Friday, November 14, 2008

Battery Powered Adult Toys

Lithium sweet lithium. Lovely soft silvery metal it is which vies with Prozac as boon companion for the artisanal neurotic who has failed to find balm in Gilead, or Tribeca, Dumbo, Nolita, or God forbid--the Bronx. In analogous fashion loverly lithium has become a psychic emollient and revered Icon for the overheated postulants of the High Church of Environmentalism. Our Lady of Lithium is not some demure chaste long-skirt hoarding her gifts against the day of husbandly embrace but rather an elemental strumpet giving freely of her fast and loose electrons for a sly chemical wink and the tender of substantial sums of cash. In other words batteries people batteries.

Most current battery technologies touted for present and future use involve the element lithium, a soft silvery white metal, with several unusual properties but the one with the most relevance is that in various chemical combinations it allows the storage of large amounts of electrical energy in relatively small volumes. It's primary disadvantage is that it is expensive as hell and getting pricier by the week. Some lithium production occurs in the U.S but the dirty little secret of the battery industry is that such production will have to skyrocket to supply even a portion of the grandiose plans of the auto industry. The upcoming Chevy Volt uses a lithium battery of some 16 kilowatts and the rumor is that it will cost the consumer 15,000 dollars to replace. These high price levels will only escalate because the element represents a large fraction of the chemical makeup of these battery systems.

The Volt and the multitude of similar concepts issuing from manufacturers world-wide are causing the environmental establishment to practically fibrillate with joy. Any effort to reduce the use of the evil internal combustion engine is greeted with hosannas of encouragement and complaints about affordability are dismissed as the irrelevant maunderings of ignorant boobs or paid oil industry stooges. Here we come to the point of this screed. The precipitous lunge towards alternative automotive power sources threatens to starve the lower end of the market of product that is touted to advance the holy crusade of lowering society's carbon footprint.

Joe Hoi and Mary Polloi will be poop out of luck. In no current or projected scenario will pure electric or hybrid vehicles be produced for prices remotely near the bottom of the market--period. The technology is just too complex and expensive for vehicles that cost under 15,000 dollars. Small size will not help the situation. The Prius is a small car as is the Volt, neither larger than a Toyota Corolla, and shrinking them further will only affect prices minimally. One can buy a fairly nice efficient small sedan for less than what the battery in the Volt will cost and even though the Prius has a much smaller battery it is much more mechanically complex and so will be resistant to price reductions. No other pending hybrid or pure electric technology promises any product for the low end of the market. The technology exists now to make small conventional vehicles that get extremely good mileage, and at reasonable prices, but the ICE has been demonized to the point that the E-Church considers them grubby apostates, unfit to participate in the jihad against AGW.

The current low end of the electric market is around 10-15 thousand dollars. That kind of money will get you an vehicle which is little more than a glorified golf cart with all the utility and convenience that implies. They are known as NEVs, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, useful in sunbelt senior communities perhaps but entirely worthless for real world commutes in problematic weather. Promoters and shysters abound in the limited production electric vehicle world with some efforts resembling dot.com. start-ups that are long on cash requirements and short on product. These contraptions and even much higher performance vehicles like the Tesla are all ridiculously expensive, impractical, and are available in extremely limited numbers.

To these sorts of grumbles the yea-sayers respond that it's early days yet. Just wait till electrics get into mass production and prices will tumble just as they did in the early days of the automobile. To which this grumbler responds if you think a Prius, a Tesla, or a Volt can be in any wise compared to a Model T then you are, well, an idiot. In the early 1900s there was no product, consumer or otherwise, a tiny fraction as complicated as the average modern car much less a hybrid. Henry Ford may have been a mass production pioneer but he was working with thoroughly familiar steel and wood not aluminum, titanium, carbon composites, high-power electronics and exotic battery chemistrys. The Model T was a paragon of design simplicity whereas modern cars are by a wide margin the most complex devices encountered daily by the average person. The point is that really useful electric vehicles may prove subject to economies of scale to some degree but to think that in the fullness of time we can all be driving electric cars as cheap as the current bottom of the market scarcely qualifies as a pipe-dream.

If I weren't a meanie I would forbear to mention that the number of pages of federal regulation that burdened ol' Henry was zero as was the consequent cost to the consumer who was thrilled that he could buy a car, any car, for a price that working folks could afford. The Model T became ridiculously cheap but it was hardly a technological wonder. In fact it was a primitive, albeit fairly reliable, device that greatly helped put the country on wheels but was unsophisticated even by the standards of the day. Adjusted for inflation the cheapest Model T would sell for about four grand in current bucks. It is a demonstrable miracle of manufacturing cleverness that in today's truly bizarre regulatory environment the cheapest vehicle sold is only three times that expensive.

In its usual ham-fisted social engineering style the gummint offers "tax-credits" for those buying from a favored subset of allegedly efficient vehicles. These of course are simply consumer bribes that supposedly ease the pain of spending money on vehicles that are not otherwise economically viable in pursuit of larger green policy objectives. It is reported that the "credit" for the Volt will be in the well-to-do neighborhood of $7500 which simply means that Chevrolet can charge at least that much more for a vehicle that will hit the market pathetically uncompetitive in any measure of that quality you care to address. Expect to fork over close to 40K for the Volt, even with the credit, for a vehicle that will be rather more efficient than a Chevy Cobalt but will be well over twice as expensive. Where pray tell is the "mass" in this market?

The Volt will exhibit a 20 to 25 thousand dollar premium over vehicles of similar size and transport capability. Even at the recent peak of four dollars per gallon for fuel that twenty thousand dollar difference represents about 150,000 miles of travel for a Cobalt. At current October '08 prices it's more like 300,000 miles. Of course the Volt will use less fuel but far from zero. Additionally in the case of the Cobalt the consumer will only have to pay for fuel twenty bucks at a time over the course of many years instead of 20 large, with interest, in the first four or five years of Volt ownership. There are undoubtedly a few who will pay twenty grand for a can of green credential polish but there are millions more who will sanely refuse or simply be unable to do it.

In this, and so many other cases, the policy proscriptions of the enviro-left will have the effect of "saving the planet" by making it much more expensive to live on it. Any you, you ignorant prole, are expected to cheerily support becoming ever more destitute so that the manifold environmental hysterias of progressives might triumph over anything even remotely resembling a sober cost-benefit analysis. The irony is positively sludge-like that after decades of progressives styling themselves as champions of the working-class their current message seems to be "Up yours red state jack-legs. You rubes are expendable and doomed to be collateral damage in our noble quest to save the planet from, well, people like you. Suck it up." For the bulk of the Volk battery powered cars may have the same effect as a battery powered vibrator. In both cases you can expect to be well and truly screwed.

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