Editor’s note: While our erstwhile Editor-in-Chief, Edward Niedermeyer, is on sabbatical, he will continue to weigh in on automotive issues in a (hopefully) weekly column entitled Blind Spot. This is the first installment.
Back in 2008, as the worlds of automobiles and politics headed towards a dramatic collision, the founder of this site and I had a series of conversations about political perspectives on automobiles. Though these conversations were wide-ranging, I kept coming back to the same conclusion: for all of the talk about guns as “tools of freedom,” it seemed to me that cars were even more worthy of the title. After all, most people use an automobile in the pursuit of freedom and mobility every day, whereas guns are (relatively) rarely used to secure individual rights.
But embracing the car’s role as a tool of freedom raises a number of troubling questions, most of them inherent to the very cause of liberty. Though cars make us more free as individuals, we must recognize that it comes at the cost of (among other things) dependence on gasoline, an “addiction” that many now seek freedom from. As new energy sources and mobility concepts become available, citizens will have to navigate a complex thicket of issues as they seek to maximize the freedom that personal mobility offers.
That private transportation fundamentally increases personal liberty is difficult to argue against. On the theoretical level, it’s not difficult to understand how private mobility frees individuals to choose where they live and work, empowering individual choice over collective planning. And for those who see humans as essentially freedom-seeking creatures, the headlong rush towards private car ownership in developing countries could be a sign of the car’s inherently liberating power.
But as is so often the case with expanding liberty, the democratization of the automobile has a flip side. Indeed, the very expansion of the global auto market puts pressure on our energy sources, creating something of a zero-sum global market for private transportation.
Even more troubling for proponents of the car as a tool of freedom, the expansion of the global car market in developing countries is being accompanied by a transition away from automobiles in developed countries. Beyond even the impact of rising gasoline prices, social, cultural and technological conditions are making automobiles less of a liberating force in developed nations. Particularly among young people, automobile ownership is increasingly seen as a burden rather than a freedom.
For some, the answer to this automotive apathy lies in new technology, most notably in electric cars (EVs, or electric vehicles). New technology, cleaner energy sources and a more high-tech image will, argue EV boosters, make cars more relevant and sustainable to new generations of developed world consumers. But can electric cars really serve as tools of personal freedom?
On the most superficial level, EVs offer considerably less immediate freedom than gas-powered cars. Once its battery is used, an EV must sit immobile for 6-12 hours before it can drive again, limiting (if nothing else) the perception that ones car could cross a major land mass efficiently should one need it to. This gut-level reaction is, among admitted fans of freedom, a major stumbling block to the acceptance of EVs.
Add to the EV’s fundamental limitations the fact that the market for them is being stimulated by government tax dollars, and i shouldn’t be surprising that EVs have become something of a punchline on the right. After all, a gut-level appreciation for continent-crossing levels of freedom and an appreciation for the free market tend to go hand-in-hand, and the EV fails on both counts.
But by making EVs out to be nothing more than a patronage plot based on Global Warming hysteria, the political right does a disservice to both the EV and itself (however true individual accusations may be). For a significant number of Americans, the EV holds the long-term promise of an almost unheard-of level of freedom from external energy sources: what could be more enticing to the lover of freedom than the idea of local private transportation powered by solar panels on your roof? And on a national level, the hidden costs to taxpayers of gasoline dependence aren’t often brought up by the deficit hawks (or hawks of any kind, for that matter), but they are very real.
In the real world, though, microgeneration and EVs themselves are too expensive to be available to all but the most wealthy freedom freaks. And frustratingly, the most convincing solution to the EV’s problems with range and cost, namely battery lease/swap infrastructure like Better Place’s, are hardly a libertarian dream come true. Only by centralizing grid management and paying for a battery swap infrastructure, a task necessitating government involvement, do EVs make sense on a large scale.
This leaves the EV in a frustrating impasse with the value of personal liberty. Though holding profound promise for self-sustainable private transport, the range-limited, heavily-subsidized reality is as bad for many lovers of liberty as its obvious cure, the “natural monopoly” of a centralized swap/lease entity.
And yet, if we look to the markets, we see it moving toward electrification. The number and variety of hybrids available today would astound American observers of the introduction of the Prius just over ten years ago. Those who believe in the market’s wisdom can not deny the steadily increasing electrification of the car market, nor ignore its implications. And as is ever the case when technology and markets shift, those seeking to maximize their personal freedoms will have to choose carefully from a new set of imperfect choices.