Is the Era of the Personal Vehicle Over?

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Is the Era of the Personal Vehicle Over?

An article in The Washington Post caught my eye.

“General Motors has pledged to stop making gasoline-powered passenger cars, vans and sport utility vehicles by 2035, marking a historic turning point for the iconic American carmaker and promising a future of new electric vehicles for American motorists.

GM chief executive Mary Barra, who antagonized many climate experts by embracing President Donald Trump’s relaxation of fuel efficiency targets, said  Thursday the company now wants to lead the way to a greener future.”

Ford just made a similar announcement.

One of the major reasons for switching to electric powered vehicles, or EVs, is the reduction in carbon emissions. However, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, by 2040, the electric grid will run on 11 percent coal and 40 percent natural gas. Now, how much of this electrical power will be devoted to powering personal vehicles is questionable. And whether individuals are ready to park or junk their cars is even more questionable.

According to CNN, “Volkswagen (which is switching to all electric vehicles) isn’t alone. Established carmakers around the world are ripping up their business models in the hope of adapting to a new world in which electricity replaces gasoline and diesel. Factories are being overhauled to produce electric cars, and automakers are snapping up every battery they can find. The high cost of developing electric cars is forcing some companies to find partners and turning others into acquisition targets.”

So, what does this say about the future of transportation, and by the same token, the design of cities? There has been much talk about the “15-minute city” – a city where everything you need is within a 15-minute walk of your place of residence. But I would argue that the era of personal transportation is not dead, and that the parking industry is not dead, either. Mass transit systems are in survival mode and are not only cutting services but also rethinking levels of service, routes and funding. 

So, the fundamental question is, will consumers give up their preference for private automobiles, and will private automobiles be electric-powered? 

I work as a consultant to a campus business district in a large midwestern city, and I also sit on the board of the local historic preservation organization. The average age of this organization’s board members is probably 75, and this being a cold weather city, these folks are not about to walk to the grocery store or to the theater when the temperature is minus ten and there is ten inches of snow on the ground. I have lived for 20 years in the Washington DC area, an area that is served by one the nation’s largest subway systems. I never drove my car to work on Monday through Friday. But I never went grocery shopping on the subway, either.

Our downtowns and business district planners are going to continue to emphasize walkability and bike riding along with mass transit, and those are healthy trends, good ways to reduce air pollution and obesity. But there is a place in the transportation system for the private automobile, both in terms of utility and enjoyment. Let’s not forget the enjoyment element, either. A date in a convertible with the top down is far more romantic than a date in a subway car. There also seems to be a reemergence of drive-in theaters, thanks to the pandemic.

I owned a Chevrolet Volt for six years. It performed flawlessly. I charged it every night, put gas in the tank about once every three months, and enjoyed the sportiness of a good-handling hatchback that I could take on long road trips. On the road, I got about 40 miles to the gallon when running on gasoline. I recently drove my nephew’s Tesla. Or should I say, it drove me. 

We took the Tesla to a restaurant about five miles away on a country road one evening. He let me drive for a couple of miles, and I was amazed at how fast it accelerated. Per his instructions, I took my hands off the wheel, and my feet off the pedals, and The Tesla took us to our destination and back flawlessly. While the weather was clear, I am told that the engineers will have the remaining issues solved soon, and the multiple benefits of AVs will be an everyday benefit.

The difference between the Volt and the Tesla is what some are calling “range anxiety.” I knew that if I miscalculated and ran out of both battery and gas, a simple can of petrol would get me to the next gas station. If my EV battery goes dead on a lonely country road, my only option is to call a tow truck, and depending on how remote my location, a tow might take hours to arrive and I might have a large towing bill to get me to a place where I can recharge – and then I might be hooked to a 110 line and wait for hours until I am mobile again. 

There are still many questions concerning the switch to electric vehicles. Generating the electricity with coal- or gas-powered plants is just one. Today’s gas-powered cars have such low emissions that they nearly match EVs in total carbon emissions. Then there is the problem with the transition to EVs. What happens to the millions of gas-powered vehicles currently on the road? The average life of a car today is more than 10 years. And what about affordability? Not everyone is going to be able to afford one of the new EVs, and there likely will not be enough used EVs at the rate we are selling them to supply the need for inexpensive used cars.

This is not to say we shouldn’t begin making this switch. In the long run, it will be better for the environment. But parking professionals, take heart. The era of the personal transportation vehicle, powered by petrol, is not over. Your industry is not about to disappear.

David Feehan is President, Civitas Consultants LLC – He can be reached at civitas.dave@me.com

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David Feehan
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