Cars, Computers, Cameras and the Wright Brothers

Note:  I first published this in 2009.  Since then, the march of technological progress has continued…but sadly the problems I describe are still awaiting a solution.

I went to my local electronics store to buy an SD card for my wife’s camera.  After browsing around, I ended up buying a 4-gigabyte card for about eight bucks.  That works out to 0.2 cents per megabyte of storage.  I thought about the memory card that I bought back in 2000.  We were about to leave on a cruise to Alaska, and I had just bought my first digital camera.  I wanted a memory card that would hold all the photos I would take for the entire trip, so I bought the biggest one that the camera store offered at that time.  It held 192 megabytes.

The list price of that card was $500.  Because I bought the camera from them, they gave me a 10% discount.  I just worked out the cost-per-megabyte for that card…$2.34.  So in less than ten years, the cost of memory cards for cameras has come down by a factor of 1170…more than three orders of magnitude.

I could give you a similar story for home computer memory.  The hard disk for my first PC cost about $500.   The capacity was 20 megabytes.  That was in about 1990.   Today, you can buy a 1-terabtye drive for around $200, a cost reduction factor of over 100,000…five orders of magnitude!

Anybody who has lived through most of the twentieth century has seen incredible technological advances.  My mother was born in 1898 and died in 1990.  When she was born, the automobile had just been invented.  The airplane was still six years in the future, and those early flying contraptions looked more like box kites  than airplanes as we know them today.

By the time my mother was twenty, Henry Ford and many other entrepreneurs were pumping out cars for the masses, and aircraft had proven themselves as formidable war machines in WWI.  Commercial airlines had been flying people and delivering mail on regularly scheduled flights for some time.  The first one was in 1914, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Air Line.  On New Years Day in that year, pilot Tony Jannus flew the first airline passenger across Tampa Bay in a Benoist Type XIV flying boat.  Historical records do not include the name of that first passenger, nor the menu and drink choices offered on the flight.  It’s not certain whether a seat belt was required, but a leather helmet and goggles were probably provided.

The explosion of aircraft technology that followed almost defies belief.  The dominance of air power in WWII transformed how wars are fought.  Foot soldiers are still required, but nobody wins a war without dominance of the skies.  Terrorism has changed the equation, but terrorists don’t win wars.  They just bring chaos to the world.

Commercial air travel has become one of the biggest businesses in the world, and is the driving force for the huge business of international tourism.  For many third-world nations, especially in Africa, tourism is their biggest business.

Meanwhile, automobile technology continued to advance, but its progress was much less spectacular than aircraft or computers.  The earliest cars were powered by internal combustion engines that used gasoline for fuel.  They ran on inflated rubber tires, used a friction device for braking, and had a complex (for the time) drive train to get the power from the engine crankshaft to the wheels.

Although there have been many improvements in engine power and efficiency, handling, brakes, passenger comfort, etc., the basic automotive package designed over a hundred years ago is conceptually unchanged.  Compare that to early aircraft or computers, and it is clear that there is a huge difference in the advance of the respective technologies.  Why such a difference?

There are probably many reasons, but the question is moot.  Today, we are faced with a national and worldwide crisis.  Despite the naysayers, we are running out of fossil fuels to power our cars and planes, and enable our lavish, energy-intensive lifestyle.  You can argue about when we will run out, but not whether we will.

We have an incredibly energy-intensive way of life here in the U S A.  Other countries may be somewhat more energy-efficient, but the rising living standard…and appetite for fossil fuels…is increasing worldwide demand exponentially for those irreplaceable fossil resources that took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate.  They will soon be gone.  How will we replace them?

A better question is…what energy source will replace fossil fuels?  We must find a replacement, or reduce out gargantuan appetite for them…or maybe a combination of both.

It seems clear that we need a major breakthrough in energy technology, and that a transition to renewable energy sources is the only viable long-term solution.  People who say that there is still plenty of oil and natural gas are taking a short-term view.  Plenty for how long?  Twenty years?  Fifty?  Even a hundred?  Certainly no longer than that, and even if we could find deposits to last that long, as we approach the end of the supply, prices will rocket upward.  We have seen enough evidence of the disastrous effects of sudden spikes in energy prices.  And that is without even considering the damage to the environment from continued burning of hydrocarbon fuels, or the geopolitical consequences of our dependence on supplies from other nations that are not always our friends.

But what has all this got to do with scientific and technological progress?

At the moment, renewable energy is expensive, compared to energy we derive from those wonderful fossil fuels.  It is almost miraculous when you think about it.  You can fill your tank with ten or fifteen gallons of gasoline, and if your car is reasonably efficient, you can drive 300 miles or more before you need to refill.  Even at today’s prices, that tank only costs about fifty bucks.  That’s an incredible bargain.  Enough energy to haul a ton-and-a-half vehicle, plus its occupants in air conditioned comfort more than 1% of the circumference of the earth for about the price of a meal in a good restaurant for two people.

Just think what people did to travel that far a few hundred years ago.  A horseback rider could expect to travel about 30 miles a day.  It would take him ten days to cover the three hundred miles that you could drive in your car in a few hours.  On foot, it might take twice that long or more.

The energy density of fossil fuels is enormous.  Where can we find a comparable source that is renewable?

There is only one place, and it is the same place that the energy in those fossil fuels came from: The sun.  Whether it is by photovoltaic, solar-thermal or wind, it all originates with the sun.  Only geothermal energy…harvesting the internal heat of our planet…is not solar in origin, and it is not really renewable.  And nuclear energy, of course, but that has its own can of worms.

So…electric cars are the answer.  They have many advantages over internal-combustion powered vehicles.  They are immensely simpler.  The rotor in an electric motor is its only moving part.  The inherent torque curve of electric motors makes the driveline simpler.  The whole mechanism is simple, lightweight, reliable and durable.  Service life and maintenance costs are far lower than a gasoline…or diesel…powered car.

There is only one drawback:  How is the energy stored?

Let’s ignore the hybrid options for a moment and consider a pure electric vehicle.  The electric energy to power the vehicle must be stored in a battery that provides reasonable range and recharge cycle life at an affordable cost.

So far, nobody has come up with a satisfactory battery.  Without going into the technical details, it can be boiled down to the fact that current batteries are too big and heavy, too expensive, with insufficient capacity.  The best ones use lithium, an element that is relatively scarce in the earth’s crust.  That disqualifies them as a practical solution for worldwide use in mass-produced vehicles.   We need a battery that is made from materials that are abundant and cheap.

When I think back over the incredible, almost miraculous breakthroughs that led to cheap, reliable personal computers and digital cameras, that transformed that first powered box kite into a 747 or even an Apollo module that went to the moon…when I think of all that, I can’t help but wonder why a simple little thing like a battery…or the lack of it…can threaten our whole way of life.

C’mon, somebody.  Solve this problem.  Give us a cheap, lightweight, durable storage battery for electric vehicles.  I guarantee you that you will be rewarded with fame and riches beyond your wildest dreams.

Oh…and while you’re at it…an order of magnitude improvement in cost/performance of photovoltaic solar cells ($/KW) would be nice.

Just do it…so that we can get on with our hedonistic, self-indulgent lives and not feel guilty about it.


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