When I was a boy I considered it a grand treat to go with my dad to the gas station.
I found every aspect of the transaction fascinating — the hollow clunk as the jockey shoved the nozzle into the filler tube (this was in Oregon in the 1970s; no self-serve), the gurgle as the fuel flowed into the unseen nether regions of the rig, the plastic clack of the credit card machine and the solemnity, or so it seemed to me, of my dad scrawling his signature on the slip and tucking the card back into his battered wallet.
I even relished the smell of the fumes.
Fueling up has long since lost its luster for me, becoming just another regular routine among many, devoid of the thrills of youth.
But I still find the astringent scent of gasoline pleasant.
And at least these days the aroma isn’t quite so nasty as it used to be.
When I think about accompanying my dad, the vehicle he’s driving is always the mid-1960s Ford pickup truck he owned for several years. It was a two-wheel drive painted a light blue that was called, in the grandiose way that automakers prefer, Caribbean turquoise — presuming certain online sources, and my own imperfect memory of the particular shade, can be trusted.
(Why Ford executives thought buyers of pickup trucks would be enticed by a reference to the Caribbean is to me unclear.)
In any case the Ford wasn’t saddled with a catalytic converter and so my dad, when he rolled down the window (by way of a chrome-plated handle powered by muscle, not electricity), he told the attendant he wanted “ethyl.”
At the time the word was something of a mystery to me even though I heard it pretty often. I knew only that ethyl was one type of gas, unleaded being the other.
(There were no diesel rigs among those in which I regularly rode so I knew nothing of that fuel. Also I didn’t live on a farm.)
I learned much later that “ethyl” was advertising shorthand for tetraethyl lead, the substance that had been added to gasoline since the 1920s to prevent engines, which lacked the sophisticated computer controls of today, from “knocking” — which is to say, premature ignition of the gas-fuel mixture.
(Knocking not only reduces fuel economy but it can severely damage engines.)
Unfortunately tetraethyl lead — in common with many things that contain element 82 on the periodic table — is a pretty potent poison. And a persistent one, once it gets into our bodies, something it accomplishes quite easily when it’s contained in automobile exhaust.
Little wonder that the marketing wizards left the word “lead” out of the name for their miraculous product, which caused backfires in Americans’ brains even as it was helping our engines purr along.
The federal government eventually phased out leaded gasoline, and if you didn’t start visiting gas stations until after the mid-1980s or so, you might not associate the word “ethyl” with fuel. (Leaded gas was officially banned for road vehicles in 1996, but with catalytic converters required on new cars starting in 1975, it was pretty rare within a decade or so.)
I had occasion to ponder gasoline recently when I was filling my Toyota’s tank (alas, the advent of self-service siphons a bit of the potential magic from the event; had my son been with me he would have been deprived of seeing his old man sign a receipt or gab with the attendant).
While I was standing next to the pump, watching the digital numbers tally my tab, I noticed a Tesla parked nearby.
It was, of course, distant from the pumps. Aloof, even. The Tesla takes on electrons, not gallons.
This happened not long after Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative announced that it plans to install a charging station for electric vehicles on the east side of Resort Street, between Thatcher’s Ace Hardware and the Dollar Tree.
As I drove away I got to thinking about refueling our vehicles — in the most general sense — and in particular how many years will pass before the experience I remember so vividly, with its gurgling and aromatic liquids, has become as archaic as tying up your horse outside the saloon.
I suspect this transition will be one better measured in decades rather than years.
In 2018, electric vehicles accounted for just 2.1% of passenger car sales in the U.S.. That was a record high, but it’s still a paltry percentage.
So long as gasoline remains relatively cheap by historical standards — a reflection of its continuing abundance — I think it’s unlikely that electric vehicles will make anything but gradual and modest gains in market share.
But it also seems certain that electric cars will make such gains — that they are, as the saying goes, here to stay.
OTEC’s planned charging station — and the one that Tesla installed several years ago at the Sunridge Inn parking lot, usable only by that company’s models — represent the early stages of a revolution, albeit a key part.
Based on what I’ve read about electric vehicles, the engineers have either solved, or are well along toward solving, the challenges required to make cars powered by electric motors about as broadly useful as those propelled by internal combustion engines.
The obvious obstacles are range — how many miles can an electric vehicle go before it has to be plugged in — and how long it takes to replenish that range.
Electric cars fall short of conventional vehicles in both categories. But the gap is narrowing. One Tesla model can travel up to 375 miles on a charge. Charging times are getting shorter.
I have little doubt that for my children and, perhaps, grandchildren, the memory that remains so vivid to me — of pulling into a station and dispensing an aromatic liquid fuel whenever the needle on the gauge starts to point toward the “E” — will be part of theirs.
But I can also envision some descendant tagging along with his dad, neither of them knowing much more of me than perhaps an old digital photo, going through a ritual that involves cables rather than hoses, and the silent transfer of electrons, powerful but not pungent.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.