Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Electric Game Changer

One reader of this posting will recognize himself. We worked together in the investment business in the '90s, and he'll remember one of my mottos, which was to look for products and trends that would change your life.

There were some life-changers in the 1990s and this decade. Falling interest rates and budget surpluses during the Clinton years, laparascopic surgery, cellphones, Microsoft Windows, video gaming, visual computing (think "You Tube"), broadband, the convergence of computers and communication (think "the Internet"). All of these things have had major impacts on people's lives, and those who saw them early made a pile of money.

I see another life-changer coming soon: the electric car.

I've been interested in them for quite a while. A couple years ago, I drove to the middle of Oregon to look at someone's converted Ford Ranger pickup truck with a useable range of 25 miles on a charge. It was a long drive and a friendly conversation, but the vehicle wasn't reliable enough to justify the purchase. I wonder if the seller ever thinks about the guy who drove 300 miles from Seattle, didn't buy his truck, and advised him to pay off any debts because we were heading into a real estate crash and depression.

The reliability issue is about to be solved, and usable range will be extended to 100 miles. The vehicle is the Nissan Leaf, a subcompact that looks a lot like a Toyota Yaris or a Honda Fit. The main difference is that is doesn't have a gas engine. It's not a hybrid, but a pure electric car.

I saw one on display in Seattle last weekend. Nissan says they'll start selling them here at the end of next year. I hope to be among the first retail customers. Right about the same time, Chevrolet will introduce the Volt, a hybrid that will get 40 miles on a charge, with batteries then replenished by a small gas generator on board. A bunch of other real car companies have said they'll be introducing electric vehicles in 2011 and 2012.

Not All Electrons Are Created Equal

I've never been much of a believer in the current generation of hybrids like the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion. They get 40 to 50 miles per gallon, a level of economy that I regard as trivial. Plug-in vehicles are in a different category, especially the all-electric models.

Nissan's forthcoming Leaf will be accompanied in the Puget Sound area by charging stations that, in 25 minutes, can recharge the car to 80% of capacity. At home, it'll fully recharge overnight on a 220-volt circuit. In the winter, with the heat on, the range will be 70 miles. In summer, with the A/C blasting, it'll be 80 miles. For all-city driving, the range will be 10% higher. The car will cost about $30,000 including the battery.

The average American motorist drives 28 miles a day. Give that person an electric car with a 100-mile range, and you've eliminated his gas consumption, period. That's the game changer. Before very long, you'll have a whole group of drivers who don't use any gasoline at all.

And remember, this is only the beginning. Once these things get up and running, we're going to see rapid improvement in battery technology. Performance will improve and costs will decline. Electric propulsion systems are inherently simpler and cheaper than gas. The guts of the new all-electric cars are going to ride a cost and performance curve that will look an awful lot like personal computers. I bought my first new computer in 1990 for $3,000. Today, I can get a much better one for $600.

(Incidentally, I've never been any kind of fan of the Tesla Roadster, a criminally overhyped converted Lotus Elise produced in small batches by a Silicon Valley boutique. I have been waiting for car companies to get into this game. Nissan and GM, and the next set of entrants, are car companies. Unlike Tesla, a car company -- even GM -- won't deliver a vehicle without working brakes and a range of one-fifth the claimed level, two years late and 20% more costly than expected, at a loss of $40,000 per unit.)

The Implications of the Shift

Oil companies are not going to like this very much at all. Demand for their product is stagnant due to the current economic depression, and commodity prices are always set on the margin. I expect to see much lower gas prices within the coming decade, as demand begins falling. By 2030 or so, gas consumption in the U.S. is going to decline by 75%. Just wait.

The coal companies, on the other hand, will probably do well, because those cars will need electrons. An intelligent government would be racing to erect windmills to supply the new power -- windspeeds are higher at night, when those vehicles will be recharging, and the U.S. is chock full of windy spots. But the reality is different: We live in a deeply corrupt country, and Big Coal will use its influence to block meaningful investment in alternative power generation. There will be a few prominent wind demonstration projects, but I don't think we'll see widespread implementation.

(An aside: Seattle is a special case on the electricity front. We get 90% of our juice from hydro, 5% from wind, and 5% from hydrocarbons burned during peak demand periods. Electric vehicles will be charged mainly at night, and won't cause the burning of any additional coal or natural gas. Where I live, an electric car really will be a "green" alternative. Major smugness points for this one!)

There is also the issue of highway construction and maintenance. It is now financed mainly through gas taxes that average about 40 cents a gallon. Stagnant gasoline demand has already pinched the funds, but they ain't seen nothin' yet. I expect a mileage-based system to replace gas taxes for owners of electric vehicles.

There are also potential foreign policy implications. If lightning were to strike and the U.S. also got serious about alternative forms of heating and cooling (through the use of ground-source heat pumps I discussed in this post a while back), the U.S. could turn its back on oil imports and the trade deficits and geopolitical messes that go with it. Not that I think this will happen, mind you. There are too many other interests conspiring to keep us in the Middle East.

