As so often happens in dealing with problems, our real problems
frequently turn out to be very different than what we had originally thought
them to be. We typically make assumptions and have false beliefs that color
our thinking and result in illogical and unfortunate decisions. Predictably,
our current difficulties with the automobile and the internal combustion
gasoline powered engine are no exception.
Many of us have a lot invested in the current technology, in
one way or another. The consequence of this is that all our thinking focuses
on solutions that will keep things the way they have always been only,
somehow, better. In the magic solution it is a car which uses exactly
the same fuel it always used and operates the same way it always did, except
that it gets some arbitrarily increased improvement in efficiency.
That would, if fact, be a good thing but not as good as everyone thinks.
So, before becoming mired in that trap, let us ask ourselves
just exactly what degree of efficiency it would take to solve the environmental
and economic problems currently laid at the feet of the automobile industry:
For example, would it be 50 miles to the gallon? Would it be 100
miles to the gallon?
Actually, it would not be either of those numbers or 200 miles
to the gallon because none of them represents the real solution to our
basic dilemma which has little to do with some arbitrary economy figure.
What good is it going to do us as a species to create a hundred
mile to the gallon internal combustion, gasoline burning engine, if we
also put another billion of them on the road? A situation not at
all unlikely to occur it might be added. What good it is going to
do to create a highly efficient gasoline powered engine if we continue
to get fuel for it from the very people who are sworn to be our mortal
You see, our real problem with the environment is not so much
our current manufacturing technology as it is the simple fact of overpopulation
and our refusal to accept the political realities and consequences of dealing
with and being dependant upon people and countries hostile to our way of
When there was plenty of environment it did not matter too much
to us what happened to it. In 1908 it did not matter, environmentally,
if a car got 10 miles to the gallon or 100. The outcome was determined
by simple economics. As it happens, that is exactly is what is going
to happen in our own time.
When the countries we now get much of our oil from were poor
and impotent it did not matter much to us what they did. Now, unfortunately,
we have given them money to acquire technology and weapons which are a
matter of some considerable concern to ourselves and the rest of the world
and this has created a situation which cannot and is not going to continue.
Unfortunately, our current economic system is not quite as good
as it might be in including all of the total actual costs of a given item
into the purchase price. If it did, our current difficulties with
the environment and economy would disappear very quickly. As things
work now, we do not pay the full, actual cost of the things we buy.
Hidden costs like environmental damage and the consequences of using slave,
or under compensated labor are pushed into the future and charged to “others”,
in one way or another.
As it happens, this not going to continue. As the world
effectively shrinks because of advancing technology and continued overpopulation,
it is going to become less and less practical and possible to pass on the
hidden costs and less and less practical for people who cannot afford two
children to continue to have six. Under these circumstances, plain
and simple economic reality will address the underlying issues very quickly;
also, probably, in ways that will be very painfully and disruptive for
many of us.
Our long term solution then would rest in addressing not so much
the technology but the underlying economic, social and cultural realities
of this situation. However, as most of us have our minds riveted
onto the technology, we can start there and see how little it really has
to do with our problem.
The 300 mile between charges battery turns out to be a situation
very much like the one which occurs when a dog chasing a car actually catches
it. Now what? You’ve got what you wanted. Now what are
you going to do with it?
OK, so you have a three hundred mile battery. You drive
down the road on the long trip this battery this is supposed to be about
and the battery is either discharged, or it will be discharged before you
can get back: Now what?
You, at last, have the 300 mile battery the automotive industry
says was keeping them from making practical electric cars and you’ve drove
300 miles and the charge is exhausted: Now what?
There is no current technology which would permit a battery of that size
to be recharged in five minutes. The heat generated in the process
would cause the battery to explode. So what do you do then?
Are you going to wait around for the next 6 hours while it re-charges?
