You and me using electric cars? Shock!

By Lee Feder

I confess: I am a car guy. I may not have been born one, but I have certainly grown up as one. The wall above my bed at home is wallpapered with pictures of Lotus Esprits, while other spaces feature a Ferrari Testarossa, a Lamborghini Countach and a whale-tail Porsche 911 (oh, and yes, I am a product of the 1980s). I admit to a owning a British car that receives more shade-tree mechanic time than cruising time. I am one of those guys whose first self-indulgent purchase will be a pointlessly fast sports car.

Despite my passion for beauty on wheels, I emphatically reject the car as a mode of daily transportation. Each day I ride at least three to four miles on my bicycle to classes, errands and wherever else, boldly eschewing my brother’s reliable, efficient Mazda for the freezing winds and driving rains of Champaign-Urbana. Certainly, the car has its uses (hauling groceries and delivering people to volleyball tournaments come to mind), but the car is most definitely my third form of transportation (counting walking).

How do I reconcile such apparent contradictions?

Sadly, the car, despite being the ultimate American appliance, is an inherently inefficient, dangerous and destructive invention.

People needlessly waste gallons of gas shuttling to and from classes, movies and restaurants on campus. In an era when foreign policy and environmental responsibility are increasingly interdependent, no rational person can ignore the dominance of the automobile in the design of the American landscape.

For example, why was Chambana not designed to accommodate a walking population? Champaign could have easily evolved into a more densely packed city with grocery stores, movies and restaurants all within walking distance from both the urban center and Campustown. While blaming students for driving long distances to the grocery store is unreasonable, they do drive more than necessary (really, driving six blocks to class?).

The fact is that people love their cars and depend on them. The problem is that automakers have primed and stoked the American attachment to the automobile for nearly 100 years.

While no single person, group, or organization deserves the blame for Americans’ dependence on cars, we now have to focus on resolving the considerable problems presented by carbon emissions and excessive oil consumption.

There are two long-term solutions quickly evolving in the marketplace (none of which involve the words “hybrid,” “gas,” or “Prius”). The first possibility is one that scientists have been preaching for decades: electric plug-in-rechargeable cars. Contrary to popular belief, electric cars are entirely within the realm of possibility with the technology we have available. Moreover, companies could design and manufacture them at price points not significantly removed from current offerings.

While the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” details Detroit’s role in preventing the electric car from becoming widely available, it simultaneously shows that the demand for such vehicles exists. Startup company Tesla Motors demonstrates as much with its sports car. The Tesla Roadster goes 0-60 in less than four seconds, tops out at 125 mph and runs about 220 miles per charge. While the design does have its limitations, it remains a shining example of what mainstream auto companies could do, yet do not. With the full backing of the Big Three, electric cars could penetrate the market.

Another viable option to replace the internal combustion engine involves the highly theorized, idyllic hydrogen economy. Honda’s FCX, though, has begun to realize such a fantasy. The car runs entirely on hydrogen and will be available for lease in Southern California, the only location equipped with hydrogen refueling stations.

Fuel cells create electrical energy that powers electric motors. However, fuel-cell hydrogen cars like the FCX, feature a larger range of about 350 miles while refueling more quickly. They also offer similar performance to electric cars.

While changing the urban landscape to decrease the American dependence on the auto will take generations – if it ever happens – changing the source of transportation energy would help solve our foreign policy and environmental problems.

Next year, a grocery store and a movie theater will return to campus mercifully in one of the new behemoth buildings currently under construction. I hope students will take advantage of their proximity and decrease their carbon footprint.

Lee is a senior in mechanical engineering and does, in fact, hug trees and inhale (clean, fresh air) deeply whenever possible.