There's a worrying trend in the auto industry right now. The idiom for this trend is along the lines of "Putting all your eggs in one basket". But it actually goes further than that in the auto industry. Companies around the world are doing more than putting all of their eggs in one basket, they're actually getting rid of every egg they possibly can, and then taking their one or two remaining eggs and putting them each in a separate basket. Of course, I'm talking about EVs and AVs, commonly known as electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles.
You know, every time I write about this I feel the need to do disclaimers. Yes, technology must move on. Yes, traditional internal combustion engines must change and be phased out, blah blah blah. I'm skipping it this time. If you don't know where I stand on this yet, go back and read some previous blogs, I'm sick of repeating myself. All the usual disclaimers apply. What I'm here to say today is that the baskets that the auto industry have chosen have every appearance of being dumb ones. To dispense with the metaphor, EV and AV tech are not the kind of technologies that you want to bet your company's future on. Because they're fiction.
I actually had a few issues with Nick's blog on EVs from January. I think he didn't go hard enough on EV tech in the areas that it most needs to be taken to task. Like the range thing. New research in this area comes out almost every month at this point, and I found that this article from the AAA was fairly interesting. It puts numbers to what we already knew: If you want to heat your EV when the temperature dips below 20 degrees, you will lose 40% of your range. 40%! On average! That's not just impractical, that's potentially dangerous. But to be more fair to EVs, let's think up a realistic, non-emergency situation into which we can place an electric car, and see how it fares.
Let's say it's March, and me and my wife head out for a nice dinner in our BMW i3, a car that roughly fits our lifestyle, if not budget. The i3 has a maximum range of about 100 miles. Because this is meant to be a real-life situation, let's say I drove the car to and from work that day on an average commute of 16 miles each way, popped it back on the charger when I got home, and the car is now charged back to 80%, for a range of about 80 miles. There's a nice place called The Capitol Grille in Milwaukee, about 20 miles from our house, mostly freeway driving. So, if we drove from our house to the nice restaurant we'd have a remaining range of about 60 miles, if BMW's advertised range can be believed (which it can't, but that's almost a separate lie at this point). But remember, it's March in Wisconsin. It was in the 30s when we left the house. But now, it's night time, and the temperature is in the teens or single digits. 60 miles of maximum possible range remained when we parked at above 20 degrees, but now the batteries are cold-soaked, minus the heater's 40% share - let us say there are 30-35 miles of maximum range remaining, 20 or so miles from the house. That could be enough, but it also might not be. Stopping at a charging station will add range, but it will also take at least 20 additional minutes of sitting, at night, outside, even if we drive the 5 miles to the nearest level 3 charging point. The level 2 charger a half-mile away might take an hour to add useful range. We could gamble and head home, but what if we hit traffic or a detour? What if we blow a tire? What if we need to use the high beams, or suddenly remember that we're out of eggs and milk and want to stop at the store? What would you do? To be honest, the mundanity of this situation scares the hot shits out of me. If we're as generous as possible with the range, efficiency, and charging capabilities of one of the most modern EVs on the market, going out for dinner in the spring is a fucking thought exercise. March isn't even the coldest month! And I picked the closest possible nice restaurant in Milwaukee! We wouldn't even get lakefront views with our steaks! That's pathetic! THIS is your future? THIS is your savior? No. That's fiction. EVs like the ones we have today will never be enough to kill regular cars, because they are not good enough.
The next thing nobody ever talks about when it comes to EVs is the scarcity of rare elements. Nick briefly brought it up in his post, but again, I think he didn't go far enough. Yes, the mining process is difficult, toxic, and extremely inefficient. But it has to be stressed how rare elements like cobalt, manganese, and lithium are. Of these elements, manganese is the most "common", weighing in at a massive .11% of the Earth's crust. Cobalt makes up a staggering .003%, and Lithium, the tricky little bugger, claims only .0017%. Those numbers are hard to conceptualize, but it is estimated that there are 380 million metric tons of manganese on Earth, which sounds like a whole lot! Until you realize that apart from EV batteries, manganese is a critical element used to manufacture steel, cast iron, and other metal alloys. Right now, 18.5 million tons of manganese are used annually. Before the EV becomes mainstream. At the current rate, we'll run through the world's supply of manganese in 20 years. Before we run out of oil. This is why paying attention to narrative is so important. Remember when the biggest advertising push behind EVs and hybrids was the scarcity of oil? They changed that real quick, didn't they? Know what replaced it? 0-60 times. Thanks, Elon. Cobalt is even more problematic. Some outlets estimate as much as 60% of the world's Cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than HALF of the world's supply, in a country a quarter the size of the US. And, speaking of the DRC...
I added a line in Nick's blog post about the human toll of mining for rare elements, because as a society, we have an opportunity to make a choice about which practices are okay and which practices are not okay at the advent of a newer technology. There is a moment here where we can all be on the right side of the eventual history, and stop human rights abuses before they become just part of the corporate EV machine. Here's what I'm talking about: The DRC is a famously corrupt country, and as of last year, more than 40,000 children were working in the "artisanal" cobalt mines of the DRC. These children are exposed not only to brutal conditions and unsafe practices, but also the toxicity of cobalt, which is known to cause respiratory problems and cardiomyopathy on its own. Oh, and also, cobalt is found alongside an element called uranium. You think a mine that uses child labor pays for safety equipment? They actually use the word "artisanal" to denote that the work is done by hand! You think people that evil give a shit about exposing a child to dangerous levels of radiation daily? Of course they don't! And those are just the problems the natural elements cause. What kind of health effects do you think the acids used in the refining process cause? Not just to the environment, but to the people. To the children. And yet that isn't far enough either. The towns near the mines suffer higher rates of birth defects and sickness. Their water supplies become contaminated, their soil poisoned, their air toxic. All of this is before EVs become mainstream.
