TCS Daily

Technology and Politics as Metaphor

By Duane D. Freese - June 30, 2006 12:00 AM

A former college roommate of mine, who did a lot of pot smoking during the 1960s, once complained to me years after college, during one of his job lapses, that the Ford Foundation was bugging him.

If I knew what I know today, instead of asking him what he'd been smoking, I would have told him to go to Hollywood and write a documentary about it. Only I would have suggested one change in his script. Make sure he wrote Motor Co., not Foundation. Then it would make the kind of conspiracy-minded, business-bashing movie that those on a Rocky Mountain high give awards to at such venues as the Sundance Film Festival.

One of this year's favorites of that crowd -- "Who Killed the Electric Car?" -- is released to the general public this week. In it, Chris Paine, its director and producer and an enthusiastic former General Motors EV1 (Electric Vehicle 1) driver, posits that pressure by the oil companies, fear of losing their parts business by automakers and cold feet by state and federal lawmakers and regulators murdered a workable, affordable electric car with available technology that would meet the driving needs of "90%" of the American public.

Of course! It just couldn't be economics or physics were the reasons that auto and battery makers here and in Japan, Korea and the European Union couldn't come up with a viable electric vehicle. The California Air Resources Board would never have leapt off a technological cliff in demanding zero emission vehicles before technology was available to make them affordable, would it?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes it would, could and did.

A National Research Council report in 1998 on the "Effectiveness of the United States Advanced Battery Consortium as a Government Industry Partnership" made these hard points about the electric vehicle demands of CARB:

"The USABC was created to respond to specific challenges imposed by regulatory agencies. ... Technology capable of meeting the CARB mandate did not exist when the USABC was founded, and there was no obvious path to it. The USABC's experience has confirmed that there are major technical difficulties and challenges in developing batteries for EVs. ... [T]he committee respects the role regulatory initiatives have played in forcing the pace of progress in the field. ... In the committee's view, if the implementation horizon had been after the year 2000, there would have been enough time for the USABC to pursue a more effective R&D portfolio for EV batteries and more opportunities for USABC to pursue new science aimed at improving the performance and cost effectiveness of critical components. Regulators ... would be well advised to recognize that their time constraints have an impact on the range of science and technology that can realistically be brought to bear on a given problem."

Donald Sadoway, an MIT professor seeking to develop solid-state, thin-film batteries, made a similar point in an interview last year with Computer World:

"When we stop thinking about what's gee-whiz in the lab, we cease to invent. Invention is what gives us new tools. That's why we have to retreat to the fundamentals. If you have one- or two-year planning horizons, you're not going to invent. ... Research funding has not been freewheeling enough. It's been too tight on a leash, expecting instant results, and there are consequences."

Those consequences are not getting a fully electric car people can afford any time soon.

You see, the electric car hasn't been "killed." It still exists. AC Propulsion, for example, will take your existing vehicle, buck up the suspension, put in battery packs, and give you a vehicle that goes 75 miles on a charge for $45,000 to $65,000.

Now, if you are Ed Begley Jr., one of the stars in Paine's film, you might opine: "What more can anyone ask?" Especially if you could get CARB, the feds and the motor car companies to pick up half the actual cost. Then you might lease an EV for the $30,000 to $40,000 cost of the nickel metal hydride battery pack needed to run it for about 100 miles as Paine, Begley, Jay Leno, Tom Hanks and others featured in Paine's flick did. But, first, like them, you would need to be rich -- or something else.

"Would you drive around in a car that offered 50-mile range?" asked an EV engineer interviewed by Charles J. Murray, in "Out of Juice! Nation's charge toward electric cars stalls" for Design News for Mechanical and Design Engineers in October of 1998. "The people who buy electric vehicles have too much money."

Murray noted another EV engineer was even more succinct: "The people who buy these vehicles must be wackos."

Indeed, Murray's conclusion after eight months of investigation was that: "Dreams of an electric car revolution any time soon are dead. Despite more than four decades of development effort, the most critical component -- the battery -- is nowhere near ready. And, automakers don't expect it to be by the end of the century. Nor by 2010. And probably not by 2020."

That view has been shared by subsequent reviews of the EV program, including one by CARB in 2000 that found that batteries that were cheap weren't good; batteries that were good were way too expensive, and that many batteries with good mileage potential were simply too dangerous.

Paine prefers to pretend that we don't have electric cars because someone is out to deprive us of them. And he picks Hollywood's usual suspects -- the oil companies and American auto companies. He might really look closer to home, though, like the parent company to Sony Pictures, which is distributing his film.

Sony Corporation has a role in the history of electric vehicles -- a big one. In the mid 1990s, it was involved in some of the most serious hyping of the electric vehicle, joining with Nissan in the development of the lithium ion battery that was put in the experimental vehicle, the Altra -- "A Friendly, High-Tech Electric Vehicle for Everyday Life."