Actually, no you won’t do that. Well, not unless
the people who design the transportation system are complete nutwads or
have such a vested interest in the status quo that they are still pretending
that things can go on the way they did in 1950 despite all evidence to
No, you will not wait 6 or 8 hours to recharge the battery because
that would defy all common sense. Actually this mythical battery
is not our problem here, and never was. Actually, a plenty good enough
electric car could have been built at any time, AT ANY TIME, during the
last 70 years using 1930’s technology and plain old lead acid cells because
this mythical 300 mile battery is not our problem and never was our problem!
As Nicolae Ceausescui in Romania discovered, as the lords
of the old Soviet Union and the Communist Party there discovered, it is
not enough to have an army, nuclear weapons and untold mountains of wealth
to survive. In the long run it is still necessary to have some vague
idea of what you are doing. It is still necessary to be able to understand
what your problem is before you can fix it.
In Ceausescui’s case, he was taken out and shot on Christmas
day 1989 for his failure to appreciate his actual situation. One
wonders if the same thing will happen to the lords of Detroit? One
wonders what must happen in society before people who cannot take care
of one child continue to have six?
Of the electric car itself, what may done is this. As the
battery nears the end of its charge you drive into a service station that
looks somewhat like a car wash and an automatic forklift removes your battery
pack(s) and replaces it (or them) with another one which was recharged
the previous night when electric rates were cheaper.
This is pretty much what goes on in the welding and commercial
gas industry today. Welders do not own the tanks on their equipment.
They are leased, and whenever they are empty they are exchanged for a new
An individual owning an oxy-acetylene torch may never see the
gas cylinders which originally came with it again after their first use,
and this fact does not trouble him in any way. He knows that he can
exchange his empty cylinder for a full one at any welding shop in the country.
He pays only for the gas itself.
As it turns out welding cylinders themselves require special
attention and handling. The inspection and testing of these containers
is an activity which lies far beyond the scope of anything which the average
owner could possibly do, and he doesn’t have to. This is all taken
care of by the welding and gas suppliers who retire cylinders that are
no longer safe to use and replace them with new ones.
There is not a reason in world that the same thing could not
be done with batteries.
Of course, it would make a nicer car if it employed more advanced
technology than lead acid batteries, but it is not necessary and never was.
Again, the focus on battery, itself, draws our attention away
from the real problem which is not and never was, the battery. What
we need, aside from fewer people, is an infrastructure to change batteries
out when they need to be recharged or replaced and, some standardization
in the batteries themselves.
In one sense, it’s the hole the battery goes into that is more
of a problem than the batteries themselves. The batteries already
exist and have for a very long time. If we could just agree on the
dimensions of the space where the battery went, it would not matter what
technology went into it. Everyone could use that accord with exactly
the same results that occurred when the government in this country standardized
Most younger people living today do not realize it but at one
time the bolts in a Ford built at one location in this country were not
necessarily interchangeable with those built at another location.
This caused all kinds of problems for a man trying to repair his car especially
if he traveled or moved to a different part of the country. The government
had to intervene to change that situation.
Of course, the automobile manufacturers howled and whined and
cried doom and despair as they always do whenever anyone tells them to
do what they should have had the common sense and decency to do in the
Notwithstanding industry complaints, the Unified Standard threads
they were finally compelled to use, and which are still in use to this
day, benefited everyone in the country across all sectors of manufacturing
and business, including the automobile manufacturers themselves.
Moreover, this good was accomplished with the automobile industry kicking
and screaming all the way down and probably the same thing will have to
be done with batteries.
In truth, a practical 300 mile battery will exist one day. Unfortunately,
far from being the salvation of America and the automotive industry, the
300 mile battery could easily turn out to be a very serious problem. Which
will depend upon what is done with it. In the first place, it must be understood
that the automobile industry will make every attempt to sell these batteries
as part of the car, which they must not be allowed to do! In the second
place this 300 mile battery will detract attention from our real problem
and delay the implementation of a rational and sustainable transportation
system by making it practical to implement unfortunate, short sighted solutions
to a problem which requires taking a longer view.
Most people do not realize it but most of the so called advanced
technology they are talking about incorporating into modern automobiles has
been around for a very long time.
