The EV Is the Car of the Future, and It Might Always Be

There's a lot to consider with our supposed electric car future.

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Chevrolet

“Blockbuster dismissed Netflix and Kodak ignored digital film. GM should not do the same with EVs.” That’s what Forbes has to say about what they perceive as sluggishness in the General’s move to electric vehicles. It’s an impressive-sounding pair of analogies, to be sure, but I detect a bit of hindsight-related hubris, and more than a little bit of unconscious irony, in the assertion. Streaming video and digital photography are both vastly and organically popular with consumers because of their obvious advantages. Have you ever heard of a government subsidy, or tax rebate, associated with Netflix or the cellphone camera? Of course not. Nobody had to be bribed or browbeaten into choosing those products.

The electric vehicle as it currently exists, on the other hand, resembles nothing so much as the castor oil that parents of the Seventies forced down the throats of their children. This is good for you! Take it! Or else! Maybe a little bit of candy would help? Sure, the Tesla Model S is popular, but that has less to do with its technical merits than it does with its status as the only acceptable way to spend a hundred grand (or more) on a car in many of our more #Blessed communities. In that respect, it resembles nothing so much as a stainless-steel Rolex Daytona, which costs just as much as a solid gold Rolex Daytona because it’s no longer acceptable to wear a gold watch on Wall Street.

In the real world, however, electric vehicles are only slightly more popular than root canals. Scratch that; I had a root canal last month and while the pain was intense it lasted just a couple of hours. Having something like a Nissan Leaf as my primary mode of transportation would be considerably more miserable. Statistically nobody wants them and the only thing driving their sales and development is a sort of imperial decree on the part of our investor class that the proles out there need to stop rolling coal or driving to Grandma’s house or whatever it is that we do instead of taking the Gulfstream to Art Basel.

In that respect, the EV isn’t like Netflix as we now know it–it’s more like the company that designed and engineered the Netflix box in 2005. You don’t remember the Netflix box because it never made production, but the idea behind it was that you’d pay a lot of money for a computer that would download and store your Netflix videos. Fortunately for the investors, somebody at the company got a look at YouTube and realized that most people would be totally fine “streaming” to their own computers.

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Kodak’s Disc camera.
Getty Images

The EV also reminds me of the Kodak “disc” camera from 1982. This, too, was a top-down technological innovation that nobody really wanted. The disc camera was supposed to kill 110mm film. It did not kill that format, because the photos produced by disc cameras did not meet consumer expectations. It wasn’t a better mousetrap; it was a worse mousetrap that everybody was supposed to accept because it was, like, totally the future and stuff. Sound familiar?

Want another analogy? How about the Philips laserdisc? Or the Sony Digital 8 video camera? Or the Super Audio CD? You could even make an argument that the diesel automobile applies as a cautionary tale here: it takes significant government intervention to get most people interested in fuel-oil engines for anything smaller than an F-250.

I have no doubt that the “streaming video” (or VHS, or compact disc, or USB 3.0) of electric vehicles will eventually appear, although what we know about the physics of energy storage and recovery at the moment seems to indicate that even the best of EVs will always be a bit of a castor-oil moment for most people. It’s not that they can’t replace the one-ton trucks that some of my friends use to haul their race cars 700 miles each way with only minimal stops; it’s that they can’t even replace the half-ton trucks that some of my other friends use to drive 500-mile roundtrips to a BMX or mountain bike race. The lexicographer Samuel Johnson once quipped that “there is in London all that life can afford,” and I’m afraid that many of the people who are making billion-dollar decision in the auto business feel the same way about Manhattan or the Bay Area. A Nissan Leaf is hard to beat as a intra-borough runabout, but for the more than two million commuters who drive at least 100 miles each day, it’s a risky proposition, even before they decide to do something crazy like visit an amusement park in a neighboring state.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that there really is a magic bullet, or something close to it, in EV development. Let’s make the significantly less likely assumption that said silver bullet will be discovered by an automaker, rather than by a Korean battery company or a Chinese government lab. That will be a very lucky day for the automaker involved. Everybody else will be at least temporarily screwed, because their research will have been wasted money. Did Sony ever recover its investment in Betamax? How about Philips with the Laserdisc?

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

There are perhaps 20 automakers in the world big enough to make nontrivial EV investments, but six of them are are under the direction of the Chinese government which means that they will have to share any breakthrough between themselves. Counting them together leaves us with 15 unique entities. One will win the EV race and 14 will lose. Which means that every one of those automakers, including Ford and GM, is basically walking up to a roulette wheel and placing their life savings across two of the 36 numbers. If your grandmother told you she was going to make that bet at the Bellagio tomorrow, you’d have her committed to an institution.

Of course, it’s not just the placing of massive bets that identifies a gambling addict; it’s the borrowing from family and friends, the surreptitious and hurried sale of assets, and the abandonment of existing commitments. Gosh, doesn’t that sound a lot like what GM is doing right now? “It’s okay,” the addict says, “this next hand is going to be a winner, I can feel it.” Was the Volt a winner? Is the Bolt a winner? Allow me to ask the question that nobody in the industry feels confident enough to raise in public: Is there now, or has there ever been, a mass-market electric vehicle that turned an actual profit? If you respond by telling me that Tesla just declared a profit for the quarter, then I’ll ask you to come back when they do it four times in a row.

