Home Opinion Greg Blass The end of the car as we know it?

The end of the car as we know it?

An electric car being charged in 1905.

So just what is in store for the century-old, inseparable part of North Fork and American life, the automobile? In our ever changing world, according to all the indicators, what we call our “ride” is in for big changes, and soon — in fact, very soon.

First of all, as the World Economic Forum reports, experts have been predicting the demise of car ownership. The U.S., along with the U.K. and Australia, are three major nations reporting a significant drop in people’s obtaining car licenses. Boston leads the world as developed cities with rapidly declining vehicle numbers, followed by Osaka, Japan and the eternally congested, eternal city of Rome, Italy.

Changing lifestyles and technology are at play. In Boston, as in such other cities as Miami, with a hint of it right here on the North Fork in Riverhead, more restaurant, shopping and entertainment venues are locating in places easily accessible by walking and public transport. The US Census Bureau tells us of shifting populations who prefer city centers to the suburbs, choosing to walk or cycle to work. Many cities now feature car-sharing and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. Widely available smart phone apps tell you when, for instance, your next bus is due at the nearest bus stop.

But do these trends foreshadow the end of the privately owned vehicle? In terms of the internal combustion engine — the gas- and diesel-powered kind — the answer is a resounding yes, and it’s coming fast the world over. India, in the midst of an air pollution crisis, plans to allow the sale only of electric cars by 2030, the very year that the Netherlands plans to do the same. China’s Xinhua News agency announced plans to phase out gas and diesel powered cars with a date soon to be set, while Scotland has set 2032 to do so. Norway, which now has the highest, per-capita number of all electric cars in the world, plans this for 2025, and France and the U.K. try to catch up by setting the date, for now at least, of 2040.

Many of the world’s city governments are moving even faster. Oslo’s city center will be car-free by 2019. Paris, where air pollution dropped 30% for the one day that they banned even-numbered plates in 2014, has banned cars registered before 1997, with restrictions increasing each year till 2020. Paris joins Mexico City, Madrid and Athens in stopping the use of all diesel powered cars and trucks by 2025 to improve air quality.

There’s good reason that air quality – along with money, of course – lies at the heart of the electrification of motor vehicles. The World Health Organization attributes 3 million deaths each year from outdoor air pollution. This health issue has made a target of the internal combustion engine, an American invention that changed the world, in so many ways for the better, particularly for the little guy.

BBC’s Roger Harrabin predicts that the demise of diesel powered vehicles in the global market is a done deal, and that the “biggest shapers of auto design” are not the carmakers, but rule makers.” He goes on that there is “already a rush to produce electric and hydrogen cars and hybrids. That will now become a stampede.” And Bloomberg News Energy Finance reports another market-changing incentive for the upcoming boom in electric car sales: the plunging price of lithium-ion batteries. Add to that the expanding range of plug-in cars from the current 200 miles to over 300 in the next five years.

Carmakers are getting the message, and have made some startling announcements about their embrace of electrification. Get Wired Magazine, in their edition of last October 2nd, reports US General Motors’ announcement that they are “ending their relationship with gasoline and diesel,” and is now actively working “towards an all electric, zero emissions future.” GM is the largest carmaker on the planet, selling 10 million cars last year (3.6 million in China alone). They plan two new, fully electric models next year, and no less than 18 more by 2023.

Foreign producers have already jumped on the electric bandwagon. Volvo announced in July that every model it launches from 2019 will have an electric motor, stating that electrification will be at the core of its future business. BMW has announced that all their brands and models will offer, “very shortly,” a full electric or plug-in hybrid drivetrain in addition to the combustion engine option. And all of Japan’s carmakers continue to move rapidly with electrification.

So what’s to become of our ubiquitous neighborhood gas station? We can only speculate here, but increasingly with time, the demand for gasoline and diesel will certainly diminish. With the ample supply of fossil fuels, prices will drop, as will profits, suggesting that gas stations will go the way of bookstores and, inevitably, supermarkets (See my Oct. 9 column ). Likely there will always be some gas stations, but as with bookstores, fewer by far. So how scarce and difficult to obtain will gas and diesel fuels become? And what dramatic trends in real estate will this gradual but widespread closing of retail gas stations create?

What’s to become of all the remaining vehicles with the soon-to-be outdated combustion engine? Consider classic and antique cars and trucks, and the legions of pricey supercars rolling down the highways of the world. Surely there will be a market for a business or product that retrofits gas-powered vehicles with electric motors. Entrepreneurs with this kind of business plan are surely out there. And then there’s the most intriguing question of all: will rapidly changing technology soon offer a remarkable alternative to our cherished, privately owned vehicle – will even this accelerating conversion to electric cars be as suddenly outdated as the flip phone?

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg