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The Canadian Press

Imagine this line from an updated version of The Blues Brothers: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago. We got a full battery charge, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Doesn’t quite work, does it? “We got a full tank of gas” was Dan Aykroyd’s line as he and John Belushi fired up their Dodge Monaco in the first movie. Gasoline-powered cars are branded into North American culture, and the idea of an American battery-powered car culture seems absurd.

How did gasoline-fuelled cars become so popular? The United States has about 263 million registered passenger vehicles. The strength and flexibility of the internal combustion engine explains only part of the story. Gas guzzlers took over because neither the cars nor the fuel were hit with taxes that reflected the full cost of building and maintaining a vast road and highway network, and dealing with the damage to health and the environment from tailpipe emissions. In essence, drivers were—and still are—getting a free ride

Electric vehicle (EV) makers and their customers want a similarly sweet deal. They see the roads filling up with EVs as the internal combustion engine sputters out. Some forecasts say 50% of all vehicles sold by 2050 will be EVs.

But EV enthusiasts won’t get off cheaply. As gas tax revenues dry up, road budgets will become starved. Cities, states and provinces will also lack the funds to pay for the new generating stations and millions of charging points required to keep EVs powered up. One of the current selling points of EVs is their low running cost. Depending on where you live, the cost of charging your EV battery is, generally speaking, about one-third the price of filling your gas tank to cover the same distance. In Quebec, where electricity is considerably cheaper than the average in North America, and gas is more expensive, the potential EV energy savings could be greater.

But what if EV owners were forced to cover the cost of building extra generating plants and installing all those streetside chargers? In terms of the energy, the price advantage over gas cars could vanish.

Let’s start with generating plants. National, regional and municipal governments in North America, Europe, Australia, China and elsewhere are stress-testing their electrical grids to determine whether they could withstand the simultaneous charging of large numbers of EVs.

The results vary widely. Norway has calculated that its rather robust electrical system could endure the charging of 1.5 million EVS, as long as most of the charging was done at night, when household electricity demand is low.

Near the catastrophic end of the scale is Texas. A new report by Wood Mackenzie determined that charging 60,000 EVs simultaneously in the state, which has 24 million registered vehicles, could bring down the electrical grid, assuming those EVs are juiced up with the next generation of ultra-fast 100-kilowatt chargers.

To accommodate EVs, the state would have to build new peak-demand generating plants, and they would probably be coal burners. Cost aside, that would be a rather pointless exercise, because EVs are supposed to make the air cleaner.

Charging stations are another issue. Most urban dwellers in North America and Europe don’t have garages, so sidewalks would have to be dug up and new transformers installed on streets. And those stations, laden with electronics, would have to be maintained.

Already there are complaints that some of the first charging points on American and Canadian roads don’t work well, and installations have been slow and expensive. The Ontario government’s modest $20-million plan to build 500 charging stations by March 2017 is behind schedule and has been widely criticized as a mess.

In Britain, the highest-capacity public and private rapid-charging stations, capable of handling two cars at once, cost close to $90,000. While expenses will inevitably come down, the price tag for networks of charging points could be horrendous.

Who would pay for this infrastructure? Local governments are tapped out, and mayors won’t get elected by promising to raise taxes. Car manufacturers, whose profits and returns on capital are meagre at the best of times, certainly won’t pay for nationwide networks of charging stations.

That leaves EV drivers. Here’s a bet: Their vehicles will come equipped with registered smart plugs that will allow utilities to deliver a monthly bill laden with surcharges to cover the cost of building and maintaining charging networks, and adding generating capacity.

For more than a century, governments heavily subsidized the auto industry and car owners by paying for roads and highways. That era of benign socialism for drivers is over. Electric vehicles are coming, but their owners may find that running them is no bargain. The era of the gasoline car is far from over.