A Possible Boost for the U.S. Economy by 2020

One of the greatest disruptions to our economy could occur in the next five years, changing our daily lives forever. Unfortunately, all of the “help” being offered by governrnment agencies could be holding us back, or even misdirecting, some progress in this arena.

Atlanta, Georgia is the land of NASCAR, jacked-up trucks bigger than some houses… and the second biggest market in the U.S. for electric vehicles (EVs).

I was initially surprised that car buyers there purchase the all-electric Nissan Leaf at five times the national rate of sales! My surprise faded when I dug into the facts.

They don’t buy the Leaf because it looks hot. It looks much more like a rolling pistachio than a sexy muscle car or a luxury ride. And they probably aren’t impressed with the Leaf’s range, either, which is much less than 100 miles and varies depending on the charge, traffic conditions, and distance traveled.

Instead, residents of Atlanta are buying EVs because of some pretty amazing freebies that come with the car…

For one, drivers of EVs get to use the prized High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, even if the driver is alone in the vehicle. It doesn’t matter if you call it the diamond lane, the transit lane, or even the carpool lane, traveling in that lane is fast!

For the past decade, we’ve traveled at least once a year to Atlanta to visit a dear family friend, and now that I have a child attending Georgia Tech (Go Ramblin’ Wrecks!), we make it to the city even more often.

Georgia has a well-earnrned reputation for fabulous food, great shopping, and Southernrn charm. It also has a reputation for something else: horrible traffic!

Along with Atlanta, perhaps Los Angeles is one of the few places in the U.S. where residents don’t talk about the distance between two points in miles, but in terms of time. A destination is not 10 miles away. It’s about 45 minutes away. A conversation regarding a commute begins with a question: What time are you going? If you want to get downtown before 10 a.m., pack a snack… and maybe plan a bathroom break.

It seems the city’s founding fathers gave little thought to population growth and how people would move around. The north-south traffic arteries are always crammed, which is why I’m thankful we travel as a family.

Not because my wonderful children provide comfort and relaxation on the road, but because having them in the car allows me to use the HOV lane, which speeds up the trip. Of course, this in itself doesn’t make having kids worth the cost, but it is convenient.

The fact that EV drivers can use the fast lane in this traffic-tortured town, plus the bonus of a $4,000 tax break from the state of Georgia, seems like motivation enough for many people to hop on board.

Add the cheap recharging power from Georgia Power (80% less than the national average), and you have a convenient and cost-effective winner when it comes to purchasing a commuter car.

All of this brings a question to mind: Do the giveaways, at the expense of other motorists and taxpayers, move us closer to the goal of having EV’s widely accepted?

I don’t question if having more EVs on the road is a good thing, because it sure seems to be. I’m questioning the tenuous connection between artificially increasing demand for EVs and creating critical mass in sales. The problem with EVs is not their lack of sales, but their lack of efficient battery power.

There’s no doubt that auto manufacturers can make a cool-looking electric motor vehicle. Both Tesla and Fisker proved it. Even the Chevy Volt isn’t completely unfortunate-looking (although it’s a hybrid). Yet the battery technology required to power such a vehicle over a reasonable distance at a low cost simply doesn’t exist today.

But it will…

Everyone is working on the same problem right now. From behemoths such as Panasonic and LG down to the smallest of start-ups, and, of course, university research labs. They’re all racing for the solution.

Once found, it will not only transform the transportation industry, but could also transform home energy use by giving individual homes a cheap way to store alternrnative power.

Will the next iteration of energy storage use the wondrous new substance graphene, or will it include ultra-capacitors? It could be a combination of both. Beats me, but I’m looking forward to it.

This brings me back to Atlanta and the giveaways to EV drivers. Better batteries are the real hurdle for both EVs and alternrnative energy storage needs, so why is there such a focus on pushing cars that don’t fulfill the need?

Will encouraging producers to sell more of something that doesn’t work lead to better batteries? Won’t this simply fill the limited niche of EV car sales with early-version, obsolete-car power plants that will have to be recycled in some way?

A better plan might be for cities, states, and even the federal governrnment to encourage energy storage research by providing incentives and financial rewards. This would focus the costs and efforts on the very people and groups that are most likely to solve the problem. Until then, we will probably continue offering drivers of EVs perks and programs that drive demand in unusual places.

I’ll say this for EVs: if you want to drive in the HOV lane in Atlanta, it’s a lot cheaper to buy one of these – even the Tesla – than it is to have kids!

I expect the battery puzzle to be solved before 2020, so we’ll be on the lookout for companies in this space that are poised to benefit from a breakthrough in energy storage.



Follow me on Twitter @RJHSDent