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updated: 2/14/2011 3:30 PM

Electric cars and the suburban dream

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

To a degree, the Chicago Auto Show is always about dreaming.

That astounding new crossover. The amazing luxury car you'll never own. The next generation of muscle cars or brawny pickups.

And this year, a view of the suburbs.

As Daily Herald staff writer Jake Griffin described in his story from the Auto Show kickoff, the event's big attraction this year is the electric vehicle. And unlike so many Auto Show introductions, this one isn't just about transportation.

It's about transformation. For the advent of the truly practical electric vehicle has implications for suburban and urban drivers that touch on the most fundamental features of everyday life.

Electric vehicles obviously will have repercussions on individual pocketbooks. But it's more interesting to contemplate their potential impact on the entire suburban experience. Imagine, for instance, roads swarming silently with vehicles that barely make a sound. Air that is free of the haze and smell of smog. Street corners dotted not with gasoline-dispensing pump stations but battery charging outlets, not to mention the increase in outdoor and garage sockets at suburban homes.

It's a joy to contemplate -- and it's about time. The suburbs have always been intrinsically linked to the automobile, and for too long that has meant a link to the car's unpleasant side effects. The noise. The pollution. The cost. Even the uncertainty about how long the fuel, oil, will remain available and affordable.

The prospect of electric vehicles changes all that. Of course, it's still just a vision of the future. And it's not without its own drawbacks.

While the Chevy Volt, the most distance-capable of the current crop of electric vehicles, may be designed for the transportation needs of 80 percent of suburbanites, as Griffin's story said, only a fraction of that percentage can actually afford the $41,000 sticker price. And vehicles like the more-affordable Nissan Leaf and electric Ford Focus are still limited to under 100 miles per charge, with limited charging options.

But the real value of having these vehicles on the market is their demonstration of what can be done with current technology. In this age of high-tech innovation, we all know how much and how quickly things can change, and we all know how markets work in a competitive economy.

Perhaps a greater concern, though, is the psychological impact electric vehicles could have on broader transportation issues in the suburbs. The benefits of electric vehicles are exciting to contemplate, but these advances don't diminish the need for and value of improved mass transportation options.

High-speed rail among major cities and the STAR line connecting suburban towns remain important concepts, not just because they reduce overall fuel costs but also because they take traffic off the roads.

If there's anything suburban drivers want less of than gasoline and smog, traffic must surely be it.

So electric vehicles are no suburban transportation panacea and their ultimate effect may be still years away. But for a region whose development and quality of life owe so much to the way we get around, this year's Auto Show is certainly about more than just cars.