The only problem with that friendly vehicle was that the LiIon battery, as Murray noted, cost somewhere between $100,000 to $600,000 a vehicle, and they weren't particularly safe. Sandia Laboratories is working as part of the FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership Program to cut its cost and improve its safety, but still has a ways to go.

When he interviewed Paine about his movie for a special report on PBS's NOW, David Brancaccio missed the little bit of irony of the Sony connection that included a scintillating interview with that physics and automotive expert Alexandra Paul. She shared her pain about losing her EV1: "I cried when I knew I would no longer drive the EV1. And I normally wouldn't cry over a car, because I am not a car person really. But this wasn't about the car, it was a larger metaphor for where the world was going."

Toward a world of rich people complaining about not getting taxpayers' subsidies for their toys, and reporters considering celebrities as experts? Been there; done that.

How is this for a thought, though? Why don't Paine and Sony Pictures and its parent, Sony Corp., with its $67 billion, get together with Begley, Hanks, Leno and Paul and pony up a few billion to bring the LiIon battery technology to market? Why complain when, as the Nike ad says, they could just do it?

Duane Freese is TCS Daily deputy editor.



"The people who buy these vehicles must be wackos."
So, it killed itself?

"The only problem with that friendly vehicle was that the LiIon battery, as Murray noted, cost somewhere between $100,000 to $600,000 a vehicle, and they weren't particularly safe." Crimeny! ~ $300K?? I can buy a $20K car and have gas for 97 years at $55/tankful (1 tank/week, 52 weeks/year, today's rates).

"the battery -- is nowhere near ready. And, automakers don't expect it to be by the end of the century. Nor by 2010. And probably not by 2020." "Why don't Paine and Sony Pictures and its parent, Sony Corp., with its $67 billion, get together with Begley, Hanks, Leno and Paul and pony up a few billion to bring the LiIon battery technology to market?" Name me someone that will invest billions in something that won't pay off for another 20+ years, if at all? (That isn't the government, you left wing wackos)

" was a larger metaphor for where the world was going."
What else are you smoking? The world continued on, and you started on a tangent with no GPS.

Plug-ins and the Rich Niche
The electric car is developing before our eyes through a bottom-up approach led by Toyota and Honda. Hybrids, of course, are but the first step.

In the coming years, plug-in hybrids will offer a mode for electric-only operation of hybrids which extends the range of the vehicle while reducing fuel consumption. In the meantime, battery and solar cell manufacurers continue to make important advances that will impact the development of the fully-electric, mass-produced vehicle.

Even so, the all-electric sports cars soon be here thanks to Tesla Motors. Their first vehicle has a top speed of 130mph, can hit 60mph in 4 seconds, and has a range of 250 miles per charge.


Silicon Valley racing ahead with electric cars
CNN, June 29, 2006

...With about 80 employees, Tesla just raised $40 million from high-profile investors including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. It plans to start selling its first model next year.

...By tapping the Bay Area's engineering expertise and culture of innovation, a cluster of entrepreneurs, engineers and venture capitalists here are racing to bring their own electric cars to market. But unlike the Detroit and Japanese automakers, they are working on high-performance sports cars for wealthy car enthusiasts.

At least three Silicon Valley startups -- Tesla Motors of San Carlos, Wrightspeed Inc. of Woodside and battery maker Li-on Cells of Menlo Park -- are among a small cadre of companies nationwide developing electric cars or components...

man rhampton will believe anything, so long as it's published, and is what he wants to believe.

I was wrong (Somebody send an ambulance to eric's house.)
I stated yesterday that a Li Ion battery big enough to power a car would cost as much as a small house. From today's article, it appears that such a battery would cost more than most houses.

The American dream
Prior to WW2 half of all Americans lived on the farm and people who worked in the cities lived in the cities and used public transportation. WW2 created the "home in the country American Dream" and the freeway system enabled it to happen, created home and auto building jobs and helped cause the freak post war economic conditions which eliminated the standard post war unemployment - that and the GI Bill + the Marshall Plan.

People still have the American Dream and the Dream destroyed the big cities and the city school districts, that and the Civil Rights Act of '64. Demographic evidnce indicates that the cities are becomming enclaves of rich people living in guarded high rises who send their kids to private schools surrounded by a ring of poor and lower working class people who fill the service jobs for the rich people and the middle class commuting workers. Their kids go to miserable govt schools which train them to be good drones.

This is what happened in Seattle. Only the very rich and the very poor can afford to live in the city - same as Manhattan in NYC.

One way to promote electric cars is to destroy the American Dream by making the city more attractive to the middle class than the suburbs. This could be done by providing a superior govt school education in the cities. Of Course, the only way to do this is to drop all the egalitarian integration crap and and go to a school system where schools are ordered by ability instead of skin color. If every large city had several govt schools gesigned aling the lines of the Bronx High School of Science the middle class would find it advantageous to get their kids back into the cities.

