Electric vehicles could make gasoline and rail obsolete
The debate about the Oahu fixed-rail system doesn't include any mention of the effects of the rapidly advancing electric car developments with new battery technology (safe Lithion-ion batteries) that should soon give cars a range of close to 100 miles per recharge and with battery life longer than 10 years.
Eighty to 100 years ago, automobile development had reached a bifurcation with the choice between battery-powered electric vehicles (EV) and internal combustion engine (ICE) power plants battling it out. As we know, the ICE came out the winner.
Now we are approaching another bifurcation, where the costs of operating the ICE cars have reached the point where an inordinate amount of one's income goes for feeding and caring of the sophisticated and complicated ICE vehicle, while a much simpler, smaller and eventually cheaper to purchase, operate and maintain electric car will start elbowing out the larger, more fuel thirsty cars. The EVs will start becoming plentiful on our roadways within five years, and in 15 to 20 years likely will have edged out most of the larger cars of today.
What does that portend for our planned construction of the fixed rail system? EV cars can be operated at a small fraction of the cost of gasoline-powered cars, especially if Hawaiian Electric will give us "time of the day metering" of electricity, so cars can be plugged in and recharged overnight. In addition, solar photovoltaic panels might become available in parking lots for recharge during the day or perhaps even fitted on the roofs or hoods of the cars themselves. The cost of idling and driving in stop-and-go traffic will be much smaller, as will, of course, the emission of pollutants.
The smaller size of electric cars might mean that we can squeeze an extra lane in here and there on our freeways. We should offer benefits and subsidies in many ways such as for parking and licensing to hasten this transition to electrics. There should be tremendous savings in road maintenance and pothole prevention as a result of the increased proportion of lighter EVs. The expensive combined EV/ICE vehicles, also called hybrids, have their place during the transition to EVs, especially on the mainland where more long-distance travel is needed.
What does that mean to people's commuting habits and the need for public rapid transit like our planned fixed-rail system? I have enjoyed many trips on the Tokyo Yamate Sen, London tube, Paris Metro and other transit systems. But Honolulu is a special case. Do we want to move toward the Asian cities' noisy swarms of light motorcycles? Or do we prefer the quieter, cleaner and safer EVs of the future? We should seriously look at alternatives and not rush into a fixed-rail transit system. We must admit that it will be most difficult to get people out of their private automobiles even at the $8-per-gallon gasoline common in Europe. Electric transportation in the future will be at a tiny fraction of that cost.
Alternatives to the fixed rail system that I have seen mentioned would be, for example, to add a second level to the H-1 freeway and then perhaps use tolls to let people travel in lighter traffic on the upper level. Another idea, which might sound a little way out, would be a tunnel-like construction of a new freeway encircling the island in the ocean just offshore with entry and exit spokes every so often. Such tunnel segments could be mass-produced at a central point from pre-stressed concrete, just like the pavement and bridge pieces for the H-3 were made. This "circle the island tunnel" could be built over decades in segments. If the use of this tunnel system were restricted to EV traffic only, then much lighter and cheaper tunnel specifications and ventilation systems might be feasible. The construction of the tunnel need not hurt our surfing if planned properly.
Anyway, I think we should be in no great hurry to make up our minds on the rail system. Steel wheels on steel rails might not be the ultimate way to go. What about the magnetic levitation system, such as the one in Shanghai produced by Siemens? How does the cost of such a system compare? What about the projected maintenance costs of the rail system if ridership should fail to reach close to the break-even point? It is not just the cost of construction (and the assured huge cost overruns) that scare me. Do we have ways to prevent costly vandalism and graffiti and nighttime crime?
I am not an expert on this subject but it might be good to think outside the box. The assured large change in transportation and vehicle mix with the electric cars slowly taking over will mean many unforeseen changes in our driving experiences ... many of them hopefully for the better.
Hans Rosendal is a retired meteorologist and longtime lead forecaster in the Honolulu office of the National Weather Service. He lives in Kailua.