The Risks to This Forecast

There are all kinds of reasons to doubt my enthusiasm. After all, the Nissan Leaf gets only 100 miles on a charge. Even people who average 28 miles will want more of a reserve. And what about long trips?

But those aren't objections I worry about. For starters, there is more than one market for cars. Electrics will begin as second vehicles. As performance improves and costs fall, you'll see more people with a primary electric vehicle. Gas-electric hybrids with meaningful electric-only ranges will appear. (Note to General Motors: 40 miles on the Volt simply isn't enough. Your new car is neither fish nor fowl, and I think it's going to flop until you extend the battery-only range.)

The bigger risks are the following: First, that the Obama administration's weak responses to the depression prove ineffective, and the current malaise deepens so dramatically that even a life-changing innovation fails to make an impact. It has happened before. Television was ready to roll in the 1930s, but the depression and then the world war kept it on the shelf for 20 years.

Second, the oil companies find a way to block the change. At the very least, people should get ready for a wave of anti-electric publicity, focusing mainly on range limitations and the expense of the new vehicles, and whatever initial performance quirks emerge as the technology is rolled out to the masses. They'll be labeled as a type of "greenwashing," simply a relocation of the smokestack from the vehicle to the local power plant.

If they are as popular as I think they'll be, electric cars will upset some big, rich apple carts, one of which is piled high with money that routinely makes its way to Congress. This is one area, however, where American corruption could benefit the rest of us. True, the oil companies will be giving it their best shot. But so will Big Coal, and so will the electric utilities. If I were a typical member of Congress who cares about nothing but the money, I'd have my hand out to all of them.

Cynical as I might be, I'm also an optimist. I realize that many of you who are reading this will scoff at that idea, having heard me go on and on (and on) with my doom and gloom about the economy and politics. But amid all of the well-justified discouragement, our best minds have a way of producing life-changing ideas and products. I think the electric car is going to be one of them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Poor, Smug Peter Watts: An Ego Bruised

To the barricades!

Peter Watts is a Canadian science fiction author whose name I'd never heard until a week ago. I still don't know who he is other than that he writes books that some people like -- and that he doesn't seem to accept the reality the guards at the U.S.-Canadian border have the right to stop you and search your car. And that if you screw around with them, you'll be arrested and maybe even prosecuted for it.

The incident happened December 8th in Port Huron, Mich., where there is a bridge and border crossing into Canada. I have crossed at Port Huron three or four times, most recently when I visited Toronto this past September. Typically, people are questioned and cars are (sometimes) inspected by guards of the country that you're entering. Cross into Canada, and the Canadians do it. Cross into the U.S., and the Americans do it.

In addition to the standard procedure, the U.S. sometimes stops outgoing travelers at random for a check. It's basically about drugs, with a dash of post-9/11 security enhancement. Peter Watts was returning to Canada, and he was selected at random for an outbound screening after paying the toll on the bridge back to Canada. That's where the jailarity ensued.

Instead of sighing and letting the agents do their thing, Mr. Watts stormed out of his vehicle to protest. The border guards ordered him back into his car. When he refused the order, the guards arrested him. He scuffled with them; the guards say Watts tried to choke one of them, and Watts claims that he was "beaten." We do know that the police impounded his rental car, threw him in their jail for a few hours, and have filed charges.

U.S. newspaper account

Because Mr. Watts is a smug writer with an equally smug fan base, he was able to gin up some publicity, first on a popular blog, and then in one of Canada's newspapers that picked up on the blog account. And of course, his own blog has offered its own searching, comprehensive account biased version, complete with fawning support from his peanut gallery. Most recently, when criticized for his behavior and challenged to explain his behavior that day, Mr. Watts took the coward's way out, refusing a complete explanation and censoring his critics.

Peter, your story happened to have caught the attention of this reader, who has traveled to 25 countries, crossing national borders more times than he can count. That includes the Canadian border, where oddly enough, there are border guards and inspection stations. On both sides. Guess what? You don't screw around with border guards. Not yours, not ours, not anyone's. They don't care how many books you've written.

Be careful what you wish for, Peter. And good luck on your future crossings. Hope you're not in any hurry.


The Port Huron, Mich. district attorney apparently has said that Peter Watts won't be prosecuted for his border hijinks. Does that mean Peter will now explain why he stormed out of his car to cause a confrontation, refused an order to get back inside, and scuffled with police? Mr. Watts refuses to provide such information, calling it "evidentiary."

Now that there's no chance he'll actually be held accountable for his behavior, Peter Watts ought to be able to tell us why he chose to be such a jerk. I won't be holding my breath for his explanation, much less any actual discussion with this garden-variety juvenile. When things don't go his way, what does a child do? Like Peter Watts, he picks up his marbles and storms off in search of someone else to blame.

