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Time for a new car — or is it?

Green Wheels

Published July 28, 2014

Perhaps time has come to consider alternatives to buy new wheels

Alas, my aging minivan is showing signs of, actually, aging.

After 11 years on the road, rust has invaded the rear wheel wells and the hood; the once-crystal-clear windshield is frosted by collisions with billions of dust particles; and everything is beginning to feel loose and rattle-some.

I’m (check one) too a) conservation-minded, b) cheap or c) broke, to send it to the crusher just yet.

But the signs of coming demise have me speculating about my next set of wheels.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I prefer something that will carry several people and/or a lot of stuff, and won’t protest if I throw a canoe on the roof.

I also wouldn’t mind trying an electric vehicle — either a plug-in hybrid or, if batteries undergo a miraculous improvement in the next couple of years, a pure EV.

But just as I prepare to drool over vehicle spec sheets and glossy photos, a troubling question intrudes: Should I buy a car at all?

Most weeks, my minivan sits immobile about 99.5 per cent of the time. Even vehicles owned by people who commute an hour each way between work and home and, then, drive perhaps another hour of daily errands, are idle nearly nine hours out of 10.

Sure, it’s nice to be able to hop in and go wherever, whenever I want. But that’s a lot of investment just sitting, depreciating, and costing insurance and other expenses, day in and day out.

This isn’t an original thought. Many before me have wondered why anybody in a city would own a vehicle.

Battery power simply accentuates the penalties of ownership and sporadic use. It’s not just EVs’ higher price tags. The bigger problem is that they provide their main benefit — the ability to run on electricity alone — during urban driving, which is exactly when I, and many other city dwellers, least need a car.

On the other hand, EVs shine when they’re driven on consistent daily routes that consume most of their range but never exceed it, and return to a home base for overnight recharging. That makes them ideal for service and delivery fleets, and public transit. They could also play a role in car sharing, since most of those trips are relatively short, with brief intervals for partial recharging:

So, even though it’s less exciting than buying a new car, I’m considering using car-sharing vehicles, preferably electric, in town and rentals for longer hauls.

I’d lose time and convenience. I couldn’t, for example, leave things in my car — sunglasses, shopping bags, flashlight — that I’ll need occasionally but don’t want to bother remembering for each drive.

Still, the alternatives seem increasingly compelling.

This isn’t a radical vision. After all, even Ford chairman Bill Ford mused about the same thing in a recent Wall St. Journal article.

“The number of vehicles on the road could exceed 2 billion by mid-century. Combine this with a continuing population shift toward cities … and it becomes clear that our current transportation model is not sustainable,” Ford says.

“Our infrastructure cannot support such a large volume of vehicles without creating massive congestion that would have serious consequences for our environment, health, economic progress and quality of life.”

One consequence: “Cars will need to be smarter and more integrated into the overall transportation system.”

Another: “Individual ownership … may not be the primary model of vehicle ownership in the future.”

What does this mean for businesses like Ford’s? They will, he says, “move from being just car and truck manufacturers to become personal-mobility companies.”

And the kicker: “Just how this affects the current sales model is yet to be seen.”

Perhaps I will join those venturing into the new automotive order. Luckily I have — I hope — some time before rust and rattles force me to decide.

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