wrong with our...car.
In this, he was participating in a tiny rite of passage, one that men had enjoyed since some guy back in the 1890s caught sight of a clattering contraption with a motor and four wheels and gasped with joy. Once I loved a horse. But now I love...that! The advent of the electric car will change this celebrated dynamic. It will take 40 years or more, but by the midcentury the electric car may have killed off the car guy for good. The era of gasoline and horsepower and grease and burning rubber will be consigned to a kind of ephemeral history book. There was a time when a man could lose his sense of everything in the world, but still find refuge in cars. He understood the throb of combustion and the endless allure of the open road. Bruce Springsteen wrote songs about this ("...chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin' out over the line..."). It was that important, that vital, that much of the core.
Electric cars are a whole different story, of course. The are machines with motors and wheels, but in many respects, they aren't cars at all. They're anti-cars. They're mobility. They're technology. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Tesla Motors was the brainchild of Silicon Valley nerds. By the time they have evolved past this latest round of innovations (with due respect to earlier models, such as the lamented EV1 of Who Killed the Electric Car?), they will be nodes in a network. The mythology of freedom that the automobile has embodied for decades will vanish like tiresmoke in a stiff wind.
Car guys will have a tough time adapting to this brave new world of networked personal transportation. Petrol-heads, piston-heads, gearheads...whatever they call themselves, these men who have for generations debated the merits of the big V8 versus the turbocharged 6, they will lose something, a piece of their identity, in in some cases the entire matrix of their personality. Just as the glories of the manufacturing economy, all burly talk and gruff making of stuff gave way to the more fey language of technology and the manipulation of code in virtual space, so will the simple virtues of Detroit give way to broader appeal of cars that speak not of passion but of the higher mind. The crew at the hit British show Top Gear will be deeply, deeply troubled.
Electric cars will make more sense to women, who because they gear a great responsibility for perpetuating the species, have an interest in saving the planet. Men who used to be scared by the very concept of a camsahft or fuel injection will adore the plugging in of the machine--the (at last) transformation of the car into a consumer electronic device, just another gadget. Geeks will preoccupy themselves with fine-tuning the software, hacking their electric rides so that 100 miles per charge becomes 200, then 300. The emo-boys will sign with relief that that which has always set them apart from the guys with the dirty fingernails and the desire to get under the hood is slipping into obsolescence.
And yes, I know I'm dealing with gender cliches here. But when it comes to men and women and cars, it's hard to escape cliche. I've come across reports that suggest, in many households, women make the majority of the car-buying decisions. Danica Patrick can really, really drive. But when it comes to thinking about cars, well...men have been doing most of that. Perhaps unhealthily. But there it is.
Who will buy the electric cars, as we move farther into their Glorious Year? Eventually, everyone. And who will wonder what it all means and whether, in fact, it means the end of something? That would be the car guys. Whose days are finally numbered.