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The American Dream and Driving in the 21st Century

American culture has had a long love affair with the car. It symbolizes freedom, independence, success, leisure, and even machismo—think the Great Gatsby. It is one of the fixtures of the American dream.

“When I think of America, when I think of this country, and we see the car commercials that we see on TV, it’s selling this dream of car ownership and independence and autonomy,” John Richardson, planning manager for sustainability for Chapel Hill, said. “How do those values stack up against the alternative?”

“Part of the reason why the American landscape looks the way it does is because is because we made decisions that favor cars over other forms of travel,” Heather Brutz, Clean Transportation Specialist of NC State’s Clean Energy Technology Center, added.

But driving is being reinvented.

The most imminent change is the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

Ideal Electric Car Co. advertisement 1911. US Public Domain.
Ideal Electric Car Co. advertisement 1911. US Public Domain.

“Electric vehicles have actually been around since the twentieth century, but they were never mass-produced,” Richardson said. “[The technology] has obviously gotten so much better.”

The EV industry has been growing every year despite failing to reach Pres. Obama’s hopes. Every automaker is racing to cheapen and strengthen their models. General Motors, Tesla, and others seem to have reached the tipping point: a car that costs at most $35,000 and gets at least 200 miles of range per charge.

It isn’t just the car itself, though. From Google’s hyped attempts at autonomous driving to the light rail, the transportation landscape is changing. What does that mean for the American lifestyle?

Here are a few of the ways in which EVs will transform America—and a few ways it will fit right in.

How Much Driving, and Where? 

There is going to be less driving, period. The US’s consumption of cars peaked in 2000. Though there has been an increase in buying this last year, the trend is towards less investment. Why? Probably a combination of financial insecurity and cultural shifts.

For example, the Complete Street movement campaigns for public transport, bikes, pedestrians, and cars to share roads.

A critical factor in the success of EVs is expanded range. This means beyond cities. Charging stations are, for now, rare and time-draining. Level 2 chargers take 3-6 hours for a full charge, while rarer DC fast chargers take a half hour.

But, these changes are not necessarily destructive.

A more walkable, bike-able city is very traditional. Europe, from London’s vast tube system to Amsterdam’s bike lanes, links cultural experience to not driving.

As for public transport, green movements have always backed it; does this new option of green ownership hurt that?

Brutz saw electric, autonomous, and/or shared cars as a supplement, not competitor, to public transport.

“They help solve what they call the Last Mile Problem,” she said. “The bus or train gets you from point A to point B. You don’t live at point A and you’re not going exactly to point B. You are 1.5 miles away from point A and 1.8 miles away from point B. How do you go and solve that last mile problem? Things like Uber can be amazing at solving that.”

As for the range, the Great American Road Trip is not off limits. Firstly, charging stations are getting faster and more plentiful. Secondly, them being slow and few has its advantages to developers who install them.

“Attracting customers is a big deal,” Brutz said. “For example, if you are a hotel that has an electric charger and someone is doing a cross-country trip with an electric vehicle, they will actively seek out hotels where they can charge overnight.”

Towns can use this too.

“I have heard of towns and places that were putting in chargers specifically with hopes that the people who are travelling along would stop, eat lunch at the restaurants, charge their electric vehicle, and then keep on going,” Brutz said, and added that Rocky Mount, NC was one town with such an economic tool.


Sounder in Body

The hybrids were the first to change over. Richardson compared this transition to TVs that took both video cassettes and DVDs.

“We’re in that transition period right now. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the batteries and recharging speeds and all that get us to a place where the EV doesn’t become much of a thought,” he said.

The engine is currently the heart of a car. An electric car has a battery, but the complete re-imagining of what a vehicle can be has opened up new methods. It’s more than fewer explosions in action movies.

“Nearly everything changes when you opt for a fundamentally different power train,” Alex Davies of Wired said when reviewing GM’s new Volt. “The engineers didn’t have established tests to follow.”

We already expect our cars to be able to power our AC, play music, and even call home. With a battery-powered car, this power transfer is more intuitive. Smart cars—those with a degree of autonomous driving—will certainly be compatible with EVs. Apple, for example, has long-term plans to incorporate autonomy but plans its EV named “Titan” to be ready in 2019.

More reinventions include using lightweight and/or printed material for car frames and using braking to power the car further.


Safer in Mind

Car manufacturers are ready to really put the “auto” into “automobiles.”

Despite Google’s recent, high-profile crash of its self-driving car (at 2 mph), the march onward seems inevitable. Ten major automakers just agreed to have automatic emergency braking systems in nearly all American cars by 2022. Uber is eyeing self-driving cars for a 24-hour, driver-free business model.

This appears to be the most revolutionary change coming. What is a car without a driver?

But the rise in safety predicts thousands of lives saved yearly. And while taking autonomy away from some, it gives it to others; the blind, the elderly, the young, and the unlicensed.

It is also important to note that no self-driving car so far is without overrides; nor are they predicted to become a monopoly, even if they make the norm. The driver has a choice.


The Cool Factor

Tesla Model S (left) and Smart ED (right) charging in Amsterdam; Picture by Ludhiana E. Moreira Sales and Mario Duran (Mariordo)
Tesla Model S (left) and Smart ED (right) charging in Amsterdam; Picture by Ludhiana E. Moreira Sales and Mario Duran (Mariordo)

“Most people currently purchase EVs to make an environmental statement, rather than for economic reasons,” said Jessica Robinson of UNC Chapel Hill’s renewable energy special projects committee.

