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I Sing the Vehicle Electric: 24 Hours With a Nissan Leaf

Growing up in the energy-crisis late-1970s, oil has always been for me the subject of fascination — and occasional derision. No commodity has, I think, been so central or so fraught. Its energy density, its uncertain availability, its volatile price… no other natural resource makes front-page headlines the way it does (when was the last time anyone cared about the price of, say, phosphorus or magnesium?)

The question that’s been burning me up (pun sort-of intended) since kidhood is: when are we finally going to get off the stuff? It continues to amaze me, what with more solar energy striking the Earth in an hour than humankind uses in a year, and with Einstein’s e=mc2 equation long since having found practical application in nuclear energy (and more destructive forms of same).

Oh, I know, the reasons are legion, from the realities of legacy energy infrastructure to facts about energy density to what I believe is a plain-old failure of the imagination. I recently got into a near-argument with a colleague from conservative Georgia who claimed that alternative-energy research is bunk, and all these newfangled vehicles are doomed to failure. After he promulgated the usual Fox News canards (“none of this will work without subsidies”, “it’s just shifting pollution to the electrical grid”, etc.), I finally blurted out, “Come on; we’re scientists. We’re not supposed to thrown up our hands and say ‘impossible!'”

So to that end, when the time came for me to pick up a rental car for a day’s worth of errands and a visit to some friends down the Peninsula, I responded with an enthusiastic “yes, please!” when the agent at the car-rental shop asked, “do you want to try the new Nissan Leaf?”

I was a bit concerned about the oldest bugaboo in the book: although I’d heard electric cars are a pleasure to drive (responsive, power-efficient engines), the limiting factor for them has always been energy storage. While gasoline, for all its faults, can store an incredible amount of energy (and is easily portable, being a liquid at room temperature), battery technology has always been comparably weak. That’s why batteries typically only power small devices, why they’re constantly running down and needing to be recharged or replaced… and why, in spite of a heritage going back to the earliest days of the automobile, they never caught on the way their petroleum-distillate counterparts did. Only now, with historic rises in oil prices and talk of peak oil — coupled with incremental advances in battery efficiency — are electric cars starting to come out in greater (though still modest) numbers. So much so that my local Enterprise outlet now offers them as part of their regular fleet.

“You can definitely make it to Menlo Park and back,” said the agent as he sat me down in the car and gave me a tour of its Internet-age instrument cluster. “Just make sure to put it in ‘Eco mode.” Apparently in this mode the vehicle uses less energy, sacrificing a bit of performance to do so.

Right away it was apparent that the boosters of electric-drivetrain vehicles were right: the car drives fantastically. Even in Eco mode it was smooth, zippy, and (of course) quiet. The range indicator ticked off the miles remaining at a slightly slower pace than actual miles driven. Since the car is all-electric, it’s able to recapture some of the energy lost in braking to charge the battery, a process known as regenerative braking. The car’s initial range was 80 miles (a bit more with Eco mode on); after half a day’s worth of errands, I still had some 70-plus miles left — more than enough for the 28 or so miles each way to get down to my friends’ party in the Peninsula that evening.

Still, I wanted to see if I could top up, and to that end went looking for one of those electric vehicle charging stations the eco-minded leadership in San Francisco has been busily installing these past few years. A few taps on my smartphone and I found one nearby — in the parking garage of a nearby Costco superstore.

Easier said than done, however: no signage existed inside the mammoth parking area, and only care of an employee did I discover the two spots, forlornly tucked away behind the exit and a tire service center. Both were available free of charge, and both had charging receptacles… but neither one of them featured the type of outlet my Nissan Leaf called for.

Still, I figured I’d be fine, and with a friend in tow I headed down south. Again, even in Eco mode the car was as assured on the highway as any comparable subcompact… but neither of us could help turning our eyes toward the range meter: the miles kept peeling off as we cruised at typical highway speeds (in these parts they nudge 70 mph). Our 30 miles of distance consumed 45 miles of charge… which means we were down to 25 miles and wouldn’t have enough to get home.

Fortunately, my suburban friends have a garage (and a long three-pronged extension cord), and with the car’s own cord and adapter, we plugged the thing in and settled in for some St. Paddy’s Day revelry. Five hours later, the charge was up to 45 miles… which based on previous consumption patterns would barely be enough to get back to San Francisco. As it happens, SFO airport (and another Enterprise outlet) was on the way, so I figured if we were running low on juice stopping there to swap vehicles was always an option.

