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Are Electric Cars Finally in the Fast Lane?

Friday, April 8, 2011

When I first saw it, I thought it was a parking ticket machine. It was big, shiny and rectangular and sat on the pavement next to the curb. But, as I got closer, I made out the words on its sign:


The moment I realized what it was, I broke into a grin and got a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Maybe there was hope for humanity after all.

My social media phenomenon

It was last summer and I was in Portland, Oregon on a work trip. I was walking through the downtown area and came across the public charging station. Next to it was a dedicated parking space for electric vehicles.

I did what anyone else would have done in such a situation: I snapped a photo of it with my cell phone and posted it to Facebook (see photo to the right). It was a hit. It got half a dozen ‘likes’ and multiple positive comments. The last time I had such big a response was when I posted a picture of my cat sitting in the sink.

Not a new idea

Electric cars have been around for a long time. The first prototypes were built in the 1800s. They were even more popular than gasoline-powered cars until the early 20th century when advances in internal combustion engine technology led to the latter taking over.

But they never completely went away. A small number of brave inventors kept working on them while the rest of us were happily driving around in our gas-powered vehicles.

Over the last decade, they’ve made a comeback even Rocky Balboa would have been proud of. As the price of oil has climbed and the world has become more and more concerned about pollution and smog, electric cars have become increasingly attractive.

Electric cars on the market

Today, you can take your pick from a number of electric cars on the market. The Telsa Motors’ Roadster, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are perhaps the best known examples. On top of this, the big commercial car companies will be selling electric cars within the next year. Look out for vehicles like the Aptera 2e, the BMW i3 and the Hyundi Blue2. The buzz surrounding the technology is palpable.

Yet questions remain: At present, electric cars mostly get their electricity from carbon-intense sources such as coal. And some people worry about the ultimate environmental cost of their heavy-duty batteries.

The road to 2030

Today, electric cars are at the crossroads. They may take over, or may ultimately fizzle. Only time will tell if they’ve finally entered the fast lane. If so, they have the potential to help transform the world and just might be the dominant type of vehicle by 2030.


Written by: Damian Pope

Damian has a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Queensland in Australia. He also has extensive experience communicating science to the public and is currently the Senior Manager of Outreach at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.