Second Follow-Up

The Times-Herald of Port Huron, Mich. obtained a copy of the police report on the incident. It details Watt's irate behavior on Dec. 8th, his refusal to get back into his car, and his struggle with the officers who arrested him. Watts and his fans have argued that he exited his car merely to ask the officers "what was going on." Is that a lightbulb joke, as in "How many Canadian sci-fi authors with a doctorate does it take to ask the border patrol what's going on as they search a car at the border?"

In any case, from the newspaper's rendering of the police report, it's reasonably clear that Watts intended to provoke an incident that day. Peter, if nothing else, you should have learned that America is a country where anyone's dreams can come true.

Peter Watts and Smug White Privilege

Ask a black person about white privilege, and you'll get a knowing smile. Ask a white person and they'll tilt their head like a confused dog. What are you talking about?

The idea is that, merely by being white in America, someone is surrounded by a variety of privileges, most of them minor in themselves, but which add up to a superior status. Be anything but white, say a lot of black people, and you'll find out just how unprivileged you are. Police will deal with you as a suspect. Cab drivers won't pick you up after dark. Waiters won't serve you very quickly. Shopkeepers will follow you around the store. Doormen at bars will look for ways to exclude you.

It goes on and on. And it's not just the little stuff. Try getting an interview for that crucial first job out of college if your resume mentions that you were president of the African-American Business Association. See what happens if you are stopped for speeding while racing to the hospital because your wife was hit by a car and is dying. Be the best golfer in the world, and find out how quickly it doesn't matter when it's discovered you've been screwing every blond chick on the PGA Tour.

White people see little or none of this, little or big, and tend to be incredulous and laughably defensive when it's pointed out. Yet, no matter what, they will cling to their privileges to the bitter end. One of them being the idea that they can hassle the police in course of their duties, and get away with it. And if they're Canadian, and a writer, and have a doctorate, Katie bar the door.

It reminds me of when I was driving a cab to get through college. I gave a ride to a white, female professor. We got to her destination in the middle of a driving rainstorm. Her bicycle was in the trunk, and she expected that I would get out of the taxi, in the rain, and grab her bicycle for her. It wasn't a heavy bike, and the trunk was already open. She had to get out of the vehicle anyway, so I told her she could get her bike on the way inside.

Indignant, she got her bike and started walking away. I called over to her, and she came over to the window and told me she wasn't going to pay the fare. What good would it go for me to have gotten out, I asked her. All that would've accomplished is that two of us would get wet, when only one of us needed to. Not only that, but I don't have anywhere to dry off, and I need to work for the rest of the day. You can just go inside and grab a towel.

It didn't matter. In her mind, I was supposed to get wet for her. In her case, it was white class privilege. I was a taxi driver, a servant, and for some reason I was obligated to suffer. It's a good thing for me that I wasn't black, because when I grabbed that woman's wrist through the open window of my cab, held her there in the rain, and radioed in for the police to be sent, I knew that I wouldn't be arrested for it. In fact, the police came and told her to pay the fare. She did so, and called the cab company after she dried off.

At the end of my shift, the dispatcher asked me whether I had really told her that she'd never worked a goddamned day in her life and that no one was going to take my money away from me. No, of course not, I said, with a smile. I'd never say such a thing. Not ever.

Back to poor, smug Peter Watts. There he was at the border. Apparently, white privilege doesn't cut it at the Port Huron crossing. Maybe they've busted too many mild-mannered Canadians with drugs in the trunk. Or maybe they've taken those lectures to heart about being 60 miles from Detroit and you'd better treat everyone the same, or your ass will be in a serious sling.

Who knows? I'm sure that Mr. Watts would vigorously deny that he expects special treatment, but you really have to be part of the Smug White Asshole Class to think it's okay to start a confrontation with a border patrol officer, disobey that officer's reasonable orders, and resist arrest.

And what of Mr. Watts's equally smug, lily-white fan club, some of whom have been posting blog comments to the effect that hard-ass tactics would be okay on the Mexican border, but not on the Canadian border? I could be wrong about this, but I'll be surprised if Peter Watts is getting any upsurge of support out of the African-American community for his juvenile little stunt at the Port Huron border crossing.

A Fun Fact to Know and Tell

On his blog where critics are now barred for asking inconvenient questions, Peter Watts has ridiculued the idea that he could have been screened as a terrorist.

Hey Peter, remember the millenium plot? You know the one that was foiled by a U.S. Customs inspector in Port Angeles, Washington not long before Jan. 1, 2000? Want to know how that was foiled? I have the inside skinny, told to me by a senior officer of the Canadian military who was posted in Victoria, B.C. at the time.

The U.S. Customs inspector wasn't the one who fingered the would-be terrorists. What actually happened is that they were profiled by Canadian border guards on their exit from Victoria. Interestingly enough, Canadian and U.S. law enforcement work together. The Canadians told the Americans, and the people were rousted at the dock in Washington State.

Of course, white Canadians could never, ever be involved in terrorism, just as white Americans couldn't be. Just ask Timothy McVeigh, you fool.