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So Near and Yet So Far: What Will It Take to Change the Way Americans Drive?

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One of the auto alternatives that lost out to oil a century ago: a 1909 Stanley Steamer at the Newport Antique Auto Hill Climb. Photo: Huw Williams/Wikimedia Commons

Change is hard in the world of energy, and nothing shows that more than attempts to change the deep roots of the vehicles Americans drive every day. Almost all the oil we use as a nation goes for transportation, with all the implications that brings in terms of dependence on foreign oil, gas prices that rise and fall on international markets, and global warming. And technologically speaking, we do have alternatives – none of which are catching on fast.

Officially, the Obama administration has set a goal to have 1 million electric cars and plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. In reality, unless we pick up the pace, it’s not going to happen. GM sold fewer than 10,000 of its innovative Volt in the first half of this year, for example.

There are other alternatives to gasoline, too. Natural gas is cheap, cleaner than gasoline, and is already in use as a fuel, particularly for heavy duty vehicles like buses and trucks. But there are still only about 40,000 heavy duty vehicles powered by natural gas in the U.S., out of about 9 million total.

There also were alternatives to oil when the automobile was first invented, more than a century ago. But there’s a reason why we’re not driving around in the descendants of the Stanley Steamer. Oil won out for good reasons: it was the most efficient fuel in terms of cost, the easiest to deliver to consumers, and required the least effort from drivers.  Of course, that was before OPEC and catastrophes like the Exxon-Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills.  And it was before scientists worldwide began making forecasts about global warming.

With its enticing pros and troubling cons, oil may or may not stay on top as a transportation fuel. But if we’re going to reduce our reliance on it, here are two things to watch:

How do much you have to pay up front? Right now electric and natural gas vehicles cost significantly more than conventional vehicles. A Volt costs about $40,000, although there’s a $7,500 federal tax credit to bring that price down. The hope is that higher fuel efficiency means you’ll save money over the long run. But that calculation depends on multiple factors: the cost of the vehicle, the price of gas, and the price of your alternative fuel, not to mention whether buyers are willing pay ahead of time for savings later on.

The biggest part of the cost of an electric car or a plug-in hybrid is the battery. In recent weeks, there have been a number of reports examining what the impact would be if there were a breakthrough in battery technology that made these cars cheaper. Some analyses, like the one contained in the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook, are pretty modest. The EIA estimates a battery breakthrough could boost battery powered vehicles to nearly one-quarter of auto sales by 2035, compared to 8 percent without one. Other assessments are more optimistic.

Either way, the calculation is still about up-front costs for a new technology versus the price of gasoline. And the projections depend on making good guesses about two things that are hard to predict: innovation, and the price of oil.

Is it convenient?  We’ve spent a century putting a gas station on every corner, with more than 157,000 in operation now. But we don’t have plug-in chargers or natural gas pumps on every corner, or anywhere close. During the oil price spike of 2008, Utah saw a surge in interest in natural gas vehicles, for one very good reason. A local utility, Questar Gas, chose to open its pumping stations to the public. But that’s the exception. The EIA estimates that as of this year, there are 1,047 compressed natural gas fueling stations and 53 liquid natural gas stations in the United States – and more than half of them aren’t open to the public.

The situation isn’t much better for all-electric cars, particularly given that it takes much longer to charge a battery than to fill up a gas tank. On the plus side, about half of American households park their car within 20 feet of an electrical outlet, according to the Energy Department. On the other hand, half don’t. The advantage of a plug-in hybrid, of course, is that it also has a gasoline engine for those awkward moments when you don’t remember to plug it in. Even so, there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here. We don’t have the infrastructure for alternative vehicles because there aren’t enough of them on the road, but we can’t put more on the road without the infrastructure.

There’s nothing magical about petroleum. We can change, and there are reasons to do so, especially with the Energy Department predicting that oil prices will nearly double over the next 20  years. But unless we get a lot smarter about how to alter the fundamental dynamics of cost and convenience, most drivers will still opt for filling up rather than plugging in.