By Jerry Mooney
We have seen telephone technology go from wall-mounted, wood-housed crank apparatuses that interfaced with an operator at a switchboard to hand-held computers that access the entirety of human knowledge in a device smaller than a deck of cards.
Meanwhile, over that same timespan, automobile technology has remained surprisingly static. I don’t mean the failed promise of flying Jetsons-like cars. What I am underwhelmed by is the small advances that have been made regarding fuel efficiency and pollution.
In the 70s the United States began experiencing oil shocks, and a Saudi oil embargo, which, eventually coupled with the Iran hostage crisis and caused Americans to begin fuel efficiency consciousness. Until then, fuel efficiency was not an American concern, so the slow improvements up to that point were understandable.
The rise in awareness caused Congress to pass the CAFE(Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards in 1975, which the automakers resisted at every step. You might think these standards were extreme and threatening to the auto industry considering the testimony before the 1974 Senate, a Ford representative said that the CAFE standards would “require the Ford product to consist of all sub-Pinto sized vehicles”. This didn’t happen. In fact, the post CAFE automobile world looked a great deal like the pre-CAFE world. There were some small and insincere forays into electric cars and demand for more fuel efficient foreign cars began to take hold.
Since the CAFE standards went into effect four decades ago, average fuel efficiency crawled upwards. In 1975 the average car’s miles per gallon (MPG) was about thirteen. In 2014 we celebrated reaching an average of twenty four MPG. So an eleven MPG improvement over nearly four decades. That breaks down to .275 MPG average increase per year.
There is no way that this snail-like pace is organic. You would think that real competition among automakers would cause the industry to innovate and improve with strides like we’ve seen in technology. With the most profitable industry in the history of humankind being the oil industry, it’s no wonder they have been able to influence how we regulate fuel consumption. Their domestic lobby, The American Petroleum Institute, which represents four hundred companies, puts constant pressure on the government and the automakers to keep efficiency standards low. In 2013 oil companies spent nearly $145 million dollars lobbying lawmakers in the US to keep regulation friendly to their endeavours.
These companies and this lobby are so large, rich and powerful there is a sense that the planet is doomed by their sociopathic greed. They influence the development (or lack thereof) of mass-transit, alternative energy, pollution standards, fuel efficiency, regulation and oversight, car innovation as well as corporate tax policy.
If this claim seems too cynical to be real, read this piece on how Exxon not only knew global warming is real and threatening, but they used this advanced knowledge provided by their internal scientists to get permits in previous tundra covered land for future exploitation. They knew the melting ice would recede and make new land available for exploitation. In a preemptive move, they created a disinformation campaign, then they exploited the truth they were denying. This is a special level of evil.
Part of the frustration with hoping for real change within these established industries is that they have very little incentive. And if you can’t lose, why change?
But this piece is not about the intransigent, over-reaching tentacles of an antiquated industry that puts the kibosh on real and effective progress. It is about how these frustrating forces are now, remarkably, facing massive disruption.
Considering everything mentioned above plus the EPA, Greenpeace and every environmental and consumer advocate group in the world have had little impact on the energy behemoths, it is incredible to learn of Elon Musk and his endeavors. But like the dinosaurs, who ironically created the fuels for these corporate giants, the fossil fuel industry may be facing a sudden, meteoric demise. It’s a bit early to prognosticate big oil becoming the next monster to vanish into obsolescence, but a highly disruptive force has entered the scene.
Although I was loosely aware that a company called Tesla existed and that it was producing modernized electric cars, until recently I had virtually no knowledge of the innovative maverick that is behind the company or how he is doing more than making fancy electric cars, much more!
First of all, the idea of a high tech, high performance, sexy electric car is great. The Tesla cars smash the perception that electric cars are essentially golf carts with windshields. Teslas are designed to compete in the marketplace regardless of their fuel sources. They are fast (0-60 in 3ish seconds), high tech (Including a 17 inch dash-mounted touchscreen computer), safe (five star safety rating in all categories), with amazing design, and cutting edge features that can go hundreds of miles on a full charge.
But again, this piece is not about the cars. This piece is about the disruptive genius behind the cars. By creating high performance electric cars, Elon Musk has, first of all, shown the world that it can be done. By doing this, collectively, people begin to accept ideas as not merely theoretical.
Secondly, Musk did the unthinkable in our capitalist world. He made all of the patents open source. That means anybody, any company, in any country can use the patents without copyright infringement. Although this radical concept has given stockholders pause, it means that when other companies get on board with the concept, they can dramatically accelerate their research and development phase and proceed to production. An example of this is in production as the Chinese company Ranger X has already created a complete knock-off of the Tesla S. And we’ve seen what happens when China enters the marketplace with Alibaba. They accelerate normal market tendencies by virtue of their human wave and the autocratic process of decision making. Even though it’s becoming less and less desirable to outsource to China, China still has the capability to mass create.
Even if this car never competes head-to-head with Tesla in the open market, simply providing the option for an emerging and enormous Chinese car market to bypass the polluting and oil burning cars will have a significant impact on the environment.