“Some people want a car that looks different because they want to look like they’re making the eco-friendly choice. So they don’t want their car to look like everyone else’s,” Brutz agreed.

There will be new values attached to what car you own. As prized as vintage cars are, they do not do well on the green side of things. But just imagine a “Pimp My Ride” where car frames were fitted to new power trains.

But, all the cool criterion apply still.

Brutz says the real difference is in the power train, and automakers can adapt according to fashion.

“They’re probably going to want to appeal to different sorts of customers. Do you want to have something that’s just a little bit quirky? Do you want to have something that’s luxurious? Do you want something that’s just like a regular car that kind of blends in with the crowd? And I think there are different consumers that would want all of those,” she said.

If you want a luxurious status symbol, you can count on Tesla, who opened the previously mentioned “cool” doors way back in 2006 with its Roadster. Initial reviews, such as this one by the New York Times, agreed this green machine had “a dollop of Bruce Wayne and a generous helping of James Bond.”

Or you could go the more flamboyant route, as BMW’s i3 and a few others embrace.

Either way, there will be diversity. This green machine will be for everyone who can afford it.

And as to that, the US government has weighed in with a $7,500 carrot for customers and stick for the industry. Purchases are subsidized to the tune of thousands of dollars (the carrot). Emissions standards are threatening and public opinion enticing automakers to produce more affordable EVs. The electric car will be available to the middle class, for one way or another.


The Green Factor

Brazilian charging station, powered by solar.
Brazilian charging station, powered by solar.

Green cars and their advocates prefer green energy, “the electric elephant,” as the BBC has called it. That can be tricky, especially in fossil fuel-dominated USA.

Brutz knows that the use of EVs will encourage the adoption of renewable energy, and not just from environmentalism.

“There are people who talk about having much larger fleets of electric vehicles and essentially having them going to serve as storage for some of the renewable energy during those off-peak hours when it’s otherwise not being used, as a way of basically increasing the percentage of our energy being used from renewable sources,” she said. More on that is continued in the next segment.

“Personally I think renewable energy—specifically solar—should be incorporated with EV charging stations,” Robinson said. But, “There are concerns that the current electrical grid could not handle the load from EVs if there is a massive widespread adoption. Imagine thousands of vehicle owners returning home from work and plugging their vehicle into the grid on top of turning on air conditioning, running their dishwasher, turning on lights, etcetera, simultaneously. There could potentially be blackouts.”

Therefore, widespread adoption of EVs could change the very electric grid, as well as electricity generators.

There will be a cultural change to be more conscious of what energy is used, how much, and from where.

“There is continued interest in these vehicles despite the fact we’re seeing gas prices go down,” Richardson said. This implies motives beyond financial.

But most of the changes will occur behind the scenes. Green industry is working hard to keep things simple for the consumer. Plugging into a charging station is intuitive as pumping gas or charging your phone. The grid will stay as invisible as before, but with a security of mind for the conscious user.


Own a Car, Own a Business

Nissan LEAF charging at the Freedom Station in Houston, TX. This is an eVgo Network station with both Level 2 and DC fast chargers. Picture by EVGo Network and Mariordo
Nissan LEAF charging at the Freedom Station in Houston, TX. This is an eVgo Network station with both Level 2 and DC fast chargers. Picture by EVGo Network and Mariordo

Instead of car ownership being seen as a right or requirement of being an American over the age of 16, it will be come a privilege and/or business.

Consider the new shared economy, with Air BnB and Uber as two successful examples. Empty space and unused time for an expensive purchase like a house or car is financially wasteful. Zipcar is the major company betting on quick and easy car rentals taking off.

EVs offer an even more unusual financial possibility; selling electricity back to the grid. This would pair well with more renewable energy (often a fluctuating supply), as mentioned previously.

“As we’re having more electric vehicles, we’re having basically a lot more powerful batteries that are plugged into the grid, generally overnight. And so what some people who are kind of like futurists are thinking about is essentially, like, one of the challenges of implementing large scale renewable energy is energy storage,” Brutz said.

But while this may sound radically new, it is very much in the spirit of the American dream. By buying this status symbol and tool of freedom, you open up the possibility of managing a one-person business.

When you rent a car, you will have freedom at your fingertips without the long-term burden. When you rent a car to others, you will be making the most of your once unused time to generate profit. When selling energy back to the grid, you would even have the choice of when and how it is sold. In this future, you are consumer and boss. What could be more American dreamy?



“It’s not necessarily a gigantic cultural shift,” Brutz said.

Sometimes it’s as UNC-Charlotte having maintenance workers give up pick-up trucks for golf cart-like GEMs (global electric motorcars).

“That’s the sort of cultural shift I’m seeing [here]. People saying, Okay, it’s okay for me to not have a regular vehicle that’s just mine. I’m going to use this other one on a relevant basis,” Brutz said.

Though it may take decades to get old cars off the road, and subsidies and PR to incentivize individual buyers, EVs are coming. Consumers and automobile aficionados should not mourn the passing of the old American car, however. In many ways, EVs improve and complete the concept of the car as a tool of freedom, status, and self-expression.

And if you still don’t like EVs, ride-sharing, or autonomous cars? You don’t have to buy them. It’s your choice, but that choice is made from increasing options. And that’s the American way.