Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Can Tesla survive?

Posted in business, california by commorancy on March 28, 2018

Investors have been overly exuberant about Telsa. By that I mean, because Tesla set up shop in Silicon Valley rather than Detroit, many investors see Tesla as a ‘tech company’. Folks outside the Bay Area, however, see Tesla as a car company. Let’s explore.

Car Company vs Tech Company

For whatever reason, too many people see Tesla as a tech startup. The fact is, Tesla is in no way a tech startup. It is a car company. Tesla has, so far, provided no new tech to the world. Cars, in fact, are not in any way new technology. Worse, there’s nothing new about Tesla’s cars that have not been done before. The only claim to fame that Tesla has is its partnership with the Lotus design team to design and help produce the Tesla Roadster. If the Roadster looks amazingly like a Lotus Elise, now you know why. But, paying for someone else to design your vehicle’s interior and exterior isn’t innovative, it just means you have money.

Let’s also consider even though Tesla decided to go electric in its vehicles early on, it is by no means the first electric vehicle to market. Tesla’s decision wasn’t without a significant amount of peril or adversity, adversity that continues to this day. For example, gas powered cars have huge infrastructure around the globe to buy fuel. In 5-8 minutes, you’re fueled up and ready to go again for hundreds of miles on a single tank. Unfortunately, charging electric vehicle batteries is a laboriously slow process by comparison. Sure, even with a Tesla Supercharger, you’re still stuck charging your vehicle for at least 30 minutes to get a 65% charge (about 170 miles). If you want a 100% charge, you’ll be there a whole lot longer. If it’s not a Supercharger, then plan to spend a whole lot more time there.

If the 30 or so minutes you must wait is at a time when it’s convenient (i.e., you’re stopping for dinner anyway), then that’s great. If it happens to be when you’re pressed for time, you’re not going to be a happy camper. If you don’t plan your trip properly or if you get tripped up by construction, you may find yourself off course without a charging station handy. Then where are you?

So far, all of the things I’ve mentioned above have nothing to do with tech and everything to do with usability. Specifically, car usability. More specifically, car usability with regards to electric vehicles which charge slowly and offer very little nationwide infrastructure. This is the adversity that Tesla is up against.

Pushing Boulders Uphill

Tesla has a long way to go before the US has electric infrastructure at a saturation where electric cars can even come close to replacing gas powered cars. That’s not to say it can’t happen sometime in the future, but Tesla is pretty much alone in this and has given up several times along the way. Yes, Nissan, Toyota, Mini and Chevy have all introduced electric vehicles, but they are the outliers. They aren’t pushing for nationwide charging coverage. These vehicles have not yet become the bread-and-butter vehicles that keep these brands afloat. Every car manufacturer, other than Tesla, sells gas powered vehicles. With Tesla’s electric-only approach, it is sink or swim… and currently, Tesla is pretty much just treading water. Tesla hasn’t even tried hedging its bets by producing an alternative fuel assist hybrid to augment its slow recharge times and offer a vehicle with much longer distance. In fact, by not embracing such a strategy seems to be terribly remiss on their part.

For Tesla, this should be considered self-imposed adversity. Why not invest in producing a car that accepts natural gas, gasoline, alcohol or even hydrogen? I think we’ve already seen that Tesla has pretty much pushed the limits of its electric vehicle paradigm as far as it can go.

Expensive Bells and Whistles

I can hear the throngs of Tesla owners now… groaning at this article. Wake up! You bought a $100k commuter car. Sure, it has that nice 17″ (now dated) display in the middle of the dash and a few interior niceties, but it’s a car. A car is a car is a car. It takes you from point A to point B. Does it matter what bells and whistles it offers inside? You’re not buying the functionality of the technology, you’re buying the functionality of the car. Worse, it’s not that this technology hasn’t already existed in a car before Tesla and it will definitely exist in many cars in the future. Just look at the Prius. It’s not 17″, but it definitely had an in-dash display from the beginning.

Don’t be fooled by the Silicon Valley hype. Tesla isn’t a tech company, it is a car company. They don’t offer innovative technical solutions or innovative technical products. They offer a car (or rather, many models of cars). A car, I might add, that is from a brand that has yet to prove itself as a long term car brand. Let’s take the Saturn car brand as a prime example. When Saturn came about, its claim to fame was all of the hand-holding and attention they gave new car owners. Where is Saturn now? Dead. The company ceased producing cars in 2009 and closed its doors in 2010. Its sales model wasn’t sustainable. Its cars were mediocre.

Can Tesla Survive?

