Environmental issues, energy and electric cars
The question every electric car buyer asks is how convenient charging will be, and how much will the range limit my travel - known as "range anxiety."
I have written often about the new economies in transportation that future technology like robocars provide. In my research I've learned something that seems to not be well known in the transportation world -- that often, smaller is better and more energy efficient.
Not long after I got it, I had a burglary of my Tesla. This led to an upcoming article on what cars of the future might do about break-ins As a background to that article, I am adding some details about what might have happened better.
As you might guess, my recent switch to an electric car is revealing a variety of things to me, so you will be seeing more on that in the coming period.
Here's a moderately surprising result of switching to an electric car. Here in California, my electric bill went down. Just by a little, but in essence the (green) energy for my car is coming for free.
On my recent bill I used 900kwh and paid $168. 2 months ago I used 700kwh and paid $178. I drove around 900 miles. A small amount of my car electricity came from Tesla superchargers or other charging stations. Most was from my house. Yes, I use an above average amount of electricity already.
Why this this happen?
As an update to my proposal for a special circuit breaker to assist in managing home power I thought I would propose a much simpler alternative for those who have a dryer plug in their garage.
Scooters from Lime and Bird have been causing a stir as they move quickly into cities. There's been blowback, because riders travel recklessly, often on sidewalks, and they also leave scooters just lying on the sidewalk, blocking things, because as dockless scooters you can drop them anywhere. Riders are also getting hurt, these are not the safest things to ride.
So cities are striking back, trying to stop, regulate or collect money from these scooter operators.
In the world of electric cars, some people talk about an idea called "vehicle to grid" or V2G. Renewable energy's biggest challenge is storage -- wind and solar only come at certain times of the day, but we need electricity all day. The V2G hope is to use all the batteries in electric cars as a means of grid storage.
I and many others feel the best way to set urban and transportation policy is to properly price in the "externalities" into our travel, and to remove all other penalties and subsidies. If you can do this, then everybody is incentivized to improve the public good. In particular, entrepreneurs and companies are motivated this way, and it's their job to think of the new things nobody else thought of.
Today I want to look at some implications of Tesla's Master Plan Part Deux which caused some buzz this week. (There was other news of course, including the AUVSI/TRB meeting which I attended and will report on shortly, forecast dates from Volvo, BMW and others, hints from Baidu, Faraday Future and Apple, and more.)
In Musk's blog post he lays out these elements of Tesla's plan
- Integrating generation and storage (with SolarCity and the PowerWall and your car.)
- Expand into trucks and minibuses
- More autonomy in Tesla cars
- Hiring out your Tesla as a robotaxi when not using it
Except for the first one, all of these are ideas I have covered extensively here. It is good to see an automaker start work in these directions. As such while I will mostly agree with what Tesla is saying, there are a few issues to discuss.
Electric (self-driving) minibus and Trucks
In my article earlier this year on the future of transit I laid out why transit should mostly be done with smaller (van sized) vehicles, taking ad-hoc trips on dynamic paths, rather than the big-vehicle, fixed-route, fixed-schedule approach taken today. The automation is what makes this happen (especially when you add the ability of single person robocars to do first and last miles.) Making the bus electric can make it greener, though making it run full almost all the time is far more important for that.
The same is true for trucks, but both trucks and buses have huge power needs which presents problems for having them be electric. Electric's biggest problem here is the long recharge time, which puts your valuable asset out of service. For trucks, the big win of having a robotruck is that it can drive 24 hours/day, you don't want to take that away by making it electric. This means you want to look into things like battery swap, or perhaps more simply tractor swap. In that case, a truck would pull in to a charging station and disconnect from its trailer, and another tractor that just recharged would grab on and keep it going.
I've been electric car shopping, but one thing has stood out as a big concern. Many electric cars are depreciating fast, and it may get even faster. I think part of this is due to the fact that electric cars are a bit more like electronics devices than they are cars. Electric cars will see major innovation in the next few years, as well as a decline in their price/performance of their batteries. This spells doom for their value. It's akin to cell phones -- your 2 year old cell phone still functions perfectly, but you dispose of it for a new one because of the pace of innovation.
Last week, I commented on the VW scandal and asked the question we have all wondered, "what the hell were they thinking?" Elements of an answer are starting to arise, and they are very believable and teach us interesting lessons, if true. That's because things like this are rarely fully to blame on a small group of very evil people, but are more often the result of a broad situation that pushed ordinary (but unethical) people well over the ethical line. This we must understand because frankly, it can happen to almost anybody.
The ingredients, in this model are:
- A hard driving culture of expected high performance, and doing what others thought was difficult or impossible.
- Promising the company you will deliver a hotly needed product in that culture.
- Realizing too late that you can't deliver it.
- Panic, leading to cheating as the only solution in which you survive (at least for a while.)
There's no question that VW has a culture like that. Many successful companies do, some even attribute their excellence to it. Here's a quote from the 90s from VW's leader at the time, talking about his desire for a hot new car line, and what would happen if his team told him that they could not delivery it:
"Then I will tell them they are all fired and I will bring in a new team," Piech, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, founder of both Porsche and Volkswagen, declared forcefully. "And if they tell me they can't do it, I will fire them, too."
Now we add a few more interesting ingredients, special to this case:
- European emissions standards and tests are terrible, and allowed diesel to grow very strong in Europe, and strong for VW in particular
- VW wanted to duplicate that success in the USA, which has much stronger emissions standards and tests
The team is asked to develop an engine that can deliver power and fuel economy for the US and other markets, and do it while meeting the emissions standards. The team (or its leader) says "yes," instead of saying, "That's really, really hard."
They get to work, and as has happened many times in many companies, they keep saying they are on track. Plans are made. Tons of new car models will depend on this engine. Massive marketing and production plans are made. Billions are bet.
And then it unravels
Not too many months before ship date, it is reported, the team working on the engine -- it is not yet known precisely who -- finally comes to a realization. They can't deliver. They certainly can't deliver on time, possibly they can actually never deliver for the price budget they have been given.
Now we see the situation in which ordinary people might be pushed over the line. If they don't deliver, the company has few choices. They might be able to put in a much more expensive engine, with all the cost such a switch would entail, and price their cars much more than they hoped, delivering them late. They could cancel all the many car models which were depending on this engine, costing billions. They could release a wimpy car that won't sell very well. In either of these cases, they are all fired, and their careers in the industry are probably over.
Or they can cheat and hope they won't get caught. They can be the heroes who delivered the magic engine, and get bonuses and rewards. 95% they don't get caught, and even if they are caught, it's worse, but not in their minds a lot worse than what they are facing. So they pretend they built the magic engine, and program it to fake that on the tests.
We know electric cars are getting better and likely to get popular even when driven by humans. Tesla, at its core, is a battery technology company as much as it's a car company, and it is sometimes joked that the $85,000 Telsa with a $40,000 battery is like buying a battery with a car wrapped around it. (It's also said that it's a computer with a car wrapped around it, but that's a better description of a robocar.) (Update: Since this article was written, the cost of the Tesla battery has dropped to closer to $20,000.)