Avoidable Contact #132: A gym that collapsed on 9/12, and how to get decent people interested in electric cars
Strictly speaking, my dreams of designing and building the world’s greatest computers for retail sale were crushed, not on September 11th of 2001, but on the day afterwards. And they were crushed not by a terror attack but rather by a dozen exercise bicycles falling from a great height. Hold on; I’m getting ahead of myself already. Let’s take a moment to discuss the Mercedes-Benz EQS electric vehicle, and why you’re absolutely not permitted to open the hood, no matter what. Then we can come back to my tech-kingpin tragedy.
The Internet is very upset that M-B doesn’t want owners to open the hoods on their EQSes, going so far as to hide the hood latch behind a removable modesty panel. When contacted for comment, the nice people at Mercedes apparently replied with something along the lines of “it’s an EV, there’s no engine there, all we have under the hood is a HEPA filter, and in any event there are no user-serviceable parts inside the EQS, everything must be done by the dealer.” This is a great example of what pundits call “saying the quiet part out loud,” and it was a tremendous narcissistic injury to some of the EQS owners out there. How dare they make it obvious to everyone that “ownership” of an EQS really just amounts to paying a tremendous amount of money so you can borrow it from a dealer in-between obscure and highly secretive servicing episodes?
Not that Mercedes-Benz is particularly ahead of the curve here. The automakers have spent at least a decade drooling over the control that most tech firms have over their customers. Look at Apple. They have their products made in Chinese factories for pennies on the dollar, then those products are sold at a fixed retail price to “owners” who are entirely subservient to Apple in everything from what software they’re allowed to install on the phone to how long the phone may be used before a “software update” renders it a paperweight. And the penalty for treating their customers like Ving Rhames stuck in the Pulp Fiction basement? A valuation of three trillion dollars. Three trillion. For a company that has less manufacturing capacity than it had in 1991 — scratch that, less manufacturing capacity than it had in 1981, when the Apple ][+ was made in California. Apple doesn’t make anything. It’s little more than a conduit between a Chinese company called Foxconn and the Apple Stores. What makes it worth three trillion dollars? The control it has over their customers.
Both Winston Churchill and Rahm Emanuel are credited with saying “You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” and so the automakers have embraced today’s catastrophic EV mandates as a excuse to replicate Apple’s business model from soup to nuts. While the EQS is assembled in Germany, it contains quite a few Chinese parts — and starting next year, the batteries for most Mercedes EV products will be sourced from China. Eighty percent of Benzes sold in China are also made there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the company gradually transition overall electric production out of Europe into China over the next few years.
That’s the outsourcing part covered. The next part is the control part, and it’s obvious that the automakers are using the EV transition as an excuse to crank that up as well. Citing the “complexity” and “risk” of electric vehicles, they’re doing everything possible to ensure that all service takes place at the dealer, and that the vehicle relies on an Internet connection to the manufacturer in order to operate correctly. In some cases, that Internet connection can deliberately disable the vehicle—heck, sometimes it does it accidentally, just put “Tesla” and “bricked” into your DuckDuckGo window to learn more!
Is there another way? Yes there is, and it’s what I was a small part of twenty-one years ago. At the time, I was running a web-hosting co-op using the Debian GNU/Linux operating system. The defining characteristic of Debian is that it is built from “Free Software.” A huge oversimplification of “Free Software” is that you can do whatever you want with it. Do you want to rewrite the “ls” program, which lists files in a directory, so it lists them in reverse alphabetical order? You have free access to the original source code of the program, you are free to rewrite it, and you are free to pass along your rewritten version to other people.
So if the Apple iOS operating system is a Mercedes EQS—no looking under the hood, you don’t have the right to repair or even touch what’s there—then Debian is like buying a kit car where you are free to change anything you want. You’re even free to make your own kit, based on the kit you just bought, and sell that to other people! It’s the hot-rodder’s operating system. (One of them, anyway.)
Late in 2000, I became aware of a group of people who were trying to do in hardware what Debian was doing in software. Their plan was to build a computer called the “Spindletop Blackbird” using components that they would source from various suppliers. What made them different from Dell or Packard Bell was that the design of the computer would be completely open. So you could buy a Blackbird from them, or you could order your own Blackbird from the various suppliers and assemble it, or you could do something in-between. You were also free to set up your own company to make and sell Blackbirds based on the Spindletop published specs.
The Spindletop founders believed that their actions would kick-start a whole industry of small computer builders using this “free hardware” with “free software.” I went to Cambridge, where the company operated in the shadow of (and with some assistance from) MIT, I met the founders, and we agreed to work together from then on. I was excited. I thought we would change the world, just like the lovely, and recently chastised, Elizabeth Holmes.
Let’s jump back to the present day and discuss the dirty little secret of EVs: from a modern perspective, they are simpler than internal combustion vehicles. They have a lot more software in them, but this is an age where most young people can do at least a bit of programming. My twelve-year-old son can’t run a table saw or a MIG welder, but he can write a half-decent simple video game in an afternoon’s worth of effort.