Is Tesla’s model sustainable? That depends on Elon Musk. Once Elon finally admits to himself, his employees and the rest of the world that Tesla is, in fact, a car company and not a tech company, he will be able to realize what he needs to do to take Tesla to the next level. The problem right now is that many investors in Tesla see them as a tech stock, not a car company. Tesla is not a tech stock. Let me repeat that. Tesla IS NOT a tech stock. Don’t fool yourself that Tesla is anything other than a car company, like any company out of Detroit or Japan or anywhere else in the world where car manufacturing exists.

Fundamentally, Tesla has been battling the infrastructure issue. Elon simply hasn’t been able to gain any substantial traction for Tesla’s electric plan throughout the continental United States. Sure, there are Tesla Supercharges in select areas, areas requiring you to plan your trip well in advance to ensure you can find chargers all along the way. If you find yourself off the Supercharger path, you could literally end up stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way to get a charge. If your car happens to break down, then what? Better have AAA with its longest distance towing option as you might find yourself sitting in the cab of a tow truck being hauled to the next Supercharger station.

Infrastructure has not been a friend at all to Tesla. Let’s understand a little better why. Electric cars, while they are clean vehicles, are not clean on the environment. Instead of pushing the pollution out of the tailpipe, it is now being pushed out of the exhaust stacks at electric generation facilities. Tesla (and other electric car makers) need to understand that the pollution doesn’t stop, it just moves to a different location. If California’s electricity were produced from 100% clean, renewable resources, I’d be writing something different here (at least for California). Instead, that’s a pipe dream. California still receives much of its electric generation from fossil fuels which is used to charge up a Tesla (or any electric plugin vehicle), less than ideal for pollution. This is why the government hasn’t hopped on board with bringing electric infrastructure to the forefront. On top of that, there’s no incentive from gasoline producers to push this agenda. So, where would those incentives come from? The government (and ultimately, all of us via our tax dollars). I don’t want to have to pay to build a huge electric infrastructure raising my taxes.

Tesla’s Failures

Ultimately, Tesla had planned to introduce a battery swap program to help reduce charge times. However, Tesla had to admit that this was a failed pipe dream. They were forced to drop the idea entirely. This is where Tesla made its first and most important mistake. Apple releases products that it feels are good for users. They don’t care if people like or dislike them. That was Jobs’s MO. He decided on behalf of the public what we should like. If you didn’t personally like it, you went someplace else. Tesla should have introduced the battery swap option in spite of the complaints, costs or problems. Push the idea out regardless. Drive the market to adopt the idea instead of caving into market pressures. This is where Elon completely differs from Jobs and Apple. Though, Jobs was arguably a marketing visionary. Elon is, at best, a huckster. There is literally nothing visionary at all about the Tesla cars being produced. Modern yes, visionary no.

Once you understand the difference between the words “modern” and “visionary”, you’ll quickly understand that what makes a Tesla vehicle attractive is its amenities. These same types of amenities are those that drive the sales of Lotus, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz and even Lexus… i.e., luxury car brands. Tesla is less about being an electric vehicle and more about becoming a luxury car brand. Luxury is why you buy Tesla. That’s why you buy any type of luxury car. Again, don’t kid yourself. It’s not the technology, it’s the luxury. Luxury, I might add, that comes with a fairly steep price (both monetarily and time wise). Yes, it costs around $60k-$100k, but that’s not the half of it. You also spend a fair amount of time not even being able to use the vehicle because it’s hooked to the charger. With a gas powered vehicle, its downtime is measured in minutes. With Tesla, its downtime is measured in hours. When I say downtime, I’m strictly talking about the time it takes to ‘refuel’ it, not mechanical breakdowns which are a whole different bag.

Since most people don’t have Superchargers available at their homes, they are subject to longer charge cycles. This means you need to plan for this. Don’t come home on low charge and forget to charge it. You’ll be in a world of hurt the following day when you need to get to work. Tesla is a car brand that isn’t completely worry free. You must take the time to plan your day and when to charge. If you forget even once, you’re going to be late for work.

Tesla as a Commuter Car

Considering all of the above and the ~256 mile range on a charge makes Tesla not ideal for long distance travel, at least not without proper trip planning. It’s a great about-town car, but for long distance travel, I’d suggest owning a vehicle with a gas charger. A gas charger vehicle means you can stop at any gas station to refuel the power generator. Our alternative fuel infrastructure may not be optimal today, but it is the infrastructure we are stuck with for the moment. Trying to find alternative fuels like propane, hydrogen or natural gas could leave you just as stranded as electric alone. With a gas car, you can travel anywhere there is a gas station and refuel in minutes. This infrastructure is far and wide and everywhere.

