The biggest threat from plug in vehicles
There's something special about getting up at 4:15 a.m. I'm lucky enough to be a work-at-home green car blogger with no set schedule, so I never see that time of day unless I set my clock wrong. But this year's Detroit Auto Show was a busy, busy affair. So busy, in fact, that during the first media day, I worked from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. Two questions came to mind as I was doing this. First: "Why can't I work for an hour a week, the way Tom and Ray do?" Second: "This is never going to end, is it?"
As I was rushing around from interview to press conference to meeting at the show, the terrible answer to that second question dawned on me. See, the green car scene used to be kind of small. You had your Toyota Prius versions, a few bio-fuel or hydrogen projects here and there and you had your hyper-miler advocates - but those guys were kept far from the show floor during media days. Ever since GM announced the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid concept back in 2007, though, the whole industry has turned seriously green. This year, the Detroit show had hybrid minivans, plug-in cars from around the globe and more 40+ mpg vehicles than it makes sense to count. At least the luxury-focused folks at Bentley had the good sense to make their announcement about interior color schemes and not efficiency.
Still, even with that little bit of kindness to my schedule offering a slight reprieve, the reality is that high-efficiency vehicles are here to stay. In 2011, that means we're seeing more and more electric drive vehicles being unveiled and sold. Today, electric drive comes in a few different flavors - from your everyday hybrid that many people are already familiar with (the Prius, obviously, but also well-done dual-power rides like the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Lexus CT200h) to cars that plug into the wall to get their energy (the big players here today: the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf and drop-dead awesome Tesla Roadster) but the future really belongs to all-electric vehicles. Not this year; not next year; not even by 2020 if we're taking about the majority of vehicles on the road; but they're coming. As a green car reporter, this shift means I'm going to spend every future auto show running around nonstop. But who cares about that? The bigger issue is how this will affect Car Talk?
Electric cars are mechanically much simpler than gas-burning vehicles. In the powertrain, you have a battery pack (the insides of which are quite complicated, but that's another story), an electric motor and some way to insert a cord. There are no serpentine or timing belts, no oil to change, no confusing spark plugs. By definition, there will be no fuel-line leaks. Sure, electric car drivers need to keep their windshield wiper fluid topped off and make sure their tires are properly inflated, but that's about it. For some - okay, most - people, this is a great change. We don't have to get smarter to understand our cars, we can take out the needlessly complex parts and leave the really high-tech stuff (like that battery pack) to trained specialists. Dealers will like this, but for independent mechanics, it's potentially terrible. After all, a car that needs virtually zero maintenance isn't going to offer up too many boat payments. Also, if everything just works with our plug-in cars, will we stop calling Tom and Ray?
All right, all this won't come to pass in such a way that NPR will need to find a new show to fit the schedule this year but the issue of who will be able to fix your car is something to think about. Even the most confident electric vehicle proponents - people like Nissan and Renault CEO and President Carlos Ghosn - are only predicting that pure electrics will make up around 10 percent of the market in 2020 and most everyone is certain that liquid-burning engines will still be powering a lot of cars in 2050. Still, the future belongs to cars that today's mechanics will not recognize. If you bemoan the fact that you can't tune up your 2011 vehicle the way you could a 1975 model, you might not ever want to look under the hood of a 2015 EV. Actually, maybe you should. You'll want to call Car Talk just to commiserate. They'll have time to spare.
Sebastian Blanco is the editor-in-chief of AutoblogGreen. He has 15 years of experience as a freelance writer and editor, and has appeared on the BBC, NPR and many other news outlets discussing clean automotive technologies. For the next month or so, he's going to be filling in for Jim Motavalli, who's decided to see what else the world holds instead of green car blogging. The BBC probably won't call again now that he's associated with Tom and Ray.