The Road to Electrification


This holiday my family spent a lot of time on the road traveling. It gave me a lot of time to think, which was nice, since thinking is one of my favorite things to do. Sitting in a car for all those hours inevitably got me contemplating cars, travel, and our problems with them.

I wondered why we, as a society, protect the status-quot when it comes to travel. We deny every chance that comes up to go beyond the 150 year old gasoline powered automobile, whether its trains, or electric cars, or higher standards. Cars really are a pain in the butt, even for as much mobility they offer us. They often require multi-year loans to pay off, only last about 10 years, cost thousands of dollars a year to maintain, and even more to fuel up. The internal combustion engine is inefficient, loud, dangerous, large, heavy, and complicated. Why do we bother keeping it around?

Our culture demands smaller, better, faster and cheaper with everything else, but we seem to be more than happy with our uncomfortable metal bricks on wheels. So maybe we aren’t all that happy, but what options do we have? For our trip we had the options to drive our Prius for 10 hours and $70, or use up 5 hours, our dignity (from the horrible “search” and general treatment we would get in the airport), and $500 flying. There is no train to our destination, so we couldn’t take one even if we wanted to. There has been talk and hopes of a single bullet train in our general area, but that will never get built. There is also the bus route, but that lies somewhere in between driving and flying, and usually only offers the worst of both; high cost, uncomfortable travel, and extremely long travel times.

After depressing myself with this conclusion about our one practical option to be uncomfortable, inefficient and environmentally dirty, I remembered some sound bite I had heard about this company that was trying to change the map of personal travel. They had the idea that electric cars would work for a population if you got past the cost and limitations of the batteries. Their model is to sell the car along with a lease for the batteries. The lease offers car owners the chance to swap them out as needed at battery swapping stations on long trips, or just for convenience reasons. I like the idea, but their implementation and leasing structure would only work in fresh markets, expensive ones, or very small countries.

The other thing I remembered was something out of Popular Mechanics. There had been a dream a while back about making cars into platforms for various propulsion and cab options; modular cars if you will. That seemed like a good idea, too, but only amounted to a half-assed pipe-dream from some car makers. So what happens if we combine those ideas?

As I drove along, it started making a lot of sense to me, and I proved a point to myself. The point being that we lacked vision in our down-turned, feeble, economically driven mindset. This lack of vision is something that we all seemed to acknowledge in our loss of Steve Jobs, but why isn’t it something we try to overturn; investing in, encouraging and supporting those who have some? Why aren’t we all seeking out new ways of seeing our lives? Why aren’t we experimenting and adventuring? Everyone I see in the public eye and milling about in society, just seems to be shelled up in bouts of irresponsibility, fear, and short sightedness. So why can’t we have a new way to travel that provides us more options?

Here’s what I came up with: The main “hurdle” of electric cars as reported by the media is their range, but like the SUV, this idea is about owning and driving around everything all the time. What if we bought electric cars with a range of 50 miles and an empty front compartment with a 48 volt plug. 50 miles would get us to the vast majority of the places we want to go, and for the other small percentage we just plug in extra power in that empty space. If we need hundreds of miles, then we plug in some rented batteries, or if we need to go off the grid then we plug in a turbine generator. All the parts and infrastructure are already in place. Think about it.

There is an auto dealership in just about every city in the country, so they could be used for the generator installation and battery swapping. Our roads are already in place, and it seems the US will never fully switch to anything else. And the biggest benefit of this sort of car is that an empty box and a plug will take advantage of what we do best in this country, innovate and compete. With a few standards for plug and power connections, we could see all sorts of plug-in options. I could even see external adapters that allowed for car daisy-chaining or on road recharging. We could have toll roads with overhead power like what we have for electric muni-buses. I can see a different world when I think about it.

What we need is some societal vision and daring to do things differently. Our problem is how we think about cars, not the electric car technologies. We are trying to make them replace an old limiting technology instead of seeing the immensely liberating opportunities they could bring us. Electric and gasoline power are totally different. Where one is heavy and slow to change, the other is light and adaptable. Our mindset with cars is based on a 150 year history of what they can’t do, instead of all the millions of things they could do if we moved forward.

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