Avoidable Contact #93: What if you held a mandatory EV party and nobody came?
Start with this: Moore’s Law was never a law. It wasn’t even a theory. Didn’t even make it to hypothesis grade. This is what it was: bunk.
If you’ve never heard of Moore’s Law, no worries. We’ll get back to it in a moment. For now, let’s go to the news: Last week, according to my sources, the nice people at Genesis Motors formally notified their dealers that there would be no new “ICE”—meaning internal combustion engine—Genesis vehicles in the future. Everything you see in their showroom, including the charming G90 grown-and-sexy sedan, is the last of its kind. All electric from here on out.
This notification, following nicely on the heels of Cadillac’s similar pronouncement, definitely smacks of follow-the-leader thinking. The “leaders” in this case are all the government mandarins and mountebanks who have implemented drop-deadlines to abolish the “ICE” at some point in time that is always beyond the limits of their current term.
The automakers are actually egging the feds on here; two years ago, they met with President Trump and begged him to make sure the CAFE requirements kept climbing to the point where it would eventually be impossible to make gas-powered vehicles.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s simple: Electric Vehicles (EVs) are somewhere between toys and trash, a situation that will continue for the foreseeable future. So the whole auto industry is currently engaged in a trillion-dollar Prisoner’s Dilemma that goes something like this:
0. If none of the automakers go electric, the government will presumably go nuts.
1. If all of the automakers go electric, the consumers will go nuts.
2. But if most of the automakers go electric and a few don’t, the few holdouts will likely experience tremendous market gains and profitability as a consequence, while the electric sheep get SHEARED.
An executive like DeLorean, Ghosn, Lutz, or Piëch would roll the dice on that third scenario, but we don’t have that kind of courage in CEO chairs anymore. So the automakers are begging the government to make EVs mandatory, thus preventing a scenario where GM spends nine quadzillion dollars on a profoundly misery-inducing EV Silverado 1500 with a minimum MSRP of $49,999 only to find out that Stellantis is releasing the “RAM Tradesman Hellcat Quad Cab” at the same price. In the ideal automaker scenario, ICE cars are universally illegal to sell from 2035 on, thus freeing everyone to bet the whole farm on EV production.
This scenario, of course, is dependent on EVs somehow managing to transcend the toys-or-trash status they currently enjoy. Everyone assumes this will happen, even though they have no precise idea how. Just like they all counted on Moore’s Law.
What is Moore’s Law? Why, it’s the assertion that computer processors double in transistor count, and therefore power, every two years. This was kinda-sorta true for a long time, largely for marketing reasons. In other words, every so often someone would make a major improvement in CPU production, and then the marketing team would dole out the results over time. There came a day, however, where it no longer applied, because there was no clear path to the next required technological breakthrough.
This is why my 2016-era laptop still runs modern computer games pretty well, and why many companies have extended the lifespan of employee computers to somewhere between “three years” and “when it can’t be fixed.” It also means that the computer-hardware industry will be facing hard times until it comes up with the next processor-manufacturing breakthrough. Intel, in particular, has thrown up its hands on the whole matter, deciding to outsource future processor development to Taiwan. So if you’re waiting impatiently on a terahertz computer, you’re going to have to keep waiting for a while.
The big logjam for EV progress, of course, isn’t really computer-related. Pretty much everyone understands how to make an EV work now, even the second-tier automakers, although certain refinements like effective traction control and HVAC are still largely honored in the breach rather than the observance. The real problem is in the charging and discharging. EVs are slow to charge and inefficient when they discharge. Currently, the best charging/storage systems offer “1000 miles an hour,” which is a way of saying you could charge 1000 miles’ worth of range in an hour, if any of the EVs out there could actually go 1000 miles between charges, which they cannot. Call it “400 miles in less than half an hour.”
An F-350 Super Duty Diesel can “charge” four hundred miles’ worth of range in … oh … let’s say the pump is running slow today … three minutes. (If you want to wait a minute or two longer, you could fill all 48 gallons and run for 700 miles, of course.) My 2014 Honda Accord can charge 400 miles of range so fast I don’t have time to get all the McDonalds’ bags out of the back seat. Largely because it gets about 31 mpg in freeway usage now, up from the 29.5 mpg it got 87,500 miles ago. I mention this because electric vehicles have battery degradation built into the design. The best retain maybe 90 percent after a few years, while the worst retain less than half. You can replace the packs, of course —at five-figure cost. If you’ve ever owned a water-cooled Porsche, the idea of dropping $20K on a motivation swap won’t discourage you tremendously. The average motorist may feel differently.
The price of batteries is dropping, and their range is increasing, but you need to understand that there is nothing inevitable about it. The batteries of 2035 might offer an energy density and recharge time similar to that of an “ICE” car. Or they might not. We have literally no way to know. Anybody who says “OMG SHUT UP ABOUT THAT, SCIENCE WILL HANDLE IT” has never personally done, or even witnessed, any science that didn’t have “social” as part of its name.
Current battery tech, which uses liquids, is basically exhausted. We’re on detail improvements now; there are no “doublings” left. The next generation is a gel battery, with the highest performance found in lithium-polymer (LiPo) types. You don’t want these in your car; they burst into flames when you look at them wrong. The promised-land tech for batteries is a solid-state version with neither liquid nor gel, likely using some kind of carbon structure. This would result in batteries that are much lighter, much faster to charge, and much more energy-dense than what we have now. It would also address the extremely inconvenient fact that today’s batteries rely on materials that are either rare or harvested in the kind of hellish conditions that would make Dante blush. (Let’s not even get started on the stuff you need to make electric motors, or the way in which the market for that stuff has been largely cornered by a country that is very much not the United States.)
