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Letters from Downunder

What happened to the electric car?

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

The almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion.
Washington Irvine, 1855

(5/2013) If there's one thing that distinguishes us from all other living things, it is our inherent desire to know. To discover, explain, find out and marvel. To depict, record, and improve our lot. It has driven us forward, sent us down long and tortuous dead ends, brought stuttering but lasting progress, created mistrust, wars and horrendous divisions, peace, prosperity and culture, but the quest for understanding has never ceased. That drive has been with us for over one hundred millennia, and while we develop it in varying amounts individually, overall our society is the outcome of the pooling, filtering, and osmosis of all that has gone before.

This quest has sent many people on paths of study, experimentation, and the desire to create or improve. It is the aim of every school and place of higher learning, every research establishment, and until about fifty years ago it was also the mantra of cutting-edge industry as well as those who simply had caught the incurable bug of discovery - often working without professional facilities. I started out as a young enquirer by building crystal radios, and my first real job was determining the best method of extracting and purifying cholesterol from wool wax - and what a thrill when they built a plant to do it, based on my work. This was applied research, and the resulting plant was all financed by the company, the largest wool processing plant in Australia.

Industry has been the source of most applied research: that is, processes that have developed from enquiry into unknown areas, unexplained phenomena, and intriguing observations. This, called pure research, is the foundation for modern industrial advance, the most profound of which has been the development of quantum physics, and thus to an understanding of modern communications. Other areas of pure research have led to new ways of producing and storing electricity, pointing the way forward to the possibility of having a viable alternative to petroleum as an energy source for transport. Such a need has grown more obvious as petroleum reserves have become depleted and pollution has increased, as well as the more recent studies proving that the burning of petroleum based products has increased global warming and extreme weather conditions.

One of the biggest industries in the world is the building of cars and trucks, with trillions of dollars world-wide being invested in it. Every company has poured resources into improving its products, with applied research contributing many changes to efficiency and safety. Of the twenty or so major players in the field, General Motors has been by far the biggest, (although it appears Toyota may have now eclipsed them), and their innovations have been both interesting and pragmatic. The thing about all industrial enterprises is the imperative to make a profit, as in general only governments have money to invest in pure research, which by its very nature does not give anything but a very slow return on investment - and often nothing at all.

But, as innovation drives the market in vehicles, hopping on the bandwagon of electrically driven cars was most appealing, at least from a PR perspective. Leading enterprises need to be seen leading, so an enthusiastic team was appointed to get this new wonder on the road. Five years of hyped hopes and bitter budgetary wrangling did it, and a select few managed to snag one, vowing it a miracle. The $80,000 price tag had not deterred them, but it was then quietly shelved and a different tack taken. A mass market takes mass infrastructure, and the petrol motor had that. The battery one didn't, and even the battery/ petrol hybrid went nowhere. Much easier was to get the laws on emission reductions, passed in California a few years earlier, watered down and then removed, allowing the tried and true petrol motor to keep profits flowing. Of course, a fifty billion dollar bailout of GM didn't exactly hurt, putting a funny kind of quasi-socialism in place. That's when the government buys the company, but cannot be seen to do so - that's communism - and it cannot allow it to fail, because that would seriously dent the capitalist system. The euphemism for this is 'bail-out', because the ship is sinking, and you cannot blame the captain or the officers. It's up to the taxpayer to lift the barge and tote the bale. Again.

So what happened to the electric car? Well, it's still coming, but the pure research that had been needed to ensure that a viable battery was available had been insufficient. The rush to get the thing onto the showroom floor had used whatever had been developed up to that time, which proved to be inadequate. The clue to what was needed came from a wonderful little thing that had made laptops, mobile cell phones and a host of new consumer communication devices available: The rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Product courtesy of Japanese science, who used American and other research to show that lithium, the lightest metal on earth and one of the most reactive, could be made to hold a nice little charge, to be recharged over and over, and after addressing several failures while in use, could be made safe.

But a car is not an i-phone; it's a few hundred times more heavy and complex, a modern confabulation of high-tech machinery and electronics that requires an enormous input of power to get it under way and keep it moving. A few thousand button batteries joined together would be OK, wouldn't they? Nope, but the American auto makers tried it anyway. In the end the race in North America went not to the latest, but to the oldest - Mr. Benz's 19th century wonder, the petrol driven internal combustion engine. Work went into finding more reserves of oil, and to hell with the environment and the cost. Americans wanted American cars, and loved the smell of gasoline. Didn't they? Well, not exactly.

Although the electric race now seemed to be lost, guess what? Showrooms with the latest versions are to be seen; recharging stations are springing up, the initial purchase price is falling to near the average gas driven car, and those that buy them are ecstatic: No noise, no smell, no complex motor that costs the earth to fix. 0-60 in 12 seconds, drive home, plug it in, and on longer trips pull into a recharge spot - the time taken not much more than for a good old dose of inflammable petrolatum. Lithium ions with atomic watts versus flaming fossil hydrocarbon. No contest.

Our Japanese allies smile inscrutably, the Chinese pull out all the stops to do their own thing, Europe jumps on the bandwagon, and GM looks bereft. Some things cannot be hurried. The realization of visions takes time. Hype, hope and hubris don't work. Had the US auto makers invested more in fundamental research, taken a long and controlled view, they may - nay, would have won this race. The ideas and the desire happened, but those dirty words profit and bigger dividends got in the way. The tortoise won - again.

Most of all, the weather would have been better.

From the land of the leaping kangaroo, Lindsay.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker