Universal Translator

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Electric Cars and Fritz Leiber

About a week ago Brad Plumer, working over at Ezra Klein's Wonkblog, wrote a brief post about America’s failure thus far to purchase a lot of electric cars.  I found the post a bit strange because Plumer identified two real problems that today’s electric cars and hybrids have – (i) they are fairly expensive, and (ii) fully electric cars have only a limited range (about 65 miles) before they need to be recharged – but seemed determined to ignore both these real concerns.  Instead, he ascribed our reluctance to purchase small, expensive cars that cannot travel very far to a quirk in American “psychology.”  Indeed, the title of his post asked and then answered its own question:  “What’s wrong with the electric car?  Psychology, perhaps.”

Maybe he just wanted a chance to work in a particular quote from an executive who told him that, “Our research shows that people want to feel like they can get into their car and drive across the country at if [sic] they have to.  It might sound silly, but it’s real.”

(No, I don’t know why that sounds silly.  I have frequently driven across state lines in my car, and if I were to purchase a new car I’m pretty sure I’d want that one also to be able to drive me as far as I wanted to go.  At the very least it should get me to my sister’s house for Christmas, and she lives 200 miles away.)

But the reason I wanted to discuss Plumer’s post is because he also mentions Better Place, an American-Israeli venture company that is attempting to develop what I consider to be the only viable infrastructure needed to support an electric car economy:  a nationwide network of battery-switching stations.  Better Place is currently installing fully automatic battery-switching networks in Denmark and Israel, comprised of stations that supposedly can swap out a depleted car battery for a fully charged one in less than five minutes – easily comparable to the time one spends filling the tank at a conventional service station.

I like this idea for a couple of reasons.

First, the initial investment per switch station is supposed to be about $500,000.  And we are gonna need a lot of switch stations before private investors start pouring their own money into this kind of scheme. 

Why?  Well, because in order for an individually owned switch station to generate profit, it is going to require a sufficiently high number of daily customers showing up to have their batteries switched out.  But no station owner will ever realize that kind of demand unless a lot of people purchase electric cars.  But a lot of people won’t purchase electric cars unless they know that there already is a supporting infrastructure that will allow them to use their cars to travel long distances.

All of which means that the creation of a minimally supportive electric car infrastructure will have to precede the successful wide-scale marketing of electric cars.

And this is exactly the kind of large-scale, super expensive project that pays off in huge dividends in which the government is supposed to invest.  Just think of switching stations as the 21st Century’s answer to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.  It’ll be expensive, it’ll pump money into the economy, it’ll put people back to work, it can only be achieved by the massive resources of the federal government, and it will help “green” our economy. 

The economic and environmental dividends such a national investment will generate make this a worthwhile project in and of themselves.  The fact that a project like this appears to be necessary in order to remind Americans that we have government for a reason – to accomplish the amazing things that no individual or corporate enterprise can do on its own – is just gravy.

Second, once a geographic “tipping point” is reached, the process should be self-sustaining.  All the government needs to do is develop the minimally necessary number of switching stations to persuade sufficient numbers of Americans to purchase battery-operated cars.  This doesn’t mean that there’ll be a switching station every 25 miles on any given highway, or that the government will be putting up switching stations down every rural road.

But at $500,000 – about half the initial capital investment of a conventional service station – and given that these stations are fully automated, it should be relatively easy to convince private investors to get in on this action and further develop the switching station network on their own.  As it becomes profitable to expand the range of traveling by electric car by expanding the range of the switching stations, the private sector will take on the burden of this expansion.

I like to think of this process as the government doing the hard work of dragging the rollercoaster up to the top of the first, steepest incline.  Then it can just let go and let gravity and the natural laws of profit-seeking behavior take over.

Third, once private investment has taken over the cost of continuing the switching station expansion, the government can recoup at least some of its initial expenditures by selling its original switching stations to private enterprises.  Again, it should be easy to find private investors willing to pay for such stations since – by necessity – they will have been established along on the most frequently traveled routes.  Location, location, location!

Fourth, while the government is building out the initial switching station infrastructure, thereby clearly signaling its bona fide intent to create a viable electric car industry, private industry will have a real incentive to continue developing better and more affordable electric cars.  This should drive costs down and result in ever greater increases in battery technology.

Fifth, . . . is personal.  One of my all-time favorite pulp fantasy/science-fiction writers is Fritz Leiber, creator of the immortal characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  Back in 1975 he published a short story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction titled “Catch That Zeppelin!” in which the main character finds himself slipping in and out of different, but similar, time streams:

The Broadway I saw was utterly transformed, though at the time this seemed every bit as natural as the serene presence of the Ostwald high overhead, vast ellipsoid held aloft by helium.  Silvery electric trucks and buses and private cars innumerable purred along far more evenly and quietly, and almost as swiftly, as had the noisy, stenchful, jerky gasoline-powered vehicles only moments before, though to me now the latter were completely forgotten.  About two blocks ahead, an occasional gleaming electric car smoothly swung into the wide silver arch of a quick-battery-change station, while others emerged from under the arch to rejoin the almost dreamlike stream of traffic.

I love Leiber’s writing, and I love too that thirty-six years ago he was imagining a world that not only had electric cars, but had solved the problem of recharging them by simply switching out their batteries.  It is simple, it is elegant, and it would seem the obvious solution if we could only break ourselves from the habit of thinking of our cars as things to be fueled.

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