If you were an alien visiting our planet from afar, you might be excused for believing that the entire human population on Earth was simply part of a colossal machine. This vast enterprise has a simple purpose: to dig deep below the Earth’s surface, drilling oil and gas wells in some of the most inhospitable places on our planet, strip mining coal from huge gashes in the Earth or turning over mountaintops to reach the black rocks, and then burning these remnants of plant life in machines great and small in a desperate attempt to return all of the carbon dioxide, captured during photosynthesis by these plants over hundreds of millions of years, back into the atmosphere. For more than 250 years we have become increasingly successful at finding these plant remains, no matter how deep they hide or how difficult they are to retrieve. By burning them in power plants, industrial processes, ships, aircraft, buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles and small labor-saving devices, we trade the hydrocarbons that have stored ancient sunlight in exchange for heat, or light, or motion.

Now, however, we are finding that we’re running out of our supply of the fossilized plants. On the short term (over the next 10 years), oil will become even more scarce, gasoline prices will continue to climb higher, and our carefully orchestrated car-based transportation system will begin to break down. On a longer time scale (say, 40 to 60 years), we must find an alternative to the monster we have created over the past 100 years.

Pick the right tool

The problem with electric cars is not that they don’t work—it’s that they don’t work in the transportation system that currently exists. If we had urban and suburban transit systems that would allow an alternative to the personal automobile for longer trips across town, across the state or across the country, electric cars would only be needed to go from your home to the nearest transportation hub. The limited range wouldn’t be a problem. The roads would be less crowded, at least outside the major metropolitan areas, as most people would travel by high-speed rail rather than drive a car. The family car won’t disappear; it will simply be used less as smaller electric vehicles take up the day-to-day duties. If you need to travel someplace not served by commuter or light rail (remember that this is a big country and not every rural area can be served), your traditional family car will get you there and back. For those who are car or motorcycle enthusiasts, this would be a wonderful thing—you would have your electrically powered city car or bike for local commuting, and you could still have a sports car powered by fossil fuels or biofuels for track days and weekend fun on less crowded roads. This can only happen if we develop a robust and reliable electric power grid. Our present oil-based transportation system, though it has created problems associated with air and water pollution, crowded highways, safety and health issues, and can be said to threaten our ability to maintain our national security, has the advantage of working in times of emergency and crisis. Until we have a transportation system that provides the same peace of mind as a full tank of gas in the family car, we can’t say we have developed a valid replacement for the status quo.

Commitment issues

Transportation all comes down to transferring energy. When we walk, we transfer the energy from sunlight stored in plant and animal tissue into the contraction of our muscles to propel us forward. Early man learned that riding was easier than walking when the muscle power of an animal was used to augment transportation or plow a field. The invention of the wheel made it possible for animals to carry heavy loads over long distances, greatly multiplying the effectiveness of the energy from sunlight stored in grasslands and animal feed.

By Kevin Clemens
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