Back in the day, we beheld the future, and in it, we were zipping about in electric cars. Yes, on that day way back in the aughts, we beheld a future in which a passel of problems were about to become passé: crippling gas prices, entanglements with oil-rich frenemies, dirty air, and climate-changing emissions would all disappear through the magic of automotive engineering. Chevy’s Volt, Nissan’s Leaf, and next generation EVs would mitigate car culture’s costs. And we would still get to drive all over kingdom come.
Look, ma, no hands! Behold, Google's self-driving car. Photo: Byte and Chew
What happened to the fantasy of EVs should provide a reality check to our understanding of self-driving cars — but that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Just over 71,000 of the vehicles now traversing America’s roads are electric — less than 0.03 percent of the total. Their share is likely to remain in the single digits through 2035. The revolution so heavily televised hasn’t happened.
New CAFE standards championed by environmentalists and set by the EPA have had a more profound effect, forcing incremental improvements to models across automakers’ fleets. Model year 2012 saw the greatest annual boost in fuel economy since 1975; from MY2006 to 2011, emissions dropped 10 percent as fuel economy improved 11 percent. Still, overall fuel economy remains under 24 mpg, far from the triple-digit dream that electric cars presented when rolled out. Experts also caution that the used-car market could undermine these standards, keeping old gas-guzzlers on the road longer as people avoid buying pricier new cars.
The evolution toward a less gas-guzzling car fleet is a slow one, nudged along by force of advocacy and regulation, and so too will be the evolution toward safer, self-driving cars.
It’s hard to tell this, though, from the coverage of self-driving cars in the media, which might be even more breathless than the coverage of EVs. Hopped-up headlines blare that self-driving cars will “change our lives.” They are going to “change everything.” Crash rates and insurance and medical costs will go down! Fuel efficiency up! Pollution and traffic congestion down! Productivity up! And everything’s going topsy-turvy “faster than you think” — our dramatic new future is once again moments away. Get ready.
Of course, self-driving cars have their critics. Some say consumers will resist them, distrusting their new technology or disbelieving they’d be fun to drive. Others claim that consumers should resist them because they are part of a government plot. Still others worry whether or not regulators can keep up with technology well enough to protect the public interest. NHTSA’s policy statement on “automated vehicle development,” released last week, gives credence to this concern, explaining that the agency “is conducting research on self-driving vehicles so that [it] has the tools to establish standards for these vehicles.”
EVs faced similar charges pre-launch. Yet one argument used against electric cars has not been employed against self-driving cars, though it is among the most compelling: that they benefit only elites.