How much worse will it get? What if the people from the DRC who deal with these international mining companies decide they're going to militarize? What happens if the money coming in from these foreign mining interests destabilizes the country and civil war breaks out again? If 40,000 children working in dangerous cobalt mines doesn't shock you, what would? 50,000? 150,000? Who do you think will be working in these mines as demand goes up? What price are we truly willing to accept for a technology that has far too many immediate and future limitations to ever be the long-term solution? The term blood diamonds had to become vogue before people began to realize the atrocious impact of the diamond cartels. What happens when the term blood battery enters public consciousness? Ignoring the human cost of EVs is already untenable, and assuming the industry will either take care of itself or continue apace without ever needing to confront the exploitation inherent in performing industrial-scale production in developing nations is a fiction. There is always a reckoning. And wouldn't it be nice, just for once, for an emerging industry to tackle it's exploitative tendencies BEFORE going mainstream? No matter what happens, the auto industry can't run from this forever, and neither can the technology companies.
Now let's talk AVs. Off the rip, fully autonomous vehicles are a complete work of fiction. They will never exist. Period. There is no debate. Like we already talked about on the podcast, the industry leader says so. Who would know better than him? My wife's Hyundai Kona is what's known as a level 2 AV, meaning it can stop itself and has lane assist that will keep the vehicle driving straight. All of that technology, in real-world applications, ends up just above "Fucking Useless". The auto-braking sensors turn themselves off so often we thought the car had a defect, but nope! That's just how the shit "works". It doesn't work in the snow, in the sleet, in the rain, in the mist, when there are no other cars around, in the fog, or when the car is dirty. The lane-keep assist is so high-strung it just goes off for no reason, so that's been turned off since the second day she owned the car. The only useful sensor on that car is the cross-traffic alert for the backup cam. And the Kona is an IIHS Safety Pick+! The safest tier! What are we even doing out here, people?
AV technology is a marketing trick, but I see it more accurately described as a scam. Despite all of the claims and all of the hot takes about how AVs will flood the market in just a few years, we are so far away from AVs becoming even a marginal practicality that it beggars belief. Yet this is a primary selling point for almost every single car brand in the world. Ford and VW announced a billion-dollar partnership over this kind of stuff. That partnership, by the way, still has not actually materialized. At what point does marketing become straight-up lies? At what point do companies step away from these fully-autonomous "concept" charlatans and come to grips with fact? I don't have any concrete answers, but if we use EVs as a guide, announcements about these "cars of the future" that are arriving now generally take about 10 years to show up for sale. The electric car concepts that I saw at Frankfurt in 2009 are just coming to market now, which seems pretty insane to me. If you're advertising a single technology for a decade and barely scraping together something passable at the farthest end of that timeline, how well is your R&D really doing? In which other tech industry would that kind of rollout be acceptable? Well let's look at some tech industry leaders.
In 2009, Apple released the iPhone 3GS, and last year they released the iPhone XR - two devices so different in capability, ability, and function that they only share a product name for brand recognition's sake. In 2009, Intel debuted the first-generation Core i7 860 processors, and last year they debuted the 9th generation Core i9-90060X, a processor that is more than one hundred and sixty percent faster in terms of raw power, and nearly three hundred percent more efficient in the same tasks. Listen, I hear you, AVs are just starting to come out now. They may very well see the same scalar improvement over a decade-long timeline. But never forget that AVs are already marketed as being ready right now, immediately, and imminently all at the same time, when the reality is that all three of those selling points might be lies, and two of them already are confirmed to be false. I have two words to describe all technologies in that same circumstance: Scam, and Fiction.
I said at the beginning that all disclaimers apply, and that remains true. I must also add that cars should be made safer, and that AV technology can in fact make cars safer. But can we not do it like this? I freely admit that my biggest obsession in car culture is narrative, and these are the two biggest out there. But when I look at the stories that these companies tell to consumers about EVs and AVs, what I see is disingenuous in the best case. Yet most companies are throwing their entire might behind these two technologies - some to the exclusion of all else - and I just don't see it working. Yes, over a long enough timeline, EVs and AV tech might work out the way they say it works now, but the entire point is that right now, these technologies don't work the way they are said to work.The counter to narrative is always reality, and the two are at direct odds at this very moment...but nobody really seems to care all that much. It feels more than a little like I'm screaming into a void here, especially when I look at car Twitter, where every other post is about an EV, an AV, or an EV/AV. It could also be that I'm wrong, and EVs and AVs are now too big to fail no matter how real they are or aren't at this very moment. That is often what happens when every company puts the same egg into the same basket: Wrong or right, damn the torpedoes, those ideas make it to market. But it's what happens after that determines whether or not the gamble paid off. 2019 is going to be a big year for EVs and AVs, so let's all watch and see what happens to these eggs. And also that Instagram egg too, I guess. Is that still a thing?