I-95 fiasco raises issue of survivability of electric cars

Sometimes we are left to wonder whether unseen forces may be at work trying to get us to rethink whether certain planned initiatives are smart to undertake, at least without giving the dire consequences of doing so additional thought.

Thousands of unhappy drivers were given such an opportunity – including at least one member of Congress – on Jan. 3. Commuting into Washington, D.C., they got caught up in a 24-hour-plus delay on Interstate 95 leading into the city. It happened after six tractor-trailers crashed in Virginia in a heavy snowstorm, which left them stranded. Many motorists ran car heaters to stay warm, were without food and hampered by vehicles abandoned on the roadway. They were left to await the clearing of numerous road bottlenecks before being able to proceed, assuming they still had enough fuel to get to a gas station. Fortunately, there were no injuries or deaths caused by the delay.

Due to numerous cars that did run out of gas, fuel had to be transported to them or else they had to be towed to a fuel source.

This incident comes at a critical time. President Joe Biden has put us on a course to increase electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing while reducing manufacturing for internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Supported by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, Biden announced a combined target of 50% EVs, including plug-in hybrids and fuel cell models, by 2030. All government vehicles are to be EVs by 2050. While Tesla, having produced its first EV in 2008, has built more EVs in the U.S. than any other automaker, it has done so without UAW labor.

The major car manufacturers are already onboard. Chrysler announced that by 2028, it plans to go completely electric. It seeks to embed in its vehicles an artificial intelligence (AI) software system powered by a battery capable of traveling 350 to 400 miles per charge.

Interestingly, as other automakers such as Volkswagen, Toyota, General Motors, Ford, BMW and Nissan also announce transitioning to EV manufacturing, a newcomer – never before in the car manufacturing industry – announced its entry into the market. The company that brought us PlayStations – Sony – is now cutting its teeth on EVs, hoping eventually to bring autonomous vehicles to the market. It will do this by creating a new division focusing on vehicle development known as Sony Mobility Inc. It has already built a prototype seven-seat, sport-utility EV with all-wheel drive.

But while the leading car manufacturers, and now Sony, announce their run for the roses in the EV race, a question must be asked based on the recent I-95 snow delay. That question is how well would EVs have performed during a 24-hour-plus delay in keeping drivers and passengers warm and able, once road bottlenecks were cleared, to get moving again?

While a century ago we proved able to quickly transition from the horse to mass-produced cars, the transition from ICE cars to EVs will not go as smoothly. Nor will it go without devastating consequences absent such consideration.

One of the automakers that has established itself as a leader in the market, having grown its footprint the old fashioned way by building reliable cars without resorting to acquisitions to expand, is Toyota. Before the Jan. 3 storm, and despite its heading in the EV direction as well, it went on record before the U.S. Senate stating its concerns that the world is not yet ready to support a fully electric auto fleet.

In March 2019, Robert Wimmer, head of Toyota’s energy and environmental research, gave testimony which, had it been played for EV drivers stranded on I-95, would have had them nodding in full agreement.

Despite auto manufacturers’ ambitious goals, Wimmer noted just 2% of the world’s cars are EVs amid a slew of pro-ICE factors, such as price, range and infrastructure. Cheaper ICE pricing exists even after EV tax subsidies are factored in.

Additionally, Wimmer reported how the scale involved in switching to EVs has yet to be seriously discussed in any systematic way. With 290 million cars on U.S. roads in 2021, of which 98% are gas-powered, installation of a massive EV infrastructure system is necessary.

A U.S. government study determined at least 8,500 strategically placed charge stations would be needed just to support a fleet of 7 million EVs – six times larger than the number today. But no one is even discussing the support needed for 7 million electric cars. And if manufacturers stop making ICE cars within the next two decades, we are looking at 300 million EVs. We need an improved power infrastructure at a time when places such as California and Texas are experiencing power outages. Whether charged at home or on the road, EVs need to be charged frequently, with fast charging at home still a future dream, drawing on generators fueled by natural gas, coal, petroleum, etc.

Wimmer was not claiming the above could not be done, but he believes little conversation is being undertaken to initiate it.

It would be interesting to hear from the Virginia Department of Highways how EVs caught up in the I-95 snow delay faired. There are questions such as how far the closest charging sources were located, the waiting time for a charge if multiple EVs were involved and the time it took after the highway was cleared for EVs to get back on the road. These are all valid considerations that need to be weighed before embarking upon putting at least 300 million cars on our highways.

As reported, Sony is now jumping into the EV market. It is hoped the company learned a lesson from an earlier plunge into the cassette recording market in the mid 1970s with Betamax. Sony ended up losing its battle for market share but did not stop making Betamax tapes until 2016, long after the public had lost interest in them, with most unaware that the tapes were still in production. Betamax goes down in history as one of 10 most famous project failures.

If Biden fails to ensure an EV support infrastructure capable of handling a massive transition to electric power from gas power, his initiative will top the list of project failures. But worse than that for EV drivers, every day will become an I-95 snow day.

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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