Sunday, June 24, 2007

Is Capitalist Inertia Killing the Electric Car?

The well known urban myth of the 100 MPG carburetor that was hushed by the oil industry has grown into legendary status. This myth has been busted by the simple limitations of physics. There is only so much energy potential in a gallon of gasoline to propel an average car down the road. Conspiracies are fun, but usually they are just plain goofy. You can weave a credible sounding conspiracy by taking any small element of truth and embellish it with a money/greed angle. Presto, there you have it, a conspiracy of your own.

Yet, there is a phenomena that is very conspiracy-like and in a sense it's the grandest conspiracy of them all. The basis of this is usually what we'd call vested interests or, who stands to lose the most? It's not necessarily organized into a covert and clandestine operation. In the short run it may not even be deleterious. It's called Capitalist Inertia.

In short, any massive and sudden change in business as usual is going to cause disruptions and pain (in someone's pocketbook). In any finely tuned system a sudden and massive change is usually not handled well by those who rely on things being "steady as she goes".

In the story of the electric car I suspect that the vested interests in the status quo have actually loosely conspired to keep the door closed on a large scale adoption of electric vehicles for the masses.

It seems from what I can deduce that the technology for a viable plug-in (not hybrid) electric car exists and for whatever reason it is being kept away from the consumer. Many suspect it is capitalist inertia. In the Sony Pictures movie "Who Killed the Electric Car" that's exactly what is implied.

Alexandra Paul, a well known actress and activist for personal electric locomotion, asks "did car companies really want electric cars to succeed?" in her 2006 editorial piece. This is a compelling question. She continues: The success of electric vehicles would have threatened the status quo and core business models of two of the world's biggest industries -- oil and automobile. It is more expedient for these companies to give lip service to hydrogen in an attempt to appear "green."

Obviously there are billions at stake for both the auto industry and the oil industry. The auto industry would be faced with cars that last much longer and require fewer parts which is a huge portion of the business. The effect on the oil business is obvious.

The auto industry could (and should) adapt. General Motors is working on a new program with a concept car called the Volt. This after many accused GM of killing the promising EV1 in the 1990's when oil prices stabilized. While GM claims there are still technical hurdles to overcome the Volt is said to be able to go a whopping 40 miles solely on battery power alone. Wow. I am not alone when I wonder how this huge company with millions of research dollars available can't do any better than that???

Just take a look at Tesla Motors. They have created what is in essence a super car. It can achieve dizzying performance purely with electric motors and has a range of up to 200 miles. And GM, Honda, Toyota and the others can't do that? Sure the Tesla is way out reach for the average car buyer costing over six figures, but geez each car is handmade! And GM, Honda, Toyota and the others can't do it cheaper???

Indeed rapidly upsetting the economic balance is not desirable, but this change has to happen. The pluses outweigh the minuses by a large margin. Capitalism will adapt, that is the very strength of a free market based economy. Soviet-style socialism could not adapt to world economic globalization and it collapsed. China, on the other hand has adapted by integrating capitalism into its totalitarian state. India has adapted as well by throwing out hard socialist restraints on their economy. It's time for the U.S. and the West to make the move, slowly at first, and usher in the beginning of the end of the oil age.

What I fear is a frustrated public whipped up by a populist (dictator in training) against our capitalist/market system. The problems with this system are well known and visible, but the promises of a benevolent government claiming to bring about a post-capitalist world, where productive activity will be performed for direct satisfaction of humanity while stepping lightly on the planetary environment is pie in the sky. Nothing will stop human self-interest. Nothing will meld humanity into a caring and sharing lot when each man has himself as the center of universe. Capitalism deals the best with our human nature as it is today. Feel good rhetoric about the abolition of wage labor, the emergence of new social relations where poverty is abolished in a classless, stateless, moneyless global human community is pure crap and we all know it.

The one thing that could allow such a populist to rise to power and dismantle our society is the cost of gas to run our cars. Without our cars we are not really free. Riding in trains is just great for those who choose it. But for all we know a modern Auschwitz might be what is waiting for us at the end of the line.

It's time we demanded of GM, Honda, Toyota and all the others to give us the choice of electric cars - before we all lose...



Anonymous said...

A capitalist conspiracy???
I won't believe it until Michael Moore does a movie on it.