This time, however, I really took it easy (I am, admittedly, a bit of a leadfoot): we turned off the climate control, and drove a grandpa-style 55 mph the whole way home. This time the mileage corresponded more closely to the range meter, and we got back with over a half-dozen miles to spare. This was more than enough to head back to the rental place the next morning, where I experienced the best part of the whole adventure: no need to fill up!

So what’s the verdict? I think this is a stellar step in the right direction, but a combination of improved battery range and recharging infrastructure need to be in place to truly make this viable. This has been the chicken-and-egg issue with electric vehicles all along: the expense of getting everything in place is staggering. Sure, this was true back in the early 20th-century with gasoline vehicles as well, but the difference then was that no motor vehicle infrastructure existed, so any improvement in fueling and roadways were welcomed (and took a long time, too: from the invention of the motorcar in the 1880s to widespread popularity in the 1920s marks a span of nearly half a century). But now we already have an infrastructure in place, a gasoline-based system, and turfing out that “legacy” investment is proving a tough nut to crack. And until there is a reliable electric infrastructure in place, people are understandably gun-shy about plunking down their ducats… and so continues the vicious cycle.

There are a number of ways out of this: for one thing, a “hot-swappable” battery would be great. At least one company is working on this. A global, universal standard would be nice as well — I shouldn’t have had an issue finding charging stations compatible with my model of vehicle. And improved battery life (and an accurately-rendered one at that) is critical: until cars can get 300-plus miles to a charge, I doubt many of us will be interested (one manufacturer is pretty close to that benchmark already). Sure, having a “city car” is nice, but for most of us, the ability to go anywhere, anytime, is what we pay to have an automobile for. As with all things environmental, it’ll only be when green technologies offer comparable features to their non-green counterparts that they’ll really become popular.

Ultimately, then, I think this is going to take a coordinated, concerted effort on the part of governments, corporations, and the public — a notoriously difficult combination to get in sync. But similar such efforts have been successful in the past, from winning World Wars to putting men on the moon. In spite of initial hurdles, I’m excited to see what comes next — and will definitely be first in line when this technology is more mature.


Can We All Be Rich?

It’s a comment Presidential wannabe Mitt Romney got reamed for last fall, and it even finds its way into far-right Tea Party manifestos: the notion that our society can make everyone wealthy.

I thought about this as I watched another meditation on this notion from last fall, the dsytopian sci-fi thriller In Time. Written and directed by Gattaca‘s Andrew Niccol (I consider the latter film one of the best sci-fi movies ever made), In Time failed to resonate with critics though was a moderate box-office success — no thanks to me, who gave it a miss in theaters. But in spite of its tepid directing (Niccol’s measured, deliberative pacing doesn’t work as well here as in his earlier films) and needlessly Michael Bay-like action-adventure plotting, well, I maintain this is the most brilliantly conceived filmed sci-fi dystopia since 1999’s The Matrix.

It’s all in the premise: In Time posits a future world where the genetic code has been cracked so completely that we can control aging. Nobody ages past 25, but there’s a cruel caveat: you have to earn your “time” beyond that, and time left to live — eerily displayed on people’s arms as a glowing green “life clock” — has become the currency of the age. Just at the reimagined Battlestar Galactica brought us a contemporaneous, Western-style society with spaceships and polytheism, so too does In Time deliver up a world nearly like our own, but with a completely different medium of exchange standing in for present-day money. My back-of-the-envelope calculation from the film, based on “four minutes [of life] for a cup of coffee” and 100 years being considered a fortune, puts 1 minute as roughly equal to 50 present-day cents — which means a day is worth about $700, a month about 20 grand, a year at just over a quarter-of-a-million. When a bank safe containing a “time capsule” (which can be delivered into a person, and can be transferred from individual to individual) is revealed to contain a million years ($250 billion), it elicits gasps — and a boast from its owner/tycoon on how it’s not his first.

It’s interesting that the movie came out within a month of Occupy Wall Street: both push the revolutionary premise that “there’s enough for everyone” if only the rich would quit hoarding it. But where the Occupy movement (or at least some of its supporters) and In Time part ways, it’s in the notion that everyone can be rich. In sci-fi-land, it’s the wealthy members of the establishment who claim that time isn’t infinite, that distributing it to the unwashed masses will “crash the system.” In our present-day world, it’s liberals claiming that not everybody wants to be rich, but most everybody wants a job, a roof over their head, and some degree of security — what I always call a “basic minimum” and agree that every First World country ought to and can provide its citizenry. Bill Maher famously claimed, “of course everybody can’t be rich; who’d be left to do stuff for rich people that nobody wants to do?”