Ultimately, this lack of electric infrastructure relegates Tesla vehicles to commuter cars as their best use case. For me, justifying spending $60-100k for a commuter car is way too much. Consider that for those of us who also live in apartment complexes means leaving our expensive Tesla vehicles sitting idle on dark parking lots to fully charge, then walking away. Not ideal. You pretty much have to own a home and install a Tesla specific charger to get decent charge times and know your car is safe. It’s also fairly inconvenient leaving your car sitting on a parking lot for several hours only to have to go back when it’s done and pick it up.

Many apartment complexes are way behind the times, but they are not the exception. Let’s consider the infrastructure that Tesla has built since the first Roadster was introduced. Let’s just say, it’s not much. It’s better than it was, but it is no where near where it should have been at this point. This is the primary reason Tesla will fail, unless they change their ideas and embrace the fact that they are not only car company, but a luxury car brand. This is the reason other car companies will do better than Tesla with their everyday electric vehicles. Tesla is a luxury brand that only families of a certain affluence can afford. Vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are the everyday electric cars. These are vehicles that are both affordable and offer better value for the money than Tesla’s short distance expensive luxury vehicle.

Oh, but the Model X has gull wings you say? Really, that’s something you’re going to argue? Ok, let’s argue it. If you have kids, these doors are entirely unsafe for little fingers. Sure, Tesla may claim safety features, but do you really trust your kid’s little fingers against an electric door closing mechanism? Go ahead, I dare you.

Safety Track Record

Tesla is a fairly new car company founded in 2003. It never produced cars before 2006. Its first vehicle is the Tesla Roadster. Tesla has had difficulties keeping up with demand for the Roadster. Its first commercially successful vehicle was the Model S introduced in 2008, Tesla’s second model vehicle. Other models have since followed. And yes, I realize the ~$33,000 Model 3 is on the way… but they’re having production problems with this model. It could be years before you see your preorder.

Basically, what Tesla is making is all new without the benefit of years of manufacturing experience. This means that testing safety features in its vehicles may not be a top priority. Let’s consider the safety of lithium-ion batteries when in a crash. Actually, let’s scale that back a little. Just by poking a hole into your cell phone’s lithium-ion battery will cause noxious fumes, possible fire and/or explosion. Let’s scale that up to electric cars. If the battery in your Tesla is compromised due to an accident, you could easily find your car on fire, electrocuted or in an explosion. While this is not exclusive to Tesla’s electric cars, the size of Tesla’s batteries could make them particularly unsafe. It could also mean that if you’re injured in a Tesla, first responders may need to secure their own personal safety against your vehicle’s battery before using the jaws-of-life to extract you from the vehicle. This precious time lost could mean the difference between life or death.

You’re exposing your family’s safety to Tesla each and every day you drive it. Ford, Chevy, GM and even Toyota are brands that have existed for decades. These companies fully understand the concept of proper safety design and of recalls, lawsuits and defects. Unfortunately, Tesla has only had just a few years to gain this knowledge. Yes, they have hired seasoned industry vets to help get their vehicles to be their safest quickly, but the question isn’t what they added, but what they missed. They’re a new car company with new growing pains. Sure, you can hire expertise, but can you be sure of what you missed? Who really knows? Tesla has been relatively lucky that they have not yet seen an egregious safety failure on all of their vehicles. The question is, have they done it right or have they been lucky or it is just a matter of time?

Worse, could Tesla survive such an huge safety recall in all of their vehicles? Who really knows? Sure, their company is highly valuated, but that doesn’t mean they have the cash to support a massive lawsuit or an expensive recall. Ultimately, when you buy into Tesla, you’re buying into all of this. You should think long and hard about whether this is the car for you. Don’t buy it because it drives nice or because the seats are comfortable or because dashboard looks cool, buy it because it makes the most sense for your budget, the way you intend to use it and your family’s safety.

Can Tesla survive? This depends on whether they can truly get beyond their ‘tech company’ mentality. Tesla is a car company. At some point, they’ll have to admit this. Once they admit this, then they can truly begin to take their cars to the next level. If not, then perhaps Tesla is just a flash in the carburetor.

Beware of Silicon Valley Clean Energy and energy slamming

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on September 19, 2017

If you live in California, you need to read this. This situation has scam written ALL OVER IT. Let’s explore.

State / City Mandated ‘Clean Energy’

Apparently, as a result of city voting, some cities (such as Cupertino) have decided to force residents in that city to change their power generation provider to a third party instead of PG&E. In my case, it ends up being the scam outfit Silicon Valley Clean Energy. Why are they a scam? Here’s what happened.

