Ralph Kinney Bennett points out that the great strength of the automobile is its potential.
The automobile’s potential is its greatest secret—an open secret and yet, it often seems, a forgotten one. The big SUV in my garage may occasionally make a 10-mile trip to Walmart or 2-mile run to the volunteer fire station when the siren sounds. But it has the potential—the size, the power, the range—to take me, my friends, and our bicycles over the mountain to a distant bike trail, or 1,100 miles with a load of furniture and books to my son’s house in Florida.
A century ago, the gasoline-powered automobile revolutionized personal mobility. It did it so profoundly and swiftly as to make it a routine aspect of our daily lives. Wide-ranging mobility is so normal that many people, particularly in the anti-car crowd, have forgotten its importance. On whatever day you may happen to read this, Americans will travel 11 billion miles in their cars, going to work or to lunch with friends, shopping, visiting the doctor or dentist, picking up materials for a home project, transporting kids to soccer or a pet to the vet—compacting into a few hours tasks which, had they even been contemplated before the automobile, would have taken carefully planned days or weeks.
This marvelous potential, whether we use it a little or a lot, is woven deeply and invisibly into the fabric of our economy and of our lives. We Americans do not buy cars merely to get from point A to point B. We do not buy cars to meet average 20- to 40-mile-per-day travel expectations. We buy them with the idea that they can take us where and when we want to go, day or night, good weather or bad. What’s more, we buy them for their potential to carry not just ourselves but our families, friends, poker cronies, softball teammates, dogs and cats, antiques, tools, fishing rods, Avon deliveries, picnic lunches, easels and paints, Salvation Army donations, church bazaar cookies, saddles and tack, groceries, vacation paraphernalia, and whatever else we may dream of with some degree of comfort and safety across town or country. And, oh, yes, we might be dragging a boat or a couple of dirt bikes or a pony trailer behind us as well.
Until electric vehicles can match this potential, it doesn't matter if they can meet the needs we face on 95% of our days.