Wednesday, July 17, 2019

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Americans ride on the cusp of new norms as electric vehicles emerge from deep pockets and become more affordable


While many people hunker down into the current norm and scoff at the hazards of a brave new world, science fiction fans, inventors and technology geeks embrace the world as it could be if or when the latest imagined invention or technological advancement becomes a part of normal life. 

An example of science fiction turn reality is Star Trek’s communicators, which were an earlier version of cellular flip phones that moved from the pocket to the wrist to the Star Trek badge.

When cell phones hit the real-world market, it was an odd experience to see someone flip open a communicator and hear that person having a private conversation in a public place. Today, people walk around with nearly imperceptible headphones, wearing a watch on their wrists, and having conversations with invisible people, and no one bats an eye to this new normal.

Fiction and history teach us that technology changes our norms. The 20th Century inventions of the motor and advances in electricity spurred the industrial revolution, and the computer spurred the technological revolution.

When vehicles were first mass produced, there were no gas stations. Gasoline was considered a waste by-product of kerosene.

“Pioneering motorists had to take a bucket to the general store, hardware dealer, drugstore or local refinery and fill up from a gasoline barrel,” wrote David A. Fryxell in a 2013 article in Family Tree Magazine about the history of gas stations.

“In 1905, as the United States manufactured 25,000 automobiles a year, Sylvanus Freelove Bowser developed a pump to safely transfer gasoline from a barrel into a car’s tank. Bowser had previously invented a successful kerosene pump. Today, Bowser Avenue in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., is named after him, and fuel pumps in New Zealand and Australia are still known as ‘bowsers’” Fryxell wrote.

Fryxell also writes that in 1888, Bertha Benz took the first cross country trip in Germany to prove to her husband, Karl Benz, that his invention, considered the first practical automobile, was remarkable. She drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim with her 13- and 15-year-old sons. The Patent Motorwagen automobile she drove ran on petroleum rather than gasoline, which was highly volatile, but could be purchased at pharmacies which stocked petroleum.

The early pumps located outside of hardware stores and pharmacies in America were eventually replaced with full-service filling stations, the first one being on the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in Pittsburgh, identified now with a historical marker and a parking lot. Learning about the evolution of gas stations designed to serve car owners gives us another example of how the face of a nation can change with each new invention. 

In a world where people are increasingly conscious of their carbon footprint on the planet, the site of electric vehicle charging stations outside hotels and strip malls should come as no surprise, and to history buffs and elders, these locations may resemble the locations of roadside gas pumps over a 100 years ago.

According to takepart.com, “A carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases—primarily carbon dioxide—released into the atmosphere by a particular human activity. A carbon footprint can be a broad measure or be applied to the actions of an individual, a family, an event, an organization, or even an entire nation.”

Reducing or eliminating this carbon footprint is the primary drive behind the push to create electric vehicles, and Tesla is a company organized by a group of engineers in 2003 with the goal of creating “not only all-electric vehicles but also infinitely scalable clean energy generation and storage products. Tesla believes the faster the world stops relying on fossil fuels and moves towards a zero-emission future, the better,” the Tesla.com website states.

In an early reveal event viewable on the Tesla website, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled each of  the all-electric vehicles included in his “Secret Master Plan:” the original Roadster, the Model -S, the Model-X, the Model-3 and the Tesla Semi.

Musk explained that the names of each Tesla electric vehicle are simple. The Roadster was the first electric car they created — designed to be sporty and sexy. The Model-S is their electric sedan, and the Model-X is their SUV.

This year, they introduced the Model-3, which is the more affordable sedan model, ranging from $50,000 to $96,000, and the vehicle that Tesla hopes will launch sales for more widespread use.

The Tesla Semi is an all-electric battery-powered Class 8 semi-trailer truck prototype which was unveiled on November 16, 2017 and planned for production by the end of 2020 by Tesla, Inc.

While the likelihood of someone cruising a Model-3 Tesla down Main Street in Eagle Butte or hauling cattle in a Tesla Semi to the sale barn in 2020 is slim, the possibility of driving full electric vehicles on South Dakota’s rural roadways may be closer to becoming our norm than we suspect.

When at a beauty salon in St. Louis, MO, sitting among ladies waiting for manicures and haircuts, I met a woman named Ginger M. Wilson who owns a Tesla Model-3 with her husband John B. Wilson.

She asked who was driving the van with South Dakota plates, and I introduced myself as the owner.  Ginger said she grew up in Aberdeen, and that she and her husband, John B. Wilson, would be making the trip to visit her family later in the summer in their new Tesla.

Having heard some news stories about the self-driving vehicles, I asked how she liked her new ride and how much it cost her.

She said the vehicle was in the $50,000 range,  is great driving locally, and while they had traveled from St. Louis to the Cascade Range mountains in southern Missouri, the trip to South Dakota would be the true test of the vehicle’s long range capability.

She explained that she and her husband have had to plan out a different route than they would take with their conventional vehicle to Aberdeen, choosing a route along which they can stop at electric vehicle, or EV, charging stations to recharge their Tesla battery.  Unfortunately for electric vehicle owners, the gas stations, now mostly self service rather than full service, sprinkled along every major highway in the nation and scattered along minor roadways, do not have EV charging stations.

“University of Michigan researchers using data from the Department of Energy in a June 15 [2017] report (pdf) counted 16,000 public charging stations in the U.S (with nearly 43,000 individual charging connectors or plugs). That compares to 112,0000 gasoline stations in the US as of 2015” wrote Micheal J. Cohen on Quartz, qz.com.*

Driving around St. Louis is not a problem for the Wilson’s who had a 240 volt charger installed in their garage to charge their new Model-3 each night, which is equivalent to a dryer hookup, John explained.

When they get home in the evening, they plug in the vehicle and it is charged and ready to go for any around-town trips during the day.

The trip to the Cascades is 170 miles, and John said those trips have gone well. They charge up at a grocery store in Osage Beach, MO, and can get a 32-mile an hour charge, and 60 miles in 2 hours. Their vehicle with a full battery has a range of 240 miles, so the trip south has not been an issue.

The Model-3 is the vehicle the Wilson’s purchased in January of this year. Tesla offered incentives for the purchase, including free charging at any Tesla supercharging port in America for a limited time span.

When it comes to owning an all-electric vehicle, the language and nature of travel changes.

A Tesla vehicle consists of a battery that runs the floor of the vehicle from the front to rear tires.

There is no engine, but there is a motor, and so under the hood and in the trunk there is storage space. There are no gears to shift, no oil to change, no antifreeze to add, no belt to worry about.

The rest of the Tesla story will be continued to next week’s edition.

This Tesla only electric vehicle charging station is located on the Northeast side of Indianapolis across from the Castleton Square Mall. Photos by Jody Rust