The Automobile: Take Me for a Ride, Part 1

A good friend, a dyed-in-the-wool hardcore environmentalist, once told me “they will have to pry my cold, dead hands off the steering wheel of my car.” I’m not sure if Bob could have been much clearer about his love for the automobile, and he’s certainly not alone. The human love affair with the automobile is its own psychological study, but the fact is, with very few exceptions, the automobile is as permanent an accessory as a clothes washer. It’s also clear that the impact on the global environment has been devastating, not to mention the impact on family budgets.  Auto expense is second only to the cost of shelter, and in the neighborhood (10-15%) of what a family spends on food, assuming there are no teenagers in the mix. Still, the positive impacts are hard to ignore. It would be foolish to advocate a return to the days of yesteryear, so let’s not. If you’re itching for a glimpse into that world, visit an Amish community. That’s not a judgment, just an observation. What is pertinent is that (1) most of us drive, (2) the automobile industry creates millions of jobs, and (3) if we continue to drive oil-dependent vehicles we will one day find this to be a non-starter… literally. This doesn’t seem to be imminent, however, given the rise in hybrid and electric vehicle production. As of 2017, more than four million hybrid-electric Priuses were sold globally. Tesla, the growing leader in electric vehicles, is completing a mega-factory in Nevada that is already producing lithium-ion batteries, with full production forecast for 2018. Here’s the rub (there is always a rub): lithium sources are in countries other than the U.S. (see the chart below). Sound familiar? The largest producer is Australia, the next three being Chile, Argentina and China. So far, nobody in the United States has discovered a vein in their neighborhood. (If you have the inclination and time, a report on electric car batteries by the Boston Consulting Group tells you more than you ever asked to know.)

Figure 1 Global Lithium Production (David Stringer, Bloomberg Business, “Electric Car Boom Drives Rush to Mining’s $90 Billion Hub,” August 6, 2017, 1:00 PM MDT August 7, 2017, 3:26 AM MDT)

Oily to bed, oily to rise

In April of 2012, one of the most tragic environmental disasters in U.S. history unfolded on the Gulf Coast. As if they didn’t have enough to deal with after Hurricane Katrina, decades of cleanup were forced on the coastal residents as the Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil well spewed more than four million barrels of crude into the water a mile under the surface. The spill lasted for more than 80 days; the images were breathtakingly horrific. Eleven workers lost their lives. British Petroleum was fined twenty billion dollars and ordered to clean up the mess, the final tab coming in at around $44 billion, after tax deductions.

The solution to preventing these crises has yet to be discovered, which highlights one of the challenges with technology: unintended consequences. Also, what is “acceptable risk?” Clearly the ability to tap oil resources from the ocean floor was seen as a good thing. It created a flow of the precious resource within the control of the United States, already dependent on unstable or unfriendly countries for a portion of this lifeblood of American industry and, literally, the American Way of Life. Our reliance on imports has been declining since around 2009 – due in part to efficiency standards and automobile mileage improvements that are being challenged and gutted by our current “leaders” –  but it’s understandable that one side of the aisle sees oil as so precious that we must consider and expect to go to armed conflict to preserve our ability to tap the dwindling sources of this Black Gold. What choice do we really have, they say? The choice, and the ultimate solution to this dilemma, is to start planning for a day when oil will not be a viable option for powering the world; it will be (a) too expensive to pull from its hiding place or (b) substantially depleted, to await the replenishing through plants and dinosaurs and several million years.  Frankly, I don’t think we have the budget for “a” nor the patience for “b,” so we’re going to have to look for another way. Yet, if we leave it up to political will – an attention span that maxes out at eight years – our children and grandchildren are in deep trouble.

Fortunately, if we could get past the inherent human desire for instant gratification, there are things we could be putting in place today. Imagine the City of the Future as a place where a personal automobile was not needed. This city would be designed and constructed so that any need – shopping, food, entertainment, employment – would be accessible through a variety of shared modes of transportation. Would the automobile be eliminated completely?  No. After the redesign of cities, we could work on how to get to places that feed our souls, like, say, Yellowstone Park, without the personal horseless carriage. But in the interim, there has to be a strategy for replacing what has become the default infrastructure for moving people from one place to the other. And that strategy can’t wait for the politically convenient time, because that time does not exist.

In the shorter term, there is some hope for replacing the “infernal combustion engine.” The U.S. Department of Energy “EV Everywhere Grand Challenge” announced by President Obama in March of 2012 aimed to make Plug-in Electric Vehicles (PEVs) as available and affordable as gasoline-powered automobiles within ten years. The “changing of the guard” in 2016 scrapped that program, but there is still life in the vehicles program at DOE.  And the appearance of Tesla in the last few years has stepped up the game.

“You have to match the convenience of the gasoline car in order for people to buy an electric car.” – Elon Musk, Tesla

Like the very nature of technology in this age, electric car production is accelerating at a pace that is starting to look like the cell phone explosion (no pun intended). For emphasis, a Tesla roadster is speeding towards Mars as I write this.