For example, the first modern submarine was built in the 19th century
not that long after General Custer made his last stand at the Little Big
Horn. It was an all electric boat called the Peral constructed in Spain
in the year 1888. The so called hybred technology now being employed by
a number of automobile manufactures was well understood and extensively
employed in both U-boats and Allied submarines prior to the first world war
over a hundred years ago.
The first known electric locomotive was built in the year 1837 by the
chemist Robert Davidson of Aberdeen. However it was not until 3 years after
General Custers last stand in 1879 that practical electric trains begain to
show up. The first ot these was demonstrated by Verner von Siemens in Berlin.
Very shortly after that commercial electric locomotives and rail systems
began turning up all over Europe and in the United States where the first
electrification of a main line occurred on the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road
on the Baltimore belt in the year 1895.
The electric train was the carrier of choice from the very beginning
for subway systems owing to their use of tunnels and the infeasibility of running
coal fired trains through them. Electric Trains were also mandated by law
in most major cities because of the emissions generated by the coal powered
steam engines of the period.
In fact, electric trains are the carrier of choice all over Europe to this very
day. They are inherently far more efficient than coal or diesel powered systems
and much cheaper to maintain. Unfortunately they have not fared so well in
the United States as they have in Europe and a number of other countries.
The reasons they have not will tell us a lot about why our transportation system
developed in the manner that it has. Moreover, it will enable us to understand
why Adam Smith's invisible hand that is supposed to always guide free
enterprise to a favorable outcomes without any outside intervention screwed up.
None of this makes any
sense unless one realizes that electric locomotives have more power, speed
and higher efficiency than their steam or diesel counterparts. They are also
far kinder to the environment. Consequently, one would be disposed to wonder
they have been virtually eliminated in this country.
The chief disadvantage
of electrification is the cost for the infrastructure including overhead power lines
or an electrified third rail, substations, control systems etc. This, by
itself, would not be an obstacle because in the long run this investment
always pays for itself, everywhere except here in the United States, where
there is another problem.
Public policy here in
the United States interferes with electrification of rail roads. In the
first place, regulations on diesel emissions in this country are very weak.
Secondly, the taxes on electrified systems are much higher than the taxes on
non-electrified systems. Together these limitations make it more practical to
run a non-electric system than an electrified system for reasons which have
absolutely nothing to do with the efficiency, economics or desirability of the
In this country, every
single jurisdiction, every last peckerwood school board in every dinky
township is allowed to tax the property of a railroad and it is simply a
matter of fact that an electrified system is going to have more of it than a
non-electrified system. In the absence of strict emission controls, the
difference in taxation alone would spell the doom of the electrified system.
In Europe all the railroads
are owned by the government and consequently they do not suffer from
artificially high taxation because they are not taxed.
This outcome does not,
of itself, support the view that railroads had ought to be owned by the
government. It does, however, provide us with a clear unbiased picture of the
relative merits of the electrified vs. the non-electrified system when taxes
are removed from the equation. In the absence of unfair taxation the electric
systems win, hands down.
Furthermore, exactly the
same thing would happen if electrified passenger cars were compared honestly
with their non-electric counterparts. Unfortunately, they are not being
compared honestly and they are being expected to run on antiquated roadways
using an infrastructure that is not suitable for use in the 21st century.
So, the real bottom line is
that electric cars will have batteries. But, they do not have to be 300 mile
batteries at all. Moreover, it is obvious that what we really need during
the 21st century is going to be an electrified road and transportation system
supporting a number of vehicle types which do not even currently exist. In
short, we need to combine and otherwise integrate our railroads and our
highways in ways that neither Detroit or Adam Smith's invisible hand is going
About all your batteries
should have to have to do in a modern transportation system is to get you from
your garage or parking space to the nearest electrified roadway or rail connection.
Not only will this provide far more reliable, safer and cheaper transportation than
has ever existed before, it will also stench the flow of trillions of dollars in
cash out of this country, which is going directly into the hands of people who
are hostile to us and our way of life. It is also hurting the ordinary people
who live in those countries.