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Can Electric Cars Give an Economic Lift to Route 66?

Words by Leon Kaye

Last week, Ford Motor Co invited me and a friend to test drive a 2013 Ford Fusion Energy plug-in hybrid from St. Louis to Tulsa. The challenge was to cover the 400-odd mile trip on one tank of gas. The fun was seeing the history and kitsch along the route that once took millions of Americans from Chicago to Santa Monica. And the opportunity is to spark even more economic activity along this whimsical trail of Americana.

Route 66 has an immense cult following, and during our quick weekend driving through Missouri, a corner of Kansas, and Oklahoma, we not only encountered plenty of Route 66 American fanatics, but visitors from around the globe. Many of these towns receive a nice chunk of change from visitors who check out the route's old gas stations, museums and odd sights.

But cult devotion doesn’t pay all the bills, and, as a study issued last year suggested, many towns along Route 66 suffer from a poverty rate of 15 to 20 percent; in fact, some of the towns with the most iconic sights have an even higher percentage of people living below the poverty line.

So economic growth has a ways to go in this stretch of history that traverses eight U.S. states. Could hybrid, electric or plug-in hybrid automobile tours offer a boost of sustainable development along this historic highway?

Tours in plug-ins

A tour in a plug-in hybrid such as the Ford Fusion Energi is not that far-fetched. First, as a Rutgers University-led study from last year showed, baby boomers are the overwhelming demographic that travels along Route 66: and they have disposable income. Plus, the cost of gasoline has not been 15 cents in a while, as the restored gas stations along the highway remind us. Gasoline prices already keep many would-be Route 66 travelers from organizing such a roadtrip. And finally, a younger demographic, one always looking for the next “cool” adventure would buy into such a journey. Why not take a modern car along for the ride?

Automakers who partner with state and local businesses to put on such tours would also benefit: they would build awareness about a new generation of cars. Congress has mandated higher and higher fuel efficiency standards over the years, and companies like Ford have responded in kind.

But in the end, consumers have to buy the cars.

One travel writer on the trip suggested Ford organize a trip along California’s coast, New York or New England. But that would be preaching to the converted: during our quick weekend, we barely saw any Toyota Priuses, a sight to which I have become accustomed in California--even in my home base of Fresno. For plug-in vehicles to succeed and scale in the long run, car companies have to become successful in the heartland, too. And judging by the once-overs and questions locals and visitors asked us about the Ford Fusion Energi, latent interest already exists.

Local economic development

With a new wave of visitors traveling the Route 66 corridor, other entrepreneurs could be inspired to invest in and open a bevy of businesses, from cafes and stores featuring locally made products to more hotels and motels that would cater to plug-in and other alternative vehicles. Even the sharing economy would get a lift as service sites such as Airbnb.com expand their presence in this region.

Many of these towns could use a boost. My personal favorite stop, Galena, KS, is full of potential and would be a great overnight stop for Route 66 visitors. The town is home to a tow truck that inspired the “Tow Mater” character in the 2006 movie, Cars. By the time we arrived around 5:00 on Saturday, Galena was already sleepy, but there was no reason why the beautiful brick storefronts could not be full of visitors eating and businesses offering services to locals and tourists. Galena and other towns could use a steadier stream of income -- many of the unique museums along Route 66 only need to lose one big donor for a posse of discouraged volunteers to shut their doors.

So new visitors, expanded business, and the potential for new sales for companies like Ford could be a result if visitors were allowed to explore this almost 90-year-old route using different means.

As for the Ford Fusion Energi:

Yes, the car. Great design, plenty of leg room, beautiful aesthetics. It feels and handles like a modern sedan should. The car has power: its 195 horsepower and 129 pound feet of torque make the Ford Fusion Energi a charge to drive along the twists and turns of Route 66. A few quibbles: the blind spot was a huge drawback and many consumers will not be happy with the marginal space in the trunk (thank you, battery pack). The cruise control was sublime--one of the smoothest I have ever experienced. Any new navigation system takes time to become familiar with, but we found the one installed to be clunky--especially when it told us to get from points A and B in St. Louis by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois, only to tell us to turn around and head back into Missouri (I thought we were going to hop on a Beltway until I realized those are only in DC!).

Ford claims the plug-in hybrid Energi scores 108 miles in the city and 92 on the highway (similar to the CMAX Energi), and that could be true. Just do not do what I did: test the “EV only” option to drive on pure battery and hit speeds of 85 miles per hour, my folly on day 2. We ended up draining the battery, which is why we had to stop at a Kum & Go station outside of Tulsa to make sure we would not run out of fuel! The navigation system may get you to your destination, but the storage area below the navigation system was an oddity. I kept placing maps, pens, cell phones and sunglass cases there. But the sides along that space were open, which meant items would fall onto the car floor. Ford has to fix that. Overall, however, a solid ride.

Disclosure: Ford Motor Co. fronted the cost to fly Leon Kaye and a friend into St. Louis for last weekend’s road trip event.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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