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Electric Cars Are Nothing New

This morning CNN was reporting on a guy with a collection of six electric cars. One of them was a ten year old Toyota RAV4 with plug in technology. He bought off of eBay for something like four thousand dollars a few years ago. The reporter, I think it was Miles O’Brien, asked how much his car would cost now that a gallon of gasoline is running on the north side of four dollars. The man replied that he saw a similar vehicle going for seventy thousand dollars. The ten year old RAV4 had a range of one hundred twenty miles with an overnight charge. For most people, that would be more than enough for their daily cruise back and forth to work. And that was with technology from ten years ago. And the car is still running! It is a Toyota after all.

The CNN article recounted General Motor’s attempt at an electric vehicle, the EV1. When the vehicle was introduced, it was test program of something like a thousand vehicles leased to various people, mostly in California. After the leases were up, the General mandated that the cars be returned. All the electric cars were rounded up and destroyed except for handful that stays in the General’s hands. The last leased car was returned in August 2003. GM claimed it couldn’t turn a profit on the EV1 and decided to ditch the program and focus on more profitable ventures like its Hummer production.

I bet GM wished it was selling an EV1 now. Today, the company couldn’t give a Hummer sport utility vehicle away. Want to buy a Hummer? You could probably buy the whole division for the price of what it used to sell one of their H2 models for. With Toyota enjoying a year long waiting list for people trying to buy its hybrid Prius, there is little doubt that the discontinued EV1 would have been a huge money maker if GM executives had the forethought to think ahead. Unfortunately, it is the lack of forethought that has led to a situation where GM is about to lose its world’s largest automobile manufacturer status to, no surprise, a company like Toyota. Toyota conglomerate has a market value of over one hundred forty billion dollars today while GM, still tenuously number one, has a market value as about five billion dollars. Somebody like Bill Gates could buy the whole company by writing a check. The once mighty have truly fallen.

John McCain suggested that as President, he would like to create a three hundred million dollar prize for the first person or company or organization that can create the next generation battery technology for the next generation of electric cars. That might sound good. But ten years ago, GM and Toyota had electric car technology that appears to have been doing just fine without the next generation battery or a three hundred million dollar prize. The technology appears to be here. Historically, we simply made the choice to minimize it or ignore it. Most people think that buying an electric car is too expensive and too geeky when we can buy cooler vehicles like Hummers that get single digit miles per gallon.

But that’s not the most surprising part. There is a car company that is actually working on a car that runs on air. I’m about as far as one can get from being a mechanic. Although I’ve managed to muddle through it, I don’t even trust myself to change the oil on my car properly. I’m more than happy to pay someone else to do it. However, the concept is pretty simple. In the normal automobile with a combustion engine, fuel is used to make an explosion that drives the piston down that turns a crankshaft. Instead of creating an explosion, the air car uses compressed air to push the piston down.

I originally thought the idea sounded pretty farfetched until I stopped and thought about how some of the most powerful machinery in use can be driven with pneumatics. And it would be an absolute zero emissions vehicle. The engine would need a fraction of the parts the typical combustion engine needs. And without the generation of heat as a byproduct the engine could be made out of lighter, cheaper materials regardless of any thermal dynamic properties. The company believes it can bring this vehicle to market for fifty million dollars. Fifty million is a fraction of the three hundred million that John McCain wants to give for the development of another expensive car battery.

The biggest problem with bringing the air car to market is probably the same problem that made the electric car financially unfeasible. The car would do much to free its owner from the perpetual teat of corporate America. I believe the reason the electric car didn’t come to market was because it was a clear and present danger to the profitability of the petroleum companies. All those people plugging their cars into the wall at night would have rendered oil unprofitable and reasonably priced oil is the foundation of the American economy. The compressed air car would be an even greater danger. I would imagine that this vehicle wouldn’t even need to be plugged in at night. All it would need is to pull up to an industrial strength compressor for a quick shot of compressed air. The drain on our power grid would be minimal.

It’s been said that America has an addiction for the type of power that runs our cars, houses, and workplaces. But even America’s addiction for power falls short of America’s true addiction which is money. The air car would make a lot of industries unprofitable. People and companies with a lot of investment in the delivery of power, whether it be petroleum, natural gas, coal, electricity, or even hydropower, want their addiction for money satisfied and their investment in infrastructure rewarded for as long as possible and for as lucratively as possible through the protection of their business. These investors wouldn’t hesitate to pay protection money to the government or anyone else to keep others from infringing on their profitable operation. Money is the true power source.

Thursday, July 31, 2008 Posted by | Capitalism, Cars, Economy, Life, Oil, The Economy, Thoughts | Leave a comment