Of course, the Chinese company will not be the only one to take advantage of these patents. Mercedes Benz created a joint venture with Tesla to take fast track engineering of Tesla’s superior technological advancements and get their version of the electric car to market. By doing this, Elon Musk and Tesla are not solely responsible for shouldering the transformation of the world.
So I found this electric car stuff to be inspirational in and of itself. It sticks it to the behemoth oil companies and auto industries, but there is more. When I was originally thinking about the electric car I had some pessimism because even though it’s not oil, electricity still comes from sources like coal and dams. These are not pristine by any measure.
As I dug further, though, I found that Musk is creating superior solutions for electricity as well. An invention that may have an even larger effect on energy and pollution is Tesla’s Powerwall. Although this doesn’t get as much ink as the cars do, this advancement in battery technology is just as important and goes hand-in-hand.
The Powerwall does a few things that are significant to the disruption of how we use energy and create pollution. First of all, this is a wall-mounted battery that can be easily placed in the garage or tucked away in a closet. More importantly, it can smartcharge. What this means is that it will charge during off-peak hours, when electricity from the grid is cheapest and demands on the grid are lowest and store the electricity to be used during peak hours.
That’s pretty cool. But when it is combined with solar panels it makes the electric car more amazing and solar panels more viable. Solar power is a great idea, but the panels only collect sunshine during the day (I know, duh!). During the day is also when electric power is the least important (again, duh!). The Powerwall allows you to store solar power, collected during the day and then use it at night. This could reduce your need for electricity beyond solar to zero. These Powerwalls are scalable, so you can store enough electricity to power a large house with lots of devices and appliances and, yes, your electric car.
Although the consumer market for Powerwalls is a significant step in reducing our use of fossil fuels, Tesla is manufacturing Powerpacks, a gigawatt version of the Powerwall for business use. These are infinitely scalable, so you can get as much or as little as you need and power you business with smarter, emissions free, cheaper energy. From a purely business standpoint, this might be an even greater commodity than Tesla’s cars. Imagine thousands of large business, who use immense amounts of energy running their companies, who don’t even care about environmental issues, converting to solar and Powerpacks because of the economics of it. This would truly disrupt the world’s energy consumption model.
The question then becomes, what if we really do start driving electric cars en masse and demanding solar power, can we accommodate the need for batteries and solar panels? It’s almost as if someone asked who wants to save the world and Elon Musk bounced up and down on his tippy toes with his arm fully extended, screeching, “Pick me! Pick me!”
Of course he has the help of the armies of people he employs and the businesses he creates joint ventures with, but he’s not afraid to simply create what he needs, regardless of outside support or projected profit. Tesla is currently in the process of building a Gigafactory. The Gigafactory will be up and creating lithium-ion batteries to fulfill the needs of world moving away from fossil fuels. Once operational, the Gigafactory will produce high-tech batteries to supply the needs of the electric cars, as well as Powerwalls and Powerpacks and at a pace that will exceed all of the current factories that produce lithium-ion batteries worldwide, combined. Additionally, the Gigafactory is completely fueled by renewable energy. It is positioned in Sparks, Nevada specifically to take advantage of the geothermal heat from the ground as well as the amount of peak sunlight hours that will be collected with it’s massive solar roof, producing not only batteries at zero emissions, but the example that it can be done.
Additionally, Musk aided and funded his cousins’ creation of Solarcity in Modesto, California to ramp up the production of solar equipment to meet the expanding demands and lower the cost through economies of scale. They just built an additional Solarcity in Buffalo, New York, which is even larger and will continue to accelerate the conversion to solar power.
Okay, so now you have your solar panels charging your Powerwall, which is charging your Tesla car, great. What do you do if you want to go on a trip? These cars go 250 miles or so on a charge. Tesla has also created an infrastructure of charging stations called the Supercharger. As you can see from the map embedded in the link, you might have some challenges crossing Nebraska at the moment, but these stations were all created by Tesla to support drivers. You are not tethered to your home just because you might own an electric car. Unlike a gas station, these charging stations are free for Tesla cars and can charge your car in minutes. They are also in constant construction. Next year, that trip across Nebraska will be less challenging. This isn’t just an American service either. There is aggressive installation in Europe and Asia too. By thinking ahead and creating the Powerwalls and Supercharger stations, Musk has removed consumer fears of choosing an electric car.
Musk’s innovations have taken us from a place where we all felt like solar was great in theory, but when would it become practical? Who was going to make these technologies economically viable? As most of us sat around waiting for the major car companies and utilities to do this, Musk grew impatient, put on his superhero outfit and said, follow me.
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license
Jerry Mooney is co-founder and managing editor of Zenruption and the author of History Yoghurt and the Moon. He studied at the University of Munich and Lewis and Clark College where he received his BA in International Affairs and West European Studies. He has recently taught Language and Communications at a small, private college and owned various businesses, including an investment company that made him a millionaire before the age of 40. Jerry is committed to zenrupting the forces that block social, political and economic justice. He can also be found on Twitter@JerryMooney