Where were you on September 11, 2001? I was in a dentist’s chair when the planes hit; as soon as I got out of that chair I switched on my crummy little analog phone and called my father. I knew he was flying back home to NYC that morning, but to my relief his flight had merely been diverted as a consequence. That was about as close to tragedy as my family came that day, much to my relief.
Almost 2,600 miles away from where my father sat twiddling his thumbs on a temporarily closed runway, the father of my most frequent mountain-biking companion was about to make an remarkably expensive decision. He, his wife, and his two adult daughters had used his NetJets share to fly to Las Vegas for a week of gambling and recreation, but after hearing about the attacks they decided to go home immediately. To his consternation, the unprecedented “ground stop” issued by the FAA applied to Gulfstreams or Citations just like it did to Boeings and Airbuses.
Not to worry, he told his family, we will rent a car and drive the 2000 miles home. But the rental agencies were out of cars. Meanwhile, his grandchildren were leaving him frantic phone messages, asking him to bring their mothers home. Something had to be done. He called a cab and asked to be taken to the nearest Toyota dealer. When he got there, he asked: What’s the biggest vehicle you have on this lot?
They told him it was called a “Sequoia” and that it would seat eight people comfortably. Would sir like a test drive?
Don’t need one, he replied. Pick the most expensive one you got. I’ll pay sticker. But you’ll need to accept my American Express card. The dealer had never seen an Amex like this one–it was flat black. But the $50,000 charge went through without a hitch. An hour later, my friend’s father was on the road. They drove straight through to Columbus, Ohio. Took ‘em about a day and a half. But the grandchildren were satisfied. The Sequoia ended up being passed around the family to use for random mulch-hauling and ski-trip tasks. As far as I know, they still have it.
I’ve been telling that story for 17 years now. How people respond to it tells me a lot about them and their preconceptions. Some folks hear it as a parable about how an adaptable, quick-witted fellow figured out a better mousetrap in a time of crisis. Others think that it’s a ridiculous example of people making stupid emotional decisions on the spur of the moment; after all, the planes were back in the air on Thursday, weren’t they?
Then you have the people who are actively offended. They see it as: Rich guy jumps the line and gets home while everybody else has to wait. My response is always: “What if, instead of buying a new Sequoia for sticker, he’d gone to a street corner used-car dealer and bought a used Plymouth Voyager for $3000? Would you still hate the guy?” Most people will laugh and shrug, but every once in a while someone will tell me "it still would have been a nasty thing to do.” It took me a while to recognize the underlying emotion of that response, but I think I’ve got a hold of it now.
You see, the privately-owned automobile isn’t just a machine–it’s a symbol, particularly if you are over 35. It’s a symbol of unfettered freedom. If you have a car, you can go where you want and nobody can stop you. You’re not reliant on timetables or schedules or even the FAA. As long as there’s a gas station between here and there, you can go.
My youth was cluttered with secondhand stories of impossible roadtrips. BMX teams in dilapidated vans busking or panhandling for gas money as they crossed the country. Young couples who ran away from home and never returned. The guy in my brother’s dorm at Ohio State who banged on his door late one Friday night: “Dude, we’re gonna go touch the St. Louis Arch and then come back! Are you coming or what?” And who could say no to that challenge?
I made no such trips. As John Mayer once sang, “I was born a housecat.” I drove my thrice-waxed four-speed Fox dutifully to school, to work, and to home. I never took a trip without a detailed plan and I rarely ventured past the 310-mile roundtrip range of my 10.3-gallon tank. I could have very easily lived with something like a Tesla Model 3.
In my misspent adulthood, on the other hand, I made up for that and then some, driving up to 60,000 miles a year in a continuous peregrination without final destination. I’d wake up in the dead of night, stumble down to the garage, fire up my old Porsche 993, and bang on a girlfriend’s door in southern Tennessee six hours later. Sometimes I arrived only to find that she’d left for work, so I’d turn around and go home. An email would arrive on a Thursday evening: We need driver coaches in New Jersey for Saturday’s event. Why not? I would buy clothes on the way because I’d forgotten to pack a bag. I learned how to tuck a sports car in the empty corners of highway rest stops, sleeping a few hours at a time before continuing on. It was a point of pride for me that I made no firm plans or obligations.
Eventually, of course, the responsibilities of fatherhood settled in. Now I’m back to planning, often a full year in advance. Do you want to hang out this August, a full 215 days from now? We should put it on the calendar as soon as we can. There’s already a NASA triple weekend, an SCCA double regional, a BMX national, and a European trip on there. I’m starting to experience a faint shadow of the bizarre ennui suffered by Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah: if the future is laid out in every detail, why bother to experience it at all?
If you’re a planner–if you’re a housecat–then the EV makes a lot of sense. I get a lot of email from readers who chide me about EV skepticism. They explain to me, with the patience shown by adults when dealing with toddlers, that the round-trip range of the average EV is more than sufficient for 90 percent of American commutes. They quote chapter and verse about the facts and figures. The EV satisfies them for 350 days of the year. For the other 15, they rent a car or truck.
