Source: Chevrolet Website
2010 is supposed to be a critical year for cleaner cars. The Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf electric car will be available shortly. Accordingly, should people who advocate for less driving shut up and admit defeat?
Don't get me wrong, I applaud cars like these to some extent. They have real benefits in terms of reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions during the use phase. They could theoretically be powered exclusively by solar panels and windmills if our electricity came from these sources instead of principally coal.
However, there are many problems these cars can't solve. I'll organize them as follows: environmental problems, social equity problems, and economic problems.
While electric drive is helpful for the use phase, even with current electricity sources, there's still the matter of the environmental impact of making the cars and disposing of them.
Cars need parking. Parking gobbles up land. That land used to be habitat. Read The High Cost of Free Parking.
Roads and parking cause water pollution from urban runoff.
Cars and low-density automobile dependent development (a.k.a. suburbia) go together. That means more habitat loss per capita and overall.
Social Equity Problems
Electric or not, cars kill people. They killed 43,664 people in the U.S. in 2006 (see p. 89).
Driving a car, electric or not, requires you to have good eyesight and working legs. You have to be of driving age. Hence, for many people, cars just aren't a viable mode of transportation.
Electric or not, cars are expensive. There's the purchase price, interest on any car loan you may have, taxes, insurance, registration, fuel, maintenance, repairs, car washes, I'm probably forgetting something . . . Rumor has it the Volt will start at $40,000, and the Leaf's MSRP is listed at $25,280. Not exactly cheap, although these numbers may come down if production volume increases.
Car infrastructure is expensive too, and what facilitates the electrics, also facilitates the regular kind of car, with all of its associated pollution and problematicness (yes, I said "problematicness")
Electric or not, cars cause traffic, which wastes our time and has other unfortunate effects like slowing down ambulances, one of the few kinds of vehicle that really does need to be on the road.
Cleaner cars are a good thing. We shouldn't feel threatened by them. However, they are not a panacea for all of the problems caused by cars. Smart urban design and livable streets will continue to be critical in the decades ahead no matter how cars are powered.