I was making a quick jaunt across the Wendy’s parking lot in Brainerd when I looked up and, lo and behold, gliding silently along the pavement was a midnight blue Tesla Model 3.
Yes, the future of automotive travel is here — well, not quite yet, but it’s certainly emerging on the horizon and recent headlines indicate the electric car revolution may finally be realized for the everyday American.
Now, make no mistake, electric cars have been a thing since — technically — the days of Hungarian priest Ányos Jedlik and his invention of a rudimentary electricity-powered motor in 1827, which he then stuck in a tiny car, so EVs are hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, they predate the gas-powered, internal combustion motors that dominate the roadways today.
In short, people are more than justified to hear news of the coming electric vehicle revolution and roll their eyes. Sure, we’ll have those electric cars on every avenue and boulevard, just as soon as we figure out how to produce hovercraft and toothpaste that doesn’t make orange juice taste terrible.
However, there are some signs that we’re starting to make a significant shift in the automotive sphere and this shift is emerging at various junctures in our lives.
German automotive giant Volkswagen recently announced a $33 billion push to develop battery-powered vehicles with the expectation that no less than half of European and Chinese car sales will be electric in 10 years time. In that neck of the woods, nordic nations -- particularly Norway -- are pushing policies that would heavily incentivize the purchase and operations of EVs over their older gas-powered predecessors.
On the Minnesota side, Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, Sept. 25, asked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to write the rules requiring auto manufacturers that sell in the state to deliver more electric and hybrid vehicles. The move follows California's effort to set stricter emission standards for cars than the federal government -- of which, it should be noted, the Golden State boasts considerable sway in the union.
Tesla sold more cars than Lincoln last year — of which, the luxury-oriented brand was seeing healthy sales boosts in light of Matthew McConaughey’s ad campaign for the company, so Tesla’s success is nothing to sneeze at — alright, alright, alright? Since its launch in 2017, the Model 3 has eclipsed the Chevy Volt as the highest selling plug-in car of all time, while the Volt had between 2011-2019 to accomplish the feat.
So are we going to see a sudden, transformational breakthrough from the Tesla Model 3 as we saw from the Ford Model T a century ago? It’s not outside the realm of reason, but there’s simply more reasons to pump the brake and throttle down expectations when it comes to Fordian revolutions here in the United States.
Often, it’s a matter of culture. Well, that and some practicalities, but mostly culture. For example, despite having a robust automotive industry, U.S. makes have historically done terrible in Japan. The American preference for bigger, beefier and thirstier trucks and SUVs just doesn’t fit the cramped arteries of Tokyo, so U.S makes struggle to reach more than 5% market share. While not as extreme, many of these same issues face American cars in the medieval thoroughfares of Europe.
At the same time, Japanese vehicles dominate our markets -- think the Toyota Camry or Honda Civic -- because fuel economy is still important in the most spacious and expansive nation in the developed world by a longshot. The rugged outback of the United States has long necessitated, then mythologized a heftier, more muscular and rugged type of vehicle — from the Ford Mustang, to the F-150 — so the tiny Peugeots of France aren’t as attractive an option here.
Enter Tesla and a host of hybrids and plug-in vehicles from more traditional makes. Industry experts are looking at a more humble — if somewhat still impressive — projection of roughly 30% market share by 2030 for electric vehicles in the old U.S. of A.
That’s still a far cry from Europe and China, mind you, and I think a lot of that has to do with age-old cultural values in automotives. Electric vehicles still have a number of dependability issues, concerns with charging, as well as numerous questions for safety, performance and mechanical failures. They’re meeting these concerns head on, but there’s still a ways to go.
Simply put, the Tesla 3 and other EVs may have a certain futuristic mystique, but it’s an appeal based on enticing possibilities, not a proven track record as yet. However fair or unfair that perception may be, it’s a greater leap for Americans than their Old World counterparts who have been driving spindly little Volvos for generations.
So what does the crystal ball say? Electric cars gradually, if quickly, interweave themselves in the fabric of American society. Other breakthroughs in technology overshadow their emergence — such as the implementation of self-driving technology — and electric vehicles don’t captivate people like they used to while gas-powered makes take on the same nostalgic qualities that old ‘70s unleaded cars do now.
By the end of the century, gas-powered vehicles will largely be a thing of the past and relegated to the museum — but, by then, those electric cars better be flying.