Unless you're here in Cali.
Then that's CHEAP. ;-)

Have a good 4th of July!

Was it Seattle or Portland that has the growth ring?
That is, a line around the city beyond which development is prohibited?

What killed cities.
Most of the real expensive cities to live in have some kind of limitation on new development. Either it's geographic (rivers, lakes, ocean, hills, etc.), or it's political (land that's owned by govt, or development restrictions of some kind.)

The poor live in subsidized housing, and the rich can afford to buy. The middle class gets squeezed out. Of course the middle class are also squeezed by the taxes needed to support the welfare subsidies as well. The rich have enough money to pay the taxes, or enough lawyers to avoid them.

Until the problem of affordable housing is solved, the middle class will never move back to the cities, no matter how good the schools get.

BTW, there's nothing to stop the suburbs from building excellent schools as well. (Nothing except the teacher's unions that is.)

Plug-In Technology in Here Today
"In the coming years, plug-in hybrids will offer a mode for electric-only operation of hybrids which extends the range of the vehicle while reducing fuel consumption."

One of my favorite cars is the H3. I would like GM to produce a “PIFF” (Plug-In-Flexible-Fuel) version of the H3. I would like a range of about 40 miles on electricity alone at a maximum speed of 50 mph. Using existing technology, GM could do this for the 2008 model year at a cost of at most 10k per vehicle (with 3-5k more likely). I drive about 16 miles per day to work. So, in a typical week I would use 0 gallons of gasoline. The only time I would use liquid fuel is on freeway trip, and then only 15% gasoline. In 2005 I spent about $2,000 on gasoline. In 2009, with my “PIFF”d H3 and a similar driving regimen, I would likely spend less than $200 on gasoline.

In the luxury and near-luxury segment, there are many customers who will pay a few extra grand for desired features. The market for non-oil based vehicles must begin in this lower volume luxury segment, where customer preferences (as opposed to pure cost/benefit) more often influence buying decisions. Eventually, improving technology and increasing demand will lead to the spread of non-oil based drive trains to other segments. This type of pattern is evidenced in recent times with anti-lock brake and stability control technologies. If PIFF technologies become standard (in say 10-15 years), the incremental costs (compared to today’s oil based drive trains) will be immaterial.

The all electric car failed due a combination of economic and technological reasons. The market has changed from ten years ago…the price of gas has doubled and battery technology has improved. PIFF’s can be delivered to a showroom near you today…you only need ask loudly and be willing to pay a premium.

No Subject
Must be Portland. Washington requires that each jurisdiction (city, county) create growth plans. Seattle's exodus in the 70's was caused by the cross town school bussing. The retaking by white people in the 90's was generated by economic considerations, real estate prices.
Seattle is only behind San Francisco for the fewest children per capata and half of them are not in the govt schools. Only the rich people are moving back in.

So what
Although the "price of gas" has doubled, the "price of natural gas" has also doubled, so in reality, the price of recharging your battery has also doubled. It just hasn't been passed on to the public yet.

To get the range, you still have to have a really hunking big battery, and dragging around all that weight cuts mileage.

The whole problem of the equivalent of the gas tank costing $50k and lasting only 20k miles is a long way from being solved, if ever.

California passed a human's law. The universe has it's own law. Which law won?

Seattle is requiring large projects to have a percentaage of "affordable" housing.

PZEV, HCCI, Direst injection, clean Deisel, hybrids - ICE...
...based vehilces keep getting better. PZEV pratically eliminate the pollution. If Firefly enegy's batteries come to fruition plug-in hybrids could become economical.

problem of affordable housing
It's already been solved unike former times. Before, in some places you weren't allowed to move to another house because the lord just plain said you couldn't. In other places, like the communist countries you couldn't move because the government assigned you a shabby house. In other places if you were of the wrong caste you could't move to approprite housing. But this problem of housing doesn't exist in most of the world anymore, certainly not in the US or or even Mexico. Every person is able to figure out a way of getting enough money to buy a house that he considers better. Or even the chance to stay in a crappy house but put your money into say, a cadillac, or plasma TV.

Meet the Electric Roadster
The Tesla Roadster
* 0 to 60 in about 4 seconds
* top speed 130mph
* 250 miles per charge
* about $0.01 per mile
(calculated using PG&E Schedule E-9 off-peak rate)

Electric Cars
The problem is not the battery, it is recharging it easily. Electric trains don't have this problem - they use overhead wires. This is not new technology and we can combine this improvement with central computer control - thus eliminating most car accidents. If we go one step better and bury the entire system (and remember, the entire is system is public right of way) we also end pedestrian accidents and beautify the landscape. A side benefit, or cost, is the end of the need for "snow days" since a buried system need not be overcome by the weather.

TCS Daily Archives