Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Gee Whiz!

According to this article, a bunch of the dot-com vets have designed a car that runs entirely on electricity, at a fuel cost of about a penny a mile. The car is based on a high-end Porsche, and goes from zero to sixty in four seconds. It can go several hundred miles between recharges. It sells for less than the Porsche on which it’s based, and looks better. It’s a zippy, nifty little machine. As they improve the battery technology, they plan to roll out a significantly cheaper four-door sedan in the near future.

This story didn’t appear in any of the major media.

The part of the article that raised my eyebrows was the mention of parts outsourcing. Since the Big Three outsourced most of their parts-making to other companies (or spun off the companies altogether, like Delphi), they inadvertently lowered the barrier to entry for new companies to make cars. Now, a new carmaker can commission a designer, set a few techies to engineering efficiencies, and have Delphi make the windshield wipers.


Granted, the technology still has a ways to go. I remember my high-school physics class back in Northern Town in the 1980’s. My physics teacher told us that if we wanted to win the Nobel Prize, all we had to do was to come up with a more efficient battery. If batteries could be made more efficient, all manner of things would become possible.

It stuck with me, even though I was a complete idiot in physics. (She gave up on me after I once calculated ‘force’ in ‘kilometers.’ In my defense, as an American, I have a constitutional right to ignore the metric system.) Batteries? Really? How mundane!

Apparently, this was the source of the breakthrough.

The Big Three, when they did electric cars (for about ten minutes), did so using variations on the Sears Diehard. So the things ran for about twenty minutes before conking out, topping out at low speeds. The dot-com guys had the blindingly simple idea – what if we used the same high-efficiency batteries we use for laptops? According to the article, if you stitch together enough of them, you can do zero-to-sixty in four seconds.

(Granted, it would also crash every few hours, but they’re working on that.)

While it’s still in the cool-toy-for-rich-nerds phase, I’ll say confidently that if I worked for Ford, I’d be pooping construction materials right about now.

Why do we expect the Big Three (or even Toyota or Honda, for that matter) to come up with the next great breakthrough? Has that ever happened? Did blacksmiths invent the locomotive? Did railroad companies develop the Model T? Rabbits don’t lay eggs, and huge path-dependent corporations don’t suddenly change their product lines. If history is any guide, the likeliest course of development would be the first gradual, then rapid displacement of the traditional carmakers with startups. That would truly suck for certain communities in, say, Michigan, but it might not be a bad thing for the country as a whole, in the long run.

With a few refinements, this technology could be massive. Imagine the glory of stopping at a gas station once every…well, never. A penny a mile! (That’s a farthing per kilofurlong, or something.) Sheet. At 25 miles per gallon and 3 bucks a gallon, I’m currently paying about 12 cents per mile. Charge that puppy up in the garage when I get home, and never stop for gas. Pop some super-efficient photovoltaic thingies on the garage roof to supply the juice, and we’re in bidness. Suburbia lives!

(Yes, we’d have to figure out how to handle folks who park outside – apartment dwellers, say. This strikes me as fundamentally doable.)

Imagine the impact on American foreign policy. If we could get our oil consumption down to the point that we could satisfy the remaining needs between our reserves and Canada’s, we could tell certain unfriendly regimes to go jump in a lake.* That would be sweeet. They would suddenly run dry of petrodollars, forcing them to do something productive, instead of just counting our money and calling us Satan. Bin Laden’s money came from oil; this would hit him where it would really hurt. Move away from the economics of resource extraction, towards actually adding value.** That wouldn’t be so bad…

Now if we had a government that could actually do some basic math, maybe we could redirect tax deductions away from SUV’s (yes, they get tax deductions) and towards, say, battery research, or photovoltaic research. Wouldn’t that be something?


Okay, back to my skeptical self. It’s fun to air out the ‘gee whiz’ side every so often, though. Wouldn’t it be nifty if we had a high-performing technical substitution for oil, just as oil is starting to peak?

*A few months ago, I read that one of the mixed blessings of global warming is that with the arctic ice sheet melting, it’s getting easier to drill for oil up there, so Canada’s reserves are increasing. This is further proof, along with the platypus, that God has a sense of humor.

**Tom Friedman argues that countries whose economies are based on resource extraction, rather than taxes on their populations, will tend towards tyranny, since a government that doesn’t need its citizens is free to abuse them. It sounds right, although I hardly consider Canada or Norway tyrannical.