This cold calculation suffices very well for them. When I read it, however, I think: What happens if there are no cars to rent? What if the charging stations are full? The rational half of my brain tells me that certain aspects of internal-combustion travel are just as dicey. Gas stations run out of fuel, roads close, computer-controlled transmissions decide to flash an error code as they remain in stubborn Park.
Still other emails appear: rational, friendly, confident. You buy your refrigerator based on your 95 percent use case, one says, so why can’t you do that with an EV? My only response–“Well, a car is not a refrigerator”–sounds feeble, even to me. One fellow went through the trouble of proving to me, mathematically, that I would be better off I just rented a truck for the 18 or 20 times a year that I pull a trailer. The rest of the time I could drive my Accord, or a Tesla, or a Volt, or a Bolt.
A disproportionate number of EV-favoring emails come from urban residents. Some of them don’t even have a car. They seem to make it work. Why can’t I do the same? What makes my needs different from theirs?
That’s the crux of the matter, right there. The readers chide in many ways, but in the end it comes down to a single word, the one that always appears somewhere in the text, and that word is NEED. Nobody NEEDS a crew-cab Silverado with 420 horsepower and a 6.5-foot bed. I don’t NEED to own seven cars and five motorcycles. The Bolt, or the Model 3, would fulfill all of my actual NEEDs.
I responded to about the first 50 of these emails with detailed justification of my NEEDs. I spoke at length about 1,200-mile pulls to Watkins Glen or VIR or NJMP. I reminded my correspondents that I typically bring 12 mounted wheel/tire combinations to a race, spares and tools. Even my cycling hobby can be NEED-y; last weekend my son, his coach, and I took five bicycles to an indoor mountain-bike park in Cleveland. A foot of snow had fallen. The Silverado did not feel like overkill at that point. I spent 20 minutes pushing my fellow riders out of the parking lot, watching their Golfs and Bimmers struggle for grip. I let the big Chevy run to keep my kid warm. Someday I will have to answer to the climate police for that. No doubt the word NEED will figure into the discussion.
No matter how I justified my NEEDs, however, my correspondents managed to tear my arguments into tiny pieces. Each of them constructed intricate webs of services and rentals and Superchargers to answer all concerns. With just a smartphone, six different “apps,” and an intricate knowledge of everything from the Acela timetable to the Uber surcharge algorithm, I could replace my big, wasteful truck with a diverse community of software-enabled resources.
After reading dozens of these letters, I came to realize something about most of my NEED-oriented friends: for them, the unfettered and ignorant freedom of something like a crew-cab pickup is a bug, not a feature. They despise the potential of a privately-owned gasoline vehicle the same way I adore it. It’s purely emotional for both of us. When I look out the window at my truck, I see the freedom to go anywhere without so much as a single smartphone click. They see a 47-year-old reactionary moron in bib overalls pointing a loaded gun at the environment and shouting “YEE-HAW!” as I pull the trigger.
Neither viewpoint is entirely correct, but it doesn’t matter all that much. I want my freedom. More than that, I want the freedom to enjoy my freedom any way I want. You can point out that I don’t NEED a Kawasaki ZX-14R, that an electric motorcycle will do the same thing. I don’t care. I want it. We are not going to come to common ground on this. It’s like that one Saul Bellow novel where the fellow who is absolutely, positively NOT Ernest Hemingway keeps saying “I WANT” and pointing to himself. If you want to replace my freedom machines with geofenced, limited-range, smartphone-enabled transportation modules, you will need to bring more than a strongly-worded e-mail. Maybe the 101st Airborne.
Which leads to an interesting question: What happens if all my skepticism proves to be wrong? What happens if some whiz-bang company shows up at the 2029 Detroit Auto Show with a crew-cab pickup truck that tows 11,200 pounds, goes 450 miles on a single charge, and recharges in ten minutes using the existing American electric infrastructure? In other words, what happens if an EV appears that promises the same nearly-unlimited freedom, and choice, of a modern internal-combustion vehicle?
I can tell you what I’m gonna do: I’ll gripe for a year or so, and then I’ll buy it. While I will continue to wax nostalgic about the 6.2-liter V-8, I’ll also appreciate the way my new Electric Ram Prospector or whatever offers maximum torque from a standing start. I won’t miss oil changes and mysterious transmission noises. I’ll really enjoy making the trip to VIR in a vehicle that regenerates charge on the backside of long hills.
No, I won’t get rid of my race cars, and I’d still be a candidate for the purchase of snarling Vipers or thundering Corvettes, but I would be more than happy to make an EV switch that cost me nothing in terms of freedom or choice. What about my friends and correspondents, the ones who see the EV as a sort of mandatory gateway to lower consumption and more predictable behavior on the part of all us rubes out here in flyover country? How will they feel when the road is filled with crew-cab, jacked-up, chrome-coated trucks that just happen to be electric? What new NEEDs, I wonder, will they invent then?