First, they enrolled my electrical generation service under SVCE’s generation service without my permission. Then, SVCE waited over 60 days to notify me of my enrollment into their power generation service. Because they offered opting out at less than 60 days for free, this means I am not only being assessed a $5 exit fee from SVCE and I am now being put under PG&E’s transitional rates (which are likely to be higher than normal PG&E rates for at least 6 months). Oh, it gets even better.

Second, because I was force exited from PG&E’s generation services, PG&E gets to assess a Power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) charge (effectively it is an exit charge for leaving PG&E’s power generation services). This charge on my last bill was $25.60. If you add this charge together with SVCE’s power generation charges, the total generation fee becomes identical to PG&E’s generation charges. If you spread this fee out over 12 months, SVCE’s charges aren’t as low as they seem. Also, this PCIA seems to be assessed once a year (or as frequently as the CPUC allows PG&E to assess it). Basically, this is a charge that PG&E gets to assess to cover generation fees they lost because you moved to a competitor. And, they get to do it each year.

Third, SVCE’s crap web site would not accept my opt-out request. Their opt-out form is entirely broken. I ended up calling their phone and opt-ing out there. Unfortunately, I have no idea if they really got my opt-out request because this fly-by-night outfit only has 9-5 call-center business hours. So, I have to wait until the following day and contact them.

Fourth, I was only notified of my ‘enrollment’ in this service because of a cheap card sent to me in the mail over 60 days after my enrollment.

Fifth, they make a lot of bold claims about using wind and solar energy for generation, but do not back up those claims anywhere. They could simply be buying PG&E generated power and reselling it.

Charges and electric slamming

Not only does PG&E get to assess random charges as a result of the customer now using a third party power generation company, the power generation company gets to assess random exit charges for leaving their service when I never voluntarily joined it in the first place.

This entire situation smells of CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT. So far, I will have been assessed around $35 in fees plus an unknown amount for rates (up to 6 months) simply because SVCE grabbed my service without notifying me timely. This is the exact thing that long distance phone companies were doing in the 90’s. It is called slamming. This scam type is just another form of state / city endorsed slamming, now with the electric service.

The Feds need to jump on board and stop this slamming activity quick and force the same payback charges on the company who slammed the customer. Here’s what long distance providers were forced to do if they slammed someone onto their service and the end user paid the bill:

If you have been slammed, but discover it after you HAVE paid the bill of the slamming company, the slamming company must pay your authorized company 150 percent of the charges you paid the slamming company. Out of this amount, your authorized company will reimburse you 50 percent of the charges you paid the slamming company. Or, you can ask your authorized company to recalculate and resend your bill using its rates instead of the slamming company’s rates.

Electric generation companies need to be held accountable for slamming in the same way as long distance providers. Companies like SVCE riding on the coattails of city votes shouldn’t get a pass to switch services without permission. Slamming is slamming whether it’s for telephone service or power generation. No matter what it is, it’s a rip off unless the change is by consumer permission. If there are fees involved, the customer MUST authorize the change in advance. Otherwise, it is slamming.

Elon Musk: Brilliant or Snake Oil salesman?

Posted in business, california by commorancy on September 26, 2015

I’ve read a number of comments that people consider Elon Musk and his Tesla empire as brilliance at work. But, is this really brilliance at work? Let’s explore.

Brilliance is in the eye of the beholder

Oh, Elon Musk is definitely a brilliant man, no doubt. But not for the reasons most people think. Like many entrepreneurs who head to Silicon Valley to set up an empire, Elon is yet another in a long line of them.

Most people think he’s brilliant because of his Tesla electric cars. I would be the first to consider him brilliant with electric cars had he been the first to come up with the idea or a significantly better battery technology. Unfortunately, he missed the invention boat by just slightly less than 200 years. Also, no substantial new battery technologies have emerged from Tesla. Most certainly, he’s taken this nearly 200 year old idea and capitalized on it and modernized it. Unfortunately, his push to drive mainstream electric vehicle infrastructure has been a snail’s pace journey. Though, it is farther along in part due to Tesla.

So then, where is his brilliance?

Salesman Extraordinaire

Like many people before him and many more to come, he has capitalized on the phrase ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’. This is his brilliance. This is what makes his name in the world of automobiles.

I don’t know of many people who could have actually put a distortion field around a vehicle with a top distance of approximately 250 miles and suggest charging ~$100,000 (or more) for it.

What exactly is a car designed to do?

A car is designed to take you from point A to point B offering reasonably long distance before needing to refuel. That’s a car’s primary goal. The second goal is to be able to find fuel for the vehicle readily and fill it rapidly so you can continue performing your car’s primary goal ad infinitum. We have this infrastructure in place for gas engine vehicles already. Attempting to bring cars to market without building this infrastructure first is a problem.

