NWA EDITORIAL | Arkansas must aggressively pursue a role in the modernization of transportation

State must pursue role in modern transportation

Staff photo by Mike Pare / An electric vehicle charging station built by Volkswagen subsidiary Electrify America is located at the Walmart in Ooltewah.
Staff photo by Mike Pare / An electric vehicle charging station built by Volkswagen subsidiary Electrify America is located at the Walmart in Ooltewah.

Which came first, the electric vehicle or the charging station?

This one's a little easier than the chicken-and-egg conundrum. The U.S. Department of Energy says the first electric car in this nation was developed in the 1890s. In the early 1900s, they amounted to nearly a third of all vehicles on the road. Introduction of Ford's affordable, gas-powered Model T made the combustion engine widely available, leading to declining interest in electric mobility. The next time an electric vehicle drew heavy interest, it was a lunar rover hauling astronauts across the moon's surface in the 1970s.

It wasn't until this century, with growing concerns over the environmental damage done by combustion engines, that ideas about building a network of charging stations across the nation began to take hold. So while the electric vehicle undoubtedly came first, the easy availability of charging stations will be necessary before most people will embrace what, for now, is considered an alternative method of transportation rather than the standard.

Imagine how attractive gas-powered vehicles would be if drivers had to worry about whether they could find a refueling station within the distance they could travel on a full tank. "Range anxiety" -- the fear of running out of power before finding access to a charging station -- is the term developed to describe one hesitation people have about purchasing electric vehicles. Advocates for electric vehicles -- and that's a growing list -- suggest it's vital to make charging stations readily available so the shift to electric vehicles can accelerate.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson says Arkansas needs to embrace the concept. He's created the Future Mobility Advisory Council of private sector and government leaders to ensure the state is prepared for "electrification, autonomous vehicles and advance air mobility" and to "create an environment in which they can thrive." For him, it's beyond convincing motorists to buy electric cars; it's about positioning Arkansas to be in the midst of the economic development opportunities modern transportation presents.

"It's natural that Arkansas leads, because we've led in the transportation industry for decades, ever since the automobile was developed, with J.B. Hunt hauling rice hulls from eastern Arkansas up here (in Northwest Arkansas) building his (company), but it's also Jones Truck Lines, and on and on," Hutchinson said in a recent episode of "Speaking of Arkansas," a podcast of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "We've led in transportation and so we want to be able to continue to do that. ... How we deliver goods 10 years from now is going to be different than how we do it today. If we're going to lead in transportation, let's look at the future ways of transportation."

The state has gotten some good news over the last few months.

In June, Los Angeles-based electric vehicle company Canoo announced it would build its U.S. manufacturing facility in Pryor, Okla., slated for opening in 2023, to develop "American-made clean energy vehicles." In November, the company said it would establish a headquarters and production facility for small-package delivery vehicles in Bentonville and a research and development center in Fayetteville. Hundreds of jobs for Benton and Washington counties are expected, with 2,000 at the plant in Oklahoma.

In February, electric vehicle maker Envirotech Vehicles Inc. announced it will move its manufacturing operations and headquarters from California to Arkansas, adding about 800 jobs as part of an $80.7 million investment over the next five years. The company said it will move to Osceola, in eastern Arkansas, and refurbish a 580,000-square-foot facility on 100 acres.

Arkansas looks to build its electric vehicle credentials by also tapping into the Biden administration's plan to create a network of electric vehicle charging stations that would place new or upgraded stations every 50 miles along interstate highways. About $5 billion will be made available to states over the next five years, with Arkansas eligible for $54.1 million. The state's plan is to focus on existing interstates 30, 40 and 49 as it makes a plan for the federal dollars.

In Northwest Arkansas, though, transportation advocates want a 22-mile stretch of U.S. 412 -- a future interstate -- between Springdale and the Oklahoma-Arkansas state line designated as an alternative fuel corridor for electric vehicles. That would make the route eligible for the federal funding for charging stations. State officials, however, haven't included that stretch in their planning, preferring instead to focus on the state's existing interstates.

Despite the state's strategic decision, Northwest Arkansas is wise to pursue the western connection given Canoo's plans involving both states and Oklahoma's inclusion of its portion of U.S. 412 in a request for the alternative fuel corridor designation.

Some critics suggest aggressive pursuit of electric vehicles and the infrastructure necessary to support them remains a strategy replete with questions and challenges. Undoubtedly, that's true. But is there any serious doubt that a global march away from fossil-fueled vehicles is on? That whatever challenges electric vehicles present, they're a step in the right direction for humankind's continued advancement in the stewardship of the planet?

Arkansas can sit on its hands and wait or it can strive to be at the forefront, creating new opportunities for jobs in the state while also helping the world transition to newer forms of transportation that can help reduce harm to the planet.

There really can be little doubt: The future is electrifying. The question is whether Arkansas will be a player or an observer.

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What’s the point?

Arkansas as a whole, and Northwest Arkansas in particular, can play a critical role in the nation’s transition to electric-powered vehicles.