We often hear about how EVs will be favored by the “hot-rodders” of tomorrow. In order for that to happen, however, there needs to be a source for EV parts outside the major manufacturers, all of whom are trying desperately to exercise Apple-style command and control over their buyers. What’s required is a Spindletop EV, a basic car that you can buy and assemble using parts from various suppliers. You get a “skateboard” from one factory in China, and the batteries from a Korean supplier, and the motors from Italy, and the controllers from Taiwan, and then you use some “glue code” to make it all work.
Such an approach was nominally tried by a firm called Local Motors a while back with off-road vehicles powered by GM V-8s, but it was definitely aimed at the well-heeled among us. Some of you will also be aware of EV West, which offers high-dollar motors, batteries, and controllers for people who are converting classics to electric power. This new project would be very lowbrow in contrast, closer to the homebrew electric scooter scene that is gaining popularity among young enthusiasts. A firm like Spindletop would do some due diligence, figuring out which parts worked with each other, and then you could either buy from them or try it yourself.
The mere presence of such a firm that could set basic standards for inter-operation of parts would encourage a lot of suppliers to get into the action. You’d have a few common standards for how parts bolt up to and “talk” to each other. Builders would lay out their future cars in a Web-based program that would then provide a list of required parts and materials. It would be the Zoomer equivalent of building a ’32 Ford from a kit, adding a few personal touches along the way. Heck, there might even be some overlap; imagine if there was a website that explained exactly what you’d need to make an electric version of this ’32 kit coupe!
Some of you old-school hot-rodders will scoff at this. You’ll point out that there was a lot more skill and artistry involved in building a flathead racer back in the day. I won’t disagree—but I’ll also note that most of you had access to a lot more infrastructure and help than today’s Zoomers have. Fifty years ago, most people knew where to find a local machine shop, a local engine shop, a local painter, a local upholsterer … the list goes on. Most of those businesses have long since closed up. We’ve also transitioned from an economy in which most people worked forty hours a week before coming home to usable garages and shops to one in which many people are putting in sixty to eighty hours a week across multiple “McJobs” before falling asleep in an apartment or condo. Any future enthusiast scene will have to require a lot less time, uncertainty, and machine-shop work if it’s going to succeed.
Last but certainly not least, the presence of all these home-brew EVs out on the street should embarrass the major manufacturers into being a little less totalitarian with their own products, the same way the presence of Debian and other “open source” operating systems made it impossible for Microsoft to indulge their worst instincts with the Windows NT and 2000 server operating systems. Imagine if you could scratch your EV itch (or satisfy your local tyrant’s EV mandate) with a community-sourced $20,000 EV built just the way you want it. Suddenly the Tesla Model 3 and Mustang Mach-E don’t seem like quite as much of a bargain.
Not everyone will like this idea. In addition to the automakers who are not eager to see their own oxen gored, there are all the people out there who detest personal vehicle ownership of any kind and who are attempting to use the EV crisis as an excuse to fashion an entirely new infrastructure in which you will not be able to have your own car. Instead, you’ll purchase “Mobility as a Service,” or MaaS, from a small group of collaborators. A lot of folks are excited about this potential future, because it offers the proverbial late-stage capitalism worst of all worlds: you have no private ownership or autonomy, you can be milked perpetually for as much revenue as the MaaS providers want, and the whole thing can be turned off on a whim if the government would like to calm things down for a while.
Needless to say, I am not one of the people who is charmed by a future in which corporations and governments collaborate to measure, meter, surveil, and record the movements of EV owners. Therefore, should an EV co-op or Spindletop-style firm appear at some point in the future, I’ll do my best to support it, even though I’d rather chew glass than drive an EV on a consistent basis. Should I try to start such an organization myself? I think I’ll leave that for the people who are in their twenties and thirties, like the Spindletop lads and I were back in the year 2000.
Which brings me to what Paul Harvey calls “the rest of the story”: On September 11, 2001, the residents of a Cambridge, MA fitness center ran out in a panic, leaving various sources of water running and unobserved. In the hours that followed, the building became increasingly waterlogged and rotten. Some time on September 12, the floor collapsed and a dozen or so exercise bikes fell ten feet into the basement office that held Spindletop’s nascent operation. Everything the bikes didn’t destroy was ruined by the thousands of gallons of water that flooded the office in the wake of the falling equipment.
On September 13, the operators of Spindletop realized that they had lost everything. Being young men with outstanding resumes, they were quickly snapped up by the major computer makers. I believe they all went on to be quite wealthy. As for your humble author, I took the money that I’d been prepared to put into our venture and put it instead into a 1995 Porsche 911 in Grand Prix White with factory matched wheels. As an investment, it hasn’t been quite as good as, say, Apple stock. But I’ve enjoyed the freedom that I’ve had behind its nondescript grey leather wheel over the years, and I’d like for the next generation to experience something similar. That’s one of my personal and cherished fantasies, one I hope is harder to crush than my dream of twenty-one years ago.