Yet, Elon hasn’t even really solved the first goal. While 250 miles is respectable for a commuter vehicle, it’s not so great for cross country traveling. The second goal has not at all been solved by Elon; though, it’s not for lack of trying. For someone like Elon, that has to be extremely frustrating especially considering that in order to sell boatloads of vehicles to the masses you need goals 1 and 2 solved. What makes this even harder is when consumers can go buy a gas or hybrid vehicle and get much better distance and similar amenities for far less money.

Note, I do acknowledge that there are car buyers who buy cars to drive for pleasure and recreation. This driver profile is significantly different than those who drive for transportation. However, most people in the US buy vehicles for transportation, not recreation.

So, the car makes the distance, then what?

For electric vehicles, let’s keep in mind that this part is all hypothetical. Electric infrastructure is not yet close to being satisfied. However, what’s left after the goals are satisfied is car amenities. Oh, the Tesla cars are most definitely chock full of amenities, like a 17″ touch screen display, lots of cool looking LEDs and a bunch of pick-up when you mash the accelerator. Though, pretty much any electric vehicle will offer lots of torque just because of the drive train of electric motors.

It’s gets worse still. While you’re driving that Tesla around, you quickly realize you’re passing gas station after gas station. You might pridefully think, “Wow, I never have to use another one of those again”. Instead, the thought you should be thinking is, “What happens if I run out of power?” When you do run out of power, that fleeting and mildly prideful thought quickly turns to sheer terror when you realize that you are stranded. It’s not just any old version of stranded either. You’re now stranded and you need a tow truck. In fact, you’ll pretty much wish you could push your $100k Tesla over to that gas station, fill it up and be back on the road in 5 minutes. Nope. Expect your Tesla to be towed a very long distance to the next charging station. A charging station where you’ll be stuck for the next several hours. If you want a full charge, that could be 4-6 hours. Of course, if you’re close to home, you might get away with 30 minutes or an hour to get just enough charge to get home. I don’t know about you, but I don’t relish the thought of sitting in my car for several hours waiting for the battery to charge up.

Don’t expect AAA to carry around a portable generator to ‘fill up’ your Tesla. That’s not gonna happen. Though, AAA might be willing to drag your car to the next charging station. Although, that might be a lot farther distance than you expect. Depending on your AAA plan, it might or might not cover the towing distance. So, you should definitely opt for the longest distance roadside assistance plans that Tesla offers, especially if you plan on traveling.

Let’s not even discuss the shame of riding shotgun in that tow truck with your Tesla dragging behind you. For those of us continuing on our journeys in our gas or hybrid vehicle watching that Tesla in tow, be thankful you are still using the existing infrastructure that’s available.

Where is that infrastructure? (aka. the Apple syndrome)

While it’s easy to find gas stations, it can be almost impossible to find workable charging stations.

Like Apple, Elon is heavily trusting that infrastructure can be built timely. Elon is relying on the same idea as Apple. When Apple introduces a new technology that no one else is using, Apple hopes other manufacturers will quickly adopt and use it within 1-2 years. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Though, technology transitions every 12 months in computers. So, it’s feasible that manufacturers could transition to include that new technology reasonably quickly.

For Elon, relying on this concept is a bad idea. Fuel station infrastructure is no where near this nimble. It might take 10-20 years before a vision of charging stations all across the country is realized. Let’s understand why. The Tesla cars (and many other electric vehicles) require 240v to charge in any reasonable time frame (4-6 hours). To set up a charging station requires digging up the pavement, running cabling, installing charging stations and tapping into the mains (which also, of course, requires power usage metering and approvals by the local power company). It probably even requires building permits by the city and county. It may even by subject to zoning or approvals by the county or city.

Here’s where Elon’s vision (and brilliance) fails. Yes, I know that he’s been desperately trying to build infrastructure to support his business model, but that’s been an extremely tough row to hoe. Trying to get the tried and true gasoline industry to do anything around or for electric vehicles is like trying to ask McDonald’s to advertise for Burger King. Not gonna happen. I’ve yet to drive into a single gas station and find a charging station. Yet, it makes perfect sense to marry these two refill stations if for nothing other than standardization. People would naturally expect to find fuel of all types, including electric charging stations at the corner ‘gas’ station. But, nope. These charging stations are, instead, popping up on shopping center parking lots and on corporate business parking lots.

This means you either need a map to find them or you just have to already know where they are. Worse, it means leaving your expensive Tesla sitting in an empty parking lot where it can be broken into or, worse, stolen.