Toyota has a solid-state battery coming, but it uses lithium, which is not necessarily any less precious in the long run than crude oil. Volkswagen has an investment into a better solid-state battery, but it’s still in the lab. How worrisome is this? Let me rank the difficulty of a few different tech dreams for you, starting with the ones that will happen sans any major innovation and ending with the ones that need a miracle:
- Solve the world’s freshwater problem via desalination: We know how to do it, but it is energy-intensive and requires tremendous capital investment.
- Large-scale carbon capture, reversing the greenhouse effect: We know how to do it in theory, but the practice may prove to be difficult due to the interaction of energy and scale.
- Battery-powered vehicles that work like gas-powered ones: The theory is sound, but the construction of batteries meeting the requirements will require a few technical advances that are known but unaccomplished, plus a few that are unknown and unaccomplished.
- Fully autonomous vehicles: This requires something very close to “strong AI,” which is currently not possible with any reasonably likely processor pathway, and it requires us to understand processes that model consciousness, from which we are just as far away as when Isaac Asimov wrote Foundation and the TV was showing Lost In Space.
- Faster-than-light space travel: All the available data seems to suggest that it is literally impossible, no matter how much energy and tech you put into it.
So effective EVs are less likely than clean water for the whole world, but more likely than “Warp Factor 9, Mr. Scott!” I don’t know if you’ll be encouraged or discouraged by this. No doubt some of my colleagues without any technical background will break their necks pointing out that “OMG THERE ARE ALL THESE SCIENTISTS WORKING ON IT WHO KNOW MORE THAN YOU DO!” This was also true of everything from “remote viewing” at the CIA to flying cars, with a dollop of Chrysler Turbine on the side. There’s a very long list of technologies that have attracted considerable and distinguished effort while going precisely nowhere, and many of them are more plausible in theory than the three-minutes-to-full EV battery. Let’s not even get into the whole nanotech scam. Twenty years ago, hundreds of respected scientists assured us that we would soon have “molecular assemblers.” In reality, chances are that the only “nanotech” you’ve ever encountered in the wild has something to do with car wax.
The future of 2035, therefore, can go one of two ways. In Scenario Ideal, the solid-state battery breakthrough happens on time, on schedule, and under budget. Tomorrow’s cars are just like today’s, except they use the clean, pure energy provided by your local coal-burning power plant. All the automakers survive. There’s a managed draw-down of the gasoline infrastructure in which gas stations gradually become charging islands, offering both services until at least 2046 because the average car on the American road is 11 years old. By 2055 or so, the “ICE car” will go the way of the horse, which is to say that rich folks will still race them and children will still dream of them, but you won’t see them on Main Street.
If that happens, then every mindless idiot in American industry and government will have been saved from auto-petard-hoisting via a near-magic tech intervention, the same way we all stopped worrying about feeding the world when someone figured out how to turn natural gas into fertilizer. That would be nice. Everyone’s counting on it. What if it doesn’t happen?
In The Other Scenario, the promised battery improvements do not arrive. Instead, we get maybe a safer and more efficient gel battery, or something like that. The cost of EVs is still 25 percent higher, at minimum, than the cost of ICE equivalents. Charging takes 15–20 minutes for 500 miles, assuming you can afford the 500-mile version of the car. Winter is a problem, serious winters doubly so. There’s a significant and perhaps unpredictable decline of battery performance over time, making used cars basically worthless in the long run. (Remember, the average car is 11 years old, an age at which a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt is not all that distinguishable from a macro-scale paperweight.) The service infrastructure is a nightmare, because there are several different battery technologies in production.
At that point, my friend, you’re going to see the cockroaches scatter.
If I had to guess, I will say the inflection point will be in 2030. The automakers generally like to work five years ahead on serious stuff, particularly serious stuff that requires major changes in assembly techniques. If the Magic Batteries aren’t performing to production spec by then, it will be hard to design functioning vehicles and production processes around them. The first automaker to publicly panic about this will be roundly pilloried by the unified messaging of today’s mass media. The second one will get less attention. And so on.
I’d like to tell you that cooler heads will prevail at that point and we’ll continue with a gasoline-powered fleet, perhaps at a 35–40-mpg CAFE, but as this process drags on I’m starting to believe that some people in positions of power consider the potential incompetence of 2035’s EV fleet to be a feature, not a bug. In other words, they would be more than happy with a world in which you really couldn’t travel more than a few hundred miles without some serious pre-planned effort. I believe Frank Herbert put some words to this effect in the mouth of Leto II, but I can’t be troubled to look them up. Maybe you can.
History tells us that the reaction to such a deliberate curtailment of human freedom would be pretty negative, to put it mildly, but some of these folks think they have O’Brien’s ability to float off the floor like a soap bubble. In fact, pretty much all of them exist in a perpetual kind of Year Zero. And who can blame them for feeling that way about the private automobile? They’d just be rectifying a relatively short-lived minor error made by one Henry Ford when he turned the Model T into the decisive tool of American freedom. And didn’t Henry tell us himself that history, much like Moore’s Law, is just bunk?