The Other American Dream

We’re all familiar with the American Dream: No matter who you are, where you come from or what you believe, if you work hard enough, you can make something of yourself and provide a better future for your family. I grew up believing that more passionately than the religious beliefs of my youth. And unlike those religious beliefs, the American Dream steadfastly withstands even the closest scrutiny. Absolutely nothing I’ve seen, read or encountered in life has done anything to uncouple me from my belief in that foundation of our modern society.

There are many dreams in this country that have been brilliantly articulated over the years. John F. Kennedy taught me to dream of the future. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. worked his magic on my pre-teen soul, dazzling me with his longing for a society that fulfilled the promise of our Founding Fathers. In America we are taught to dream of possibilities.

Quite without my realizing it I have been harboring and nurturing a dream of a different nature. This dream has little to do with ideals or social change or justice. It’s a simple dream really, yet one that is tricky to convey. I dream of an America that works.

When I was growing up nothing captured my imagination more than the freedom of the open road, but for a very different reason than most might imagine. What the Interstate highway system represented to me was something that worked. Cars and freeways to my uneducated eyes seemed to function perfectly. Everything about highways made sense to me. The endless telephone polls along the road, the gas stations and restaurants spaced at convenient intervals, even the cleanliness of the pavement demonstrated for me a sense of order and capability that I found marvelous. It was all so well thought out. Everything was new and vibrant and made me believe that America worked. I think I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling ever since. Well now I think I have my chance.

The ground has shifted beneath them

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together...We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories...All this we can do. All this we will do…What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

It’s as if President Barack Obama knew well in advance exactly how it would be when he delivered that Inauguration speech. What I didn’t know when I was listening to that speech was that our President had developed a work-around to bypass politicians, lobbyists and special interests who would be hell-bent on preventing his Administration from jump-starting a new green economy. It’s been just over two years since the Recovery Act was enacted and I think to this day the Republicans and Big Oil still don’t know what happened to their world while they weren’t looking.

What’s old is new again

In 1912 there were over 11,000 electric cars on the road. There was even a fleet of electric taxis in New York City. At the time the electric cars had the advantage of not requiring a physical start up and there was no vibration, noise or smoke. They were ideal for urban environments but lacked the speed capability and range that was necessary for traveling the vast distances between urban areas. Interestingly the idea to use an exchangeable battery for vehicles, first proposed in 1896, was implemented between 1910 and 1924. Over 6 million miles were traveled using the system, primarily using electric trucks. A century later, that idea has been revived by the American company called Better Place, and applied successfully to a portion of a taxi fleet in Tokyo as a real world laboratory. The battery switching station operates 20 hours a day to accommodate driving conditions, and in the first 90 days over 25,000 miles were driven using switched batteries as a primary source of energy. Other places where these stations are being deployed are Israel, Denmark, Australia and Canada. And now the battery switch station taxi model has been brought to San Francisco and Hawaii. Venture Point Investment Partners’ motto is ‘bet on the inevitable’. According to them, the electric car is inevitable and they put their money along with others to the tune of $300 million into the Better Place model that includes widespread use of charging stations for plug-in vehicles. That’s a sea change from the attitude that fueled the deliberate sabotage of the electric car industry in the 1990s.

The Chicken and the Egg

Range Anxiety has always been the fundamental component to holding back global development of the electric car industry. Nowhere is Range Anxiety more prevalent than in Nations such as the United States that are defined by their vast distances. People don’t want to buy electric cars until there is a reliable network of charging stations so they don’t have to worry about running out of electrons before they reach their destination. Governments and business don’t want to invest in charging station networks until the demand justifies the expense. This impasse has suited the oil industry's agenda just fine.

But a funny thing happened along the road to recovery: the EV Project. 99.8 Million Recovery Act dollars spread across five States that represent every climate and topographic challenge in the country to fund 4,700 Nissan Leaf electric vehicles and 11,210 charging stations. In addition free home charging stations were installed for the owners of the Leafs. That’s one seriously big test run for a system that may one day become part of a nationwide infrastructure.

Three of the five States to receive this funding are Washington, Oregon and California. More than the vast range of topographies and climate conditions (mountains, deserts, coastline, rain forest, sea level to high altitude) played a part in the choices of these States. These States are contiguous and span the distance between two borders. They also have in common the political will and acceptance from the general population to implement the program.

My American Dream 2.0

The West Coast Green Highway: all the way from the Mexican border to Vancouver, British Columbia: plug-in charging stations every 40 to 60 miles along I-5. Tiny little electrons flowing happily from whence they were generated to vehicles, moving people and goods up and down the coast. Yeah, yeah, I know: Coal! Nuclear! Whatever. It ain’t oil. Let me say that again, (Koch) “IT AIN’T OIL.” (/Koch)

I know I’m not alone in harboring the dream of a sustainable transportation system in this Country. There were more things than politics and money holding back realizing this dream. Until now the technology wasn’t there to support the transformation to homegrown energy. That has all changed and will continue to change at an ever-increasing pace because even if Americans haven’t fully awakened to the finite reality of fossil fuels, people in other countries have. The market will drive the transition to alternative fuel sources as well. It’s my belief that the more people are exposed to the electric car and overcome their Range Anxiety (Is that in the DSM-IV? It should be.), and experience the many advantages of owning them, they will one day begin to dominate the landscape. We might even develop a new psychological disorder: mileage envy.

I think the auto industry at large has come to accept the inevitability of the Electric Vehicle. In the mean time fuel efficiency standards were raised for the first time in over two decades, further reducing consumption of fossil fuel. My American Dream is slowly, quietly and inexorably becoming Big Oil’s worst nightmare.