BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the latest troubles in the Middle East could have an unexpected outcome for the auto industry: a boost for electric vehicles (EVs).
The ecological nightmare that BP has unleashed has put the spotlight on the deep water oil drilling that for a while seemed to have peak oil theorists eating crow. Now we can all see in vivid images the cost of oil dependency: dying oil-soaked birds, choking fish and beaches covered in gooey gobs of oil.
Forget for the moment about greenhouse gases and whether or not you believe in man-made global warming. We can't easily see the effects on a daily basis anyway.
But we can see the ecological nightmare unfolding off the U.S. Gulf Coast. If this is not a horrifying example of one consequence of an oil-based economic and social order, then what is? Oil-cleanup technology has advanced a long way from the days of the Exxon Valdez disaster, but the denouement of this tragedy will still not play out for years.
Meanwhile, new tensions in the Middle East sparked by the actions of Israeli commandos have further unsettled a region already rattled by war in Iraq, social unrest almost everywhere and the threat of action to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Much of the developed world -- Europe, Japan, China and the United States in particular -- depends on Middle East oil. Trouble there that threatens oil supplies rattles the global economy and worries any sensible person.
The thread that ties the two Gulfs (Mexico and the Middle East) is oil dependency. EVs offer the promise of transportation without oil dependency. That proposition becomes more and more appealing as images from the two Gulfs rattle through our daily lives.
Of course, there is a long list of challenges for EVs to overcome on the road to mainstream acceptance. Cost, durability, safety, reliability, functionality and the source and delivery of the electricity itself are all problems yet to be overcome.
But last week at Green Agenda 2010, a conference sponsored by The Globe and Mail, we heard various manufacturers talk in detail about fuel efficiency, low-emissions power train technologies, lightweight materials, aerodynamic designs, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and EVs. Technological solutions will be coming quickly between now and 2016 when stringent fuel economy rules come into force here in Canada and the U.S.
But it was talk of EVs that was most fascinating. By 2012, Canadians will be able to purchase between eight and 12 different EV models, all real production cars capable of everyday driving, most backed by established companies, but not all.
EVs will first be bought by early adopters willing to accept the performance and convenience compromises compared to gas and diesel engines, in exchange for new technologies that move us away from oil dependency.
Early adopters will pay the price. The question is, will mainstream buyers follow? The various Gulf images we're seeing now surely will spur on at least some of them.