Marginal: Electric Cars, Streetcars & Dead Horses

As the quote from American philosopher George Santayana has it, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And it seems that nowadays, the past is something that few people care to consider.

As the quote from American philosopher George Santayana has it, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And it seems that nowadays, the past is something that few people care to consider. I recently had the opportunity to drive the Nissan LEAF. The LEAF is the unambiguously all-electric sedan. It is a car with a range of approximately 100 miles. And while there are gasps! associated with that figure, Mark Perry, Nissan North America director of Product Planning & Strategy, rolls out with some statistics about actual driving patterns, as in:

  • On average, 90% of the U.S. population drives ‹100 miles per day
  • On a typical weekday, 72.4% drive ‹50 miles and 26.5% drive 5 to 10 miles
  • On a typical weekend day, 66.3% drive ‹0 miles and 23.5% drive 20 to 29 miles

"These are just the facts," he states matter-of-factly. "We just don't go that far."
But still there are those who decry the shortcomings of this electric car because of its limited range. And the fact that it can only go up to 90 mph (officially, that is): Oh my!

It seems as though the people at Nissan are asking for some unwarranted, extreme compromises, doesn't it? After all, even though we don't typically drive beyond the range limits of the LEAF, we might. And even though there's but a handful of states that have speed limits of 75 mph (and Utah has some areas where you can go 80), that 90 mph...Hmm.

A story in the October 24 edition of the Washington Post caught my eye. Reporter Derek Kravitz writes that the Department of Transportation for D.C. has released its plans for the re-introduction of street cars by the spring of 2012. Kravitz writes, "Streetcars ran on Washington streets for a century, until 1962, when Congress ordered them replaced by buses. Hundreds of electric streetcars were sold or junked, and most of the track was uprooted and scrapped..." And now they're going to be putting back some of the track and have received three new streetcars—assembled in the Czech Republic.

So what does this have to do with history? Well, I consulted my favorite book of automotive history, The Automobile Age by James J. Flink, and looked into the early days of mass transportation in the U.S. And there I found this rather disturbing passage: "In New York City alone at the turn of the century [20th], horses deposited on the streets every day an estimated 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine, accounting for about two thirds of the filth that littered the city streets." And he goes on to describe flies, dead horse and other unpleasantries. You would have imagined that people would have wanted things like streetcars. Flink writes, "The electric streetcar was sanitary, not subject to organic malfunctions, and faster than the horse." Yet it did have its drawbacks: "It was not flexible. If a single trolley got stalled on the tracks, the normal flow of traffic was halted." It isn't as though dead horses weren't an impediment ("About 15,000 dead horses were removed from the streets of New York each year."). The biggest problem: "An urban transportation system based upon electric-powered traction required huge expenditures for its rail infrastructure." Sound familiar?

There are always reasons why not to do something. The ordinary is just much more convenient and comfortable. So people express concerns about the so-called "limitations" of the LEAF even though if they were to drive it, they'd find it to be an exceedingly pleasant experience. Not only is it fast (remember that electric motors have 100% of their torque starting at 0 mph), but it is quiet. And while there are undoubtedly those who think the D.C. streetcar project to be a boondoggle, anyone who has spent time driving in the district, especially during its exceedingly long rush hours, would honestly be happy to take as many people off the road as possible.

Will the future be all electric cars and mass transit? Probably not. But those who dismiss them as viable are akin to those who once called out, "Get a horse!"