Having Elon’s company take that fight to Washington is not going to be much more successful either. The government has no incentive to help Elon realize a vision of electric vehicle infrastructure. Why? Because electric vehicles are no more clean than gas vehicles. Instead of exhaust coming out of that catalytic convertor tailpipe attached to your vehicle, it’s now coming out of stacks of coal or natural gas power plants that have no catalytic converter. Electric vehicles just push those emissions somewhere else. This short-sightedness is what will ultimately doom the electric vehicle supply chain. Of course, that’s a problem that isn’t of much concern to Elon. His concern is making sure people continue to buy his expensive short distance cars. After all, $100k for a vehicle is not exactly chump change.

Snake Oil

Back in the day, salesmen would ride into town attempting to sell a concoction of ingredients that would “fix your ailments”. While those days are mostly long past, with the exception of ‘As Seen On TV infomercials’, Elon’s Teslas are at once a bit cool and a bit snake oil. Selling his $100k vehicles with the idea that you can drive long distances is almost certainly a form of snake oil. He’s more than happy to go right ahead and pull that wool right over your eyes in hopes you forget all about those pesky infrastructure problems while traveling.

Unfortunately, you’ll learn the hard way when your car runs out of power in the middle of an interstate or worse, in some rural back road with no cell service. Good luck in finding a power charger in the middle of nowhere on someone’s farm. Thinking about visiting Burning Man in your new Tesla? You might want to think again or you should consider dragging a diesel power generator along, because you’re not going to find any access to a power grid in the middle of the Nevada desert (or in any place close to Burning Man). Though, if your car does run out of power at Burning Man, you might find some kind person willing to let you charge your vehicle off their generator, for a fee. Or, you might not.

What about Fuel Cell vehicles?

Fuel cells are a great concept. Unfortunately, they have several significant failings including fuel and the infrastructure to obtain that fuel (same problem as electric vehicles). Fuel cells require hydrogen. Not only is it next to impossible to find hydrogen fuel anywhere, it’s expensive. Why? Like electricity creation, the extraction of hydrogen requires burning fossil fuels. Perhaps using even more than in electricity creation.

For all of the same reasons as listed above for electric infrastructure, hydrogen fuel will suffer the same fate. On top of that, fuel cells are heavy. Placing this entire battery infrastructure in a vehicle forces the vehicle to weigh a lot more than a gas or electric powered vehicle. The heavy weight limits maximum speed, limits how much you can carry and makes the vehicle more dangerous in a wreck (both from weight and from the hydrogen perspective… think of the fiery Hindenburg). Wrecking a fuel cell vehicle could lead to a rapid and intense fire that quickly consumes the entire vehicle.

At this juncture in our transition towards alternative fuel vehicles, those vehicles that make the most sense offer gas powered generators to recharge along the way. These vehicles make the most logistical sense for anyone considering cross-country travel. At least with a gas powered generator, with a little gas from AAA, you can get back on your way in a few minutes. With electric only, expect your car to be towed. Let’s not even discuss AAA and fuel cells.

Salesman of the Decade

Suffice it to say that Elon’s claim to fame should be as a salesman. A very good salesman at that. How many other salesmen could possibly build a car that has no infrastructure, offer a 250 mile maximum distance and still rake in over $100k for a car? Not many.

I’m not saying that the Tesla vehicles aren’t well made. In fact, it seems that they are very well made. It’s not the quality of the vehicle that matters here. What matters is the ultimate convenience to use the vehicle. If the primary two goals are not being met, then it is very difficult to justify buying this car. For example, many apartment complexes offer no charging stations at all and have no intention of installing any. This means that if you want to own an electric vehicle and you live in apartment, you’re forced to charge it in some parking lot somewhere away from where you live. This also means you need transportation to and from your car. If your complex has garages, you might be able to get away with charging with 110v, but that might take two days to fully charge. Again, not feasible.

Elon’s task should have been infrastructure first, then cars. Instead, he chose the opposite path. Build the cars, sell them and hope the infrastructure follows. So far, that’s been more of a pipe dream than reality. Yes, more and more charging stations are appearing, but at no where near the rate it should be to fully support an electric vehicle future. But, one thing is perfectly clear, Elon epitomizes the perfect salesman and should probably be named Salesman of the Decade.

Power Grid

Finally, it’s definitely wise to discuss the aging power grid. As more and more vehicles transition to sucking their power from the grid, that means more load on the grid. We’re talking 240v loads. Just how many of these cars can the local grid actually support? We might need to talk to the owl. Hopefully, it’s more than 3. Eventually, the grid infrastructure may become overloaded and not be capable of handling that load. I’d expect to see a lot of grid growing pains as electric vehicles become more commonplace. As gas cars become replaced by electrics, that’s ever more load on the grid. We do not yet know the ramifications of or the peak of that load. Though, one thing is certain. When we do find that peak on the grid, we’ll start seeing blackouts, burnouts and exploding transformers until the power company can get it back under control. Power companies are almost never proactive in adding capacity. Capacity costs money and until that capacity is reached, it is not deemed a problem.