Actually, that’s an excellent point: In Time never quite explains the mechanism by which its “currency” is produced. Does it require energy? Manufacturing? Even if we assume it’s nothing more than a digital countdown, and that the complexity of genetic aging processes can simply be switched on and off — not as far-fetched as its sounds, given research into telomeres — what are the raw economic costs of producing other goods and services to society? This is the basis of economics, at least as I understand it: the medium of exchange reflects, or should reflect, the aggregate cost of producing the stuff we use. As long as these products require human labor and — yes — time to create, an economic system involving scarcity (whether it’s monetary or temporal) seems inevitable.

But this begs the next question: what if stuff costs nothing, or next to nothing, to make? Well, speculative fiction addresses that too… I’m thinking, particularly, of Isaac Asimov‘s robot novels.

In these — starting with The Caves of Steel in 1954 — Asimov imagines a far-ish future (around 1,000 years) where groups of settlers had colonized a bunch of worlds with the aid of robots. But unlike Blade Runner‘s maniacal, malfunctioning replicants, these robots have been (successfully) engineered to be docile, helpful, near-indestructible servants — happy, willing, perfect slaves. They are self-repairing, self-manufacturing, and can (and do) produce all the goods and services anybody could ever want. In contrast to overpopulated, impoverished Earth (gotta have one of those for contrast), these off-world colonies are paradises of wealth. There, too, people live for centuries (though not forever — the prospect of genetic agelessness was unknown to Asimov in 1954) and population is voluntarily held in check. Everyone lives in mansions surrounded by flotillas of well-meaning servants, and does what one likes. Everyone is, indeed, wealthy.

And yet, the Spacer worlds (as they’re known) are far from utopian: jealousy, intrigue, even murder (the premise of at least one of the books) are present. It seems, in eradicating poverty and disease from these brave new worlds, future humans had forgotten to engineer away the not-so-better angels of our nature.

So maybe that’s where real-life activism and speculative fiction come together: technology can solve our problems (though it can also make them worse) but technology alone (or, for that matter, political policy) isn’t enough. As an unrepentant idealist, futurist, and geek, yes, I hold out hope that our scientific advances can improve our world. But we need to change, too. Many of us accept a certain degree of inequality in our lives (this very interesting blog post deals with such notions and how they fall on the political spectrum) — those who take initiatives, who work harder, ought to reap a greater reward — but a society based entirely on one-upsmanship, on reinforcement of inequality, on scarcity as a self-reinforcing idea… that’s a society which, sadly, too many of us have decided to accept.

And here’s where I rejoin my Occupy cohorts, and almost anyone who doesn’t accept our world at face value: I don’t think our current state, our current way of being, is static and inevitable. It may take time — more than on most people’s clocks — but I for one believe we can change, and shouldn’t throw up our hands and refuse to try.

I’ll take a million years, too, if that’s on the table.


The Last Shuttle

Alas, I’m old enough to remember the first Space Shuttle launch some thirty years ago. Back then, I was a space-crazed kid and was excited beyond belief at the world’s first reusable spaceplane. Closer the Earth, the Concorde, the world’s first (and only) SST, was also in its heyday. Although the latter was prohibitively expensive and the former was nowhere near taking passengers, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots of the previous two centuries — from the early steam engine to the internal combustion engine to the propellor plane to the jet plane to the rocketship — and foresee an era where supersonic travel between cities and orbital or interplanetary flights were commonplace. Thanks to Hollywood and its revived interest in sci-fi and special effects, detailed renderings of such a fantastical world were beaming onto screens big and small.

The first terrible, tragic unwinding of the dream happened in 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in mid-launch, taking its first passenger, New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, and six other astronauts to their graves. Then came the investigation, and the realization that the Shuttle program was plagued by flaws, that launches were being rushed in order to satisfy the long-prophesied two-week turnaround time. Still unfamiliar with the ways of the world and the detailed mechanics of real-life space travel, I was floored: yes, the Shuttle had cost billions and taken years longer to complete than expected… but shouldn’t that have led to an ironclad prep process and flawless missions thereafter? In later years, after the Columbia disaster in 2003, I learned that NASA itself was deeply flawed, a cacophony of squabbling experts and boondoggle contracting arrangements for a vehicle that was far, far more complex than originally imagined. If this was the Final Frontier, it sucked.

