Driving on the High Road
My second cousin, who will be starting college this fall, works as a salesman for Tesla Motors. Over the 4th of July holiday, he offered to take me and my uncle for a test drive. A few weeks back, I wrote about the demise of Better Place and the second (third? fourth? ) death of the electric car. In that post, I made a blunder when I said, “The electric car is probably not dead, but it is on life support. Perhaps somewhere down the road we will see this idea or some variation of it resurface. Obviously, internal combustion technology will have to be retired at some point, and the sooner the better.” I looked at electric cars roughly the way most people probably do, as a niche item with a limited range and even more limited horsepower and versatility. I was wrong in that assumption and came away from my brief stint in Tesla’s Model S with a renewed sense that the internal combustion engine may finally have met its match.
There are still significant obstacles to seeing electric vehicles like the Tesla in the hands of the average consumers. How many people shell out $63,000 for a base model car? Then again I had similar questions about the concept of a $600 iPhone when it first hit the market. 6 years later, the cost has fallen (well, sort of), and iPhones and its competitors with similar features and capabilities are prevalent. So there is hope for the electric car, too.
We may not be able to find arguments between ancient rabbis about the need for electric cars, nor has the URJ passed a resolution on the Tesla. But still, I can’t escape examining the key questions about electric cars from a moral, Jewish lens. Depending on where you live, driving a plug-in means switching your transportation fuel from oil to coal, which is actually more detrimental for the environment.
One of my favorite interpretations of bal tashchit, the commandment to against waste and destruction, provides instruction on the proper way to use an oil lamp. As explained by the URJ, “Mar Zutra says that whoever covers an oil lamp or who uncovers a naptha lamp transgresses bal tashchit since these acts cause the lamp to burn with unnecessary speed [Shabbat 67b].” For this reason, driving an electric vehicle is moral only if it does not harm the environment more than driving a regular vehicle. Thus, Talmudic scholars would argue that if you used renewable energy to charge your Tesla, then it is a moral investment. If, however, you use energy generated by burning coal, then it is actually immoral to use an electric vehicle, for doing so means generating even more waste than your conventional car. So while the Tesla may represent the future of automobiles, until we break our coal habit and transition to greener fuels, the mass adoption of plug-in vehicles may have the counterintuitive effect of increasing the very emissions we need to reduce. With that said, you will be sure to turn heads cruising down the highway in one of these bad-boys.
Image Courtesy of Net Car Show.