There is a lot of old infrastructure out there built long ago that handles the grid. Yet, putting more and more heavy device users onto the grid, such as a Tesla, could mean failing grids. Failing grids from which the power companies are not willing to touch until they’re forced to. Old gear is almost never replaced until it fails. I’d expect power companies to remain complacent until this whole issue comes riding back to bite them in the ass. And, bite them hard it will.

These are all things that Elon is not considering when he is selling his vehicles on the market. He just wants to sell vehicles, not worry about whether the grid can support the number of vehicles he wants to sell this year or whether there’s enough chargers around the country to support cross country travel. Yes, he puts up the pretense that he’s looking into the battery swap program, but what is the status of that program? I’d also like to know how Tesla plans to personally handle stranded motorists when one of their cars runs out of power.

There are far too many questions unanswered here to really call Elon a brilliant visionary. Instead, I’ll stick to the term salesman extraordinaire. Like most salesman, it’s about making the sale. Not about actually delivering on the promises you made to the customer during the sales process. In answer to the question whether he’s selling snake oil or selling brilliance, I’ll end by saying he’s a little of both, but only as far as sales.

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Are electric cars really good for our environment?

Posted in economy, fun in the sun, green energy by commorancy on January 8, 2011

On the surface, this question seems like it has a simple answer.  And that simple answer is ‘Yes’… or is it?  Let’s explore.

Green or Brown?

Electric cars seem like such a great idea until you realize that you have to plug it into the power grid to recharge the thing.  So, how is this car greener than, say, its gasoline counterparts?  On the one hand, the car itself runs clean.  No fossil fuels to burn so no emissions to speak of.  This is a good thing.  The bad thing is that it has to pull from fossil fuel derived electrical energy to recharge.  This ultimately means that while the electric car itself is no longer the gross polluter, that pollution has been pushed off onto the electrical suppliers.  So they, in turn, have to ramp up more fossil fuel production to handle the added load to charge these 240v batteries in electric cars.

So, how did that exactly save us anything?  Maybe it makes the buyer of the electric vehicle feel more environmentally conscious until we consider where and how the power was generated to recharge that electric vehicle.

I should point out here, though, that the tires, the plastic parts and the moving parts are all derived from or utilize fossil fuels.  For example, nearly all lubrication is almost always fossil fuel derived.

Alternative energy sources

As more and more electric vehicles are deployed onto the nation’s roads, the power grids will have to be enhanced to support the power generation needed to recharge these cars.  That means, ultimately, more fossil fuels being burned to create that energy to send it down the line to recharge your car to let you go to work.

We need to rethink this entire process.  We need to find a way to get clean power generation from nature. Unfortunately, energies derived from solar, wind or water are temperamental and, at times, impractical.  That is, we can’t rely on solar, wind and water derived energy to support the numbers of people who want to buy into electric vehicles let alone power the entirety of people living in the US.  So, the grid suppliers have to dip into fossil fuel derived energy generation to provide electricity across the board.  As more and more of these vehicles hit the road, the grid may eventually become overtaxed by the cars and we may, once again, end up in rolling blackouts.

So, we need more stable forms of energy that are renewable for a lot longer than fossil fuels.

Running out

It has already been predicted that we are on the downward slope of fossil fuel supplies on earth (i.e., peak fossil fuel supplies).  Those rich abundant supplies that were once everywhere are slowly drying up.  If we, as a society, don’t find more clean renewable power generation, our information age may come to a halt leaving us squarely back at a time without electric power or natural gas.  A time when there were no cell phones, no cars and no grocery stores.

If you think about the things that are all around you every day that derive their existence from fossil fuels, you begin to understand the scope of a society where fossil fuels have run out.  That means, no new plastic, no gasoline, no fossil fuel generated power, no oil for motors, no computers, no iPods and no cell phones.  In fact, there won’t be much of our present society left if the earth runs out of fossil fuels.  This also includes lack of medicine and all that that implies, but let’s stay focused on energy sources.

Clean burning, natural, renewable energy sources

Are there any?  Sure, if you count water, wind and solar.  But, as I said, these are temperamental.  What other power generation tools do we have?  Well, there’s also atomic energy that heats water to steam and turns turbines. Unfortunately, the safeguards necessary to prevent another Chernobyl are too prone to human error.  Atomic energy generation is just too risky. So, are there any others? Yes.