Ditto the Concorde, which never found a successor and had a tragedy of its own back in 2000. The retirement of the fleet back in 2003 felt like a whimper, a lame-duck end to what should have been the next, grander step in aviation history. Apparently, back when the now-ubiquitous 747 jumbo jet was developed, it was expected to be a mere stopgap until the day of widebody, double-decker SSTs.

All this makes me wonder: are we backsliding? Indeed, the rapid movement forward from horse & buggy speeds is, if nothing else, an anomaly in the long history of human transport: we remained at horse speeds for millennia. Caesar’s chariots and American pioneer wagons travelled at roughly the same pace. So maybe we are in for a long, protracted period of stagnant transport developments; in that area, we haven’t really budged since the 1950s, when the SR-71 Blackbird and Sputnik emerged on the scene.

But then, what really links all these fits and starts is the dirty little secret of our age: energy production — or rather, its impending scarcity.

Theoretically, the notion that we’re “running out of energy” is a canard. More sunlight strikes the Earth in an hour than we humans use in an entire year. The amount of energy in an atom’s nucleus is so tremendous that only a tiny amount of fissile material can produce enormous energy output. No, our problem isn’t the availability of energy; it’s our talent at harnessing it.

Until the Industrial Revolution, that overwhelmingly meant the use of raw human and animal power; for fuels, it meant wood, supplemented by small quantities of plant and animal products such as whale oil. Then we discovered how to burn coal to create steam — and suddenly a relatively small quantity of raw material could perform all manner of tasks, from running factory machinery to powering vehicles on land and water.

The next big leap forward, of course, was oil, which was even more energy-dense and versatile than coal. But from its earliest days, oil had one big drawback: nobody knew how much of it was in the ground. Wells would flow then gradually run dry, leading to boom-and bust ghost towns all over early oil country.

Still, in the early days of the twentieth century, the future looked bright: those early prospectors at Spindletop, in Beaumont, Texas, thought they were merely getting rich when they blew the greatest gusher of the time back in 1901. In fact, the discovery of petroleum on a hitherto untold scale helped usher in a new age. Today it’s unthinkable to imagine a world without cars or jet planes or plastics.

But, alas, what happened on a micro scale in the early oilfields of western Pennsylvania is now happening on a global scale: back in the 1950s, petroleum engineer M. King Hubbert predicted that, like any bell curve, U.S. oil production would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970; he was right on the money. The real reason for America’s pre-eminence through the 20th century lay largely in the country’s energy independence and status as a net oil exporter. The Saudis could have done all the embargoing they wanted in 1953 and it would have hardly made a dent in the U.S. economy; twenty years later, such an embargo nearly reduced the country to ruin.

Nowadays, peak oil is a widely-accepted concept, and predictions are afoot estimating that we’ve already reached the peak or are about to reach it any year now. I can’t help but look at this and at the falloff in innovation around transportation and see a connection. Oh, I know there are other factors: when the Industrial Revolution kicked off, there were fewer than a billion people on the planet and the notion that we little primates could overwhelm Mother Nature’s restorative capacities was unthinkable. But as human population mushroomed and we began to use planetary resources at a greater clip, the toll we’ve had on the Earth has become apparent. So now we’re faced with an added challenge: how to produce and consume energy in a fashion that doesn’t demolish the ecosphere on which we depend for our very existence.

I, for one, am not one of those pessimists who believes the problem intractable. Maybe it’s all those years of watching hopeful (and dystopian — cautionary tales have their place) speculative fiction, but I believe in the potential to get out of this fix we’re in and continue our forward passage toward ever-greater travel and exploration. I’m very much on board with the environmental movement, but if there’s one area in which I part company with them it’s the notion of austerity, scarcity, shortage. I think this is what doomed Communism as well: no, we don’t all want to be equally poor. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want greater equality, nor does it mean we don’t want better, safer, and more sustainable ways of harnessing energy.

Ultimately, it’s going to be our ability to solve the energy problem — to squeeze more out of what we already have, and to find ways of making much more of it in a restorative, balanced fashion — that will put us back on a path toward ever faster, ever farther. It’s in our nature to travel, to explore, to want to go at ever-greater speeds to ever-more distant places. But we’ll only be able to do so if we find the energy — literally — to make that happen.