Alternative Cars Are Here, Where’s Infrastructure?

Auto makers have the know-how to make just about any kind of alternative vehicle, but they cannot put the infrastructure in place to make these vehicles attractive.


Auto makers are under enormous pressure to reduce the world's dependence on oil and cut carbon-dioxide emissions. But it sure looks like we’re reaching the limit of what they can do.

Now it's up to others to put the infrastructure in place to make it all happen. But who will do it?

Whether you're talking about charging stations for electric vehicles or compressed natural gas stations for cars running on CNG, biofuels or hydrogen, auto makers are not the ones that can make this happen. In fact, in most cases, Big Oil is not going to have much of a role to play, either.

The government? Ha! Every U.S. city, municipality, county and state is broke. So is the federal government. Sure, they might be able to help out with tax incentives here and there, and possibly even fund some small-scale demonstration projects. But that's not going to be enough to get the job done.

It's going to take tens of billions of dollars to put the proper kind of national infrastructure in place. But no such large-scale investment will take place until we determine which energy source we’re going to commit to. And we still haven't done that.

Worse yet, the price of oil still is relatively low, meaning none of the alternatives are price- competitive yet. We have to wait for another price spike before we’re goaded into action.

The electric utilities tell us they have plenty of capacity to accommodate millions of plug-ins and electric vehicles. But where are these vehicles going to plug in?

Most EV owners definitely will want a 220-V outlet, so most garages would have to be rewired to accommodate easy access for plugging in every night. And charging stations would have to be located in apartment complexes, condominiums, work places and shopping centers.

Will the electric utilities pay for these installations? Maybe. But even if they do, when are they going to get started?

T. Boone Pickens says he can give us all the CNG we need. But when I test drove a CNG Honda Civic last year, I discovered the nearest CNG station was 20 miles (32 km) away. I guess all we have to do is convince more gas station owners to invest in installing this equipment. But they’re not going to make that investment until they see a bunch of CNG cars on the road.

The same goes for hydrogen. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. No one is going to buy vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells until they know where they can fill up with hydrogen. And no one's going to build hydrogen filling stations until they know there's going to be a bunch of fuel-cell cars on the road.

Auto makers have the know-how and the technology to make just about any kind of alternative vehicle. But they cannot put the infrastructure in place to make these vehicles attractive and affordable.

Someone else will have to make the massive investment required to make alternative-fuel vehicles a legitimate option for consumers. I'm asking who is going to do it, and when?

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit and “Autoline Daily” the online video newscast.

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