Thermal energy

Not just any thermal energy, the earth is home to lots of geothermal energy.  The difficulty with geothermal energy is getting to it and, secondarily, preventing the creation of accidental volcanoes and eruptions.  So, where could we utilize geothermal energy and maximize the energy generation?  In the ocean, of course.  There’s plenty of water to steam and turn turbines.  There are plenty of open geothermal pockets under the ocean that lead into the water.  So, we should be able to figure out a way to take advantage of these open pockets to turn ocean water to steam and generate electric power.  The trouble, of course, is getting the power from the ocean floor back to a distribution grid to send the power out.

Geothermal energy is about the only energy on the planet that can be easily harnessed, that exists on its own and that is completely renewable.  Unless the Earth dies, geothermal energy is about the only source that we can rely on as constant.  Just look at Old Faithful to see just how stable geothermal energy can be.  The only difficulty is in trying to find a reasonably consistent geothermal vent that can be reliably used to generate energy using steam turbines. However, once enough of these are found, these can be used to eventually replace burning of fossil fuels to generate heat to generate steam to to turn turbines to create energy.

Energy deficit

Fossil fuel sources should be considered as previously stored energy pockets.  Energy that was created by the sun. The sun first fostered the growth of plants and animals here and then these plants and animals died, decayed and converted into fossil fuels.  These fuels from many many years ago are now being used today to operate our economy.  The trouble is, these fossil fuels are finite and we are using them very rapidly.  In fact, we may have used more than half of all of what’s on Earth to operate our economy from day to day.  Consider when we drilled our first oil well vs how much fossil fuel we use today.  As a result and because these resources are finite, we will eventually run out of it.  Since we really have no idea how much more we have until it all ends, we should now consider that we are living in an energy deficit, and on borrowed time.  That is, we are using more energy now than we should in order to allow for support of future generations.

So, while people continue to have babies, they aren’t asking when these babies become adults will they have a future? And, what of these kid’s babies?  Where will they be?  This is why we are now living on borrowed time at the expense of our future generations who may find themselves looking back at us thinking how selfish we were.  And they will be living at a time when they may be burning candles, eating locally grown foods and doing subsistence farming just to keep food on the table.  They may have our technology, but no energy to run it.  What will become the currency of that day?  Perhaps seed.  Once the world ends up as local economies without contact to other remote economies, the government won’t be able to keep order.  So, the government as we know it will cease to exist.  Without cars, then there’s no need for driver’s licenses or car license tags or any other governmental taxes or fees as they won’t make sense in a local economy.

Without thinking ahead for renewable energy sources, our future generations may have no future.  At least, not the future we see today.  In fact, their future may not resemble anything of  our information society.  This is very likely where we will end up without finding a new fuel source for power generation.  This is the importance of finding clean renewable energy that is synergistic with the Earth.

Electricity is not a power source

Electricity generation is the end result of the work from some other device (i.e., burning fossil fuel turns turbines that generate power).  Electricity is not a power source itself, however.  But, electricity is what drives every part of our economy today.  Just think what the world would be without electric power.  Without locating and instituting a replacement for fossil fuel electric power generation,  the world’s economy will likely end as we know it when our fossil fuel supplies dry up.  Our dependence on fossil fuel power generation is nearly 70% of all power generation in the US as of 2009 (and it is likely similar if you look at the world overall).

Full circle

So, that electric car you buy today borrows against fossil fuel power generation (coal, natural gas & petroleum) to recharge your brand new electric car.  Obtaining power from the local power grid ensures that at least 70% of the energy placed into your electric vehicle was generated by coal or natural gas, both of these resources are finite and coal does not burn clean.  So, a renewable synergistic power generation source is a must for the Earth and the future of humanity, let alone the electric vehicle which is only truly green once we have this renewable power source.

In addition to regenerative braking, we also need to consider more car regenerative power sources to keep the car from requiring recharging nearly as often and to allow for farther traveling distances. For example, someone could invent a paint that acts as a huge solar panel. So, every inch of the external painted surface could double as a huge solar power generation panel while driving in the sun. Additionally, alternating polarity magnets could be placed below highways to generate current as you drive over them which continually recharges your car’s batteries as you drive.   Thus, drastically increasing the mileage of an electric vehicle with far less need to recharge as often.  Also, fans could be placed behind the grill of the vehicle to capture wind energy as you drive.  Again, all of these techniques add even more power generation to the vehicle that increases mileage while also keeping that car aesthetically pleasing.

Looking at today’s electric vehicles, these designs seem so infantile compared to what could be achieved with proper governmental infrastructure support of electric vehicles.  Right now, electric vehicles look green, but really aren’t. Once we harness truly clean renewable energy sources (like geothermal energy) combined with more extensive regenerative power sources, we might finally be able to call the electric vehicle green.

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