My heart goes out to the men and women who design and engineer the full-sized pickups sold by the Big Three. They never get a chance to blow $6 billion on fairytales. They never have the luxury of losing money for fourteen out of the past sixteen quarters. They have to deliver vehicles that sell something between 500,000 and one million units a year, every single one of them profitable, every single one of them providing employment and putting food on the table for tens of thousands of families.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret about EVs that isn’t a secret at all: they don’t work for the vast majority of American drivers, and it is possible that they never will. Good money is being thrown after bad here. Sure, in five or ten years you might be able to build and sell a vehicle that matches the price and performance of a gasoline-powered Honda Fit… when it is brand new. How will it do in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years? The next time you visit a restaurant, a retail store, or anywhere else that people don’t receive six-figure deferred-compensation packages, take a look at the cars out there. They are old, and they are tired, but they are still working. Will the electric cars of 2024 perform the same way in 2044? Or have we decided, as a society, that the working poor can walk to that work?

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The Rivian R1T pickup
Rivian

Even if the electric car of the future can match the Honda Fit’s cost/performance balance sheet, it won’t be able to match the capability of something like a Honda Pilot, to say nothing of an F-150 or Dodge Ram. The new Rivian electric truck costs more than a PowerStroke F-250 Lariat and it delivers the approximate capability of a V6 Chevy Colorado that you gas up using a coffee straw and a sundial. And it’s two years away from production. Maybe. If the stars align.

I’m sympathetic to the techno-fetishism that drives electric-vehicle hysteria. I convinced my father to buy me an Atari 800 way back in 1981, when it cost the equivalent of $3,000 today and had precisely no usefulness other than entertainment value. I’ve been an early adopter of many ridiculous technologies over the past 30 years. Last but not least, it has been my privilege to administer and operate some truly astounding pieces of futuristic junk.

Way back in the year 1999, I took a gig that involved running a pair of Sun “Starfire” Enterprise 10K boxes. They cost $1.5 million each. I was thrilled beyond words at the awesome responsibility that awaited me. On my first day at the company, it was explained to me that only one of the Starfires was actually connected to our network. The other one was in a glass atrium where the investors could see it. You see, nobody on the tech side wanted the things. They’d been forced on us by the people who put up the money, because those people liked the idea of seven-figure computers. So from time to time, I was required to walk in and tend the machine while the nine-figure-net-worth “angels” oohed and aahed from the other side of the glass. I would perform various party tricks–look! You can take it apart without turning it off!–but never was I questioned about what the machine did. The function was secondary to the form COUGH CHEVY BOLT COUGH.

In 2002, as the firm collapsed into its debt like a star becoming a brown dwarf, the two Starfires were sold to a tech-reclamation firm for pennies on the hundred-dollar bill. The tasks previously performed by the unit that actually ran were moved to a $27,000 box about the size of a dishwasher. Nobody ever noticed the difference. I’d like to think that I learned a lesson back then: you can’t force the adoption of technology, you can’t bully the adoption of technology, you can’t simply wave your aristocratic hand and decree the shape of the future.

Electric cars may be the future, but actually they are old tech. City-dwellers used battery-powered EVs to silently roll the streets beginning in the late 1800s. These old-timey electic cars were slow, though, and couldn't match the advantages of internal combustion. And so for the most part, electric vehicles petered out for a century.

 
 Then, in 1991, GM launched the fully electric EV1. This car looked and drove like the future, but it wasn't without faults. The EV1 had long charge times, and though it promised 70-90 miles on a charge, Popular Mechanics' own real-world testing at the time saw ranges closer to 50-60 miles. The EV1s were all leased vehicles and famously crushed upon their return to GM, and to some it seemed like the EV resurgance was crused along with them. But it was the pioneering efforts of GM and others, along with advancements in battery technology, that set the stage for the EV revolution that began a decade later. You've heard all about Tesla, no doubt, but the more established car companies are taking EVs more seriously than ever. GM's new brainchild is the Bolt, an affordable car that delivers nearly 240 miles on a single charge.
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Today, in 2018, the old $1 million showboat monoliths from Sun, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard have been replaced by low-cost “pizza boxes” tucked out of sight in low-cost data centers. In order to have a real future, the electric vehicle needs to take a form more like today’s pizza boxes and less like the massive 64-processor idols of 1999. It has to be cheap, it has to be commoditized, and it has to be able to at least vaguely approach the performance of fossil-fueled vehicles in the real world. I can’t tell you how it will get there, but I can tell you how it won’t get there: by making the equivalent of a $6 billion disc camera. The automakers should calm down and focus on making good cars today. As for the business press, they should learn the true lesson of Netflix. It isn’t that you should throw billions of dollars into a shredder. It’s this: sometimes, we all just need to take a moment and chill.

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