When I First Caught the EV Bug

When people ask me when did I start becoming interested in electric vehicle I honestly tell them I can't remember. Electric vehicles weren't an "aha!" moment in my life where I suddenly realized that I was seeing something revealed for the first time. Electric vehicles and many other forms of capturing and using alternative energy have always been in my psyche. I think it goes back the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970's.

I was a preteen and a teenager during that time, very much interested in cars and driving, as well as being interested in science's ability to solve our everyday problems. One of our neighbors purchased one of Bob Beaumont's tiny Sebring-Vanguard CitiCars and I was enthralled. I never got a chance to look at it up close. I just would see it driving on the street here and there every once and a while. The Apollo space missions were well on their way and on the moon was an electric car. I remember going to GM's Tomorrow Land in Disney World and becoming fascinated by what I saw.

One thing I saw was a machine that held plants up in the air and allowed them to grow and root in mid-air by misting the root system. I also remember my first inklings of applying logic and practical thinking there too. After the buzz of the presentation I remember learning about the retail value of the fruit from that plant I saw being held up in the air and suddenly realized that it may have been cool to see but why in God's green earth would you spend several thousand dollars on a machine that keeps a plant alive in mid air so that it can produce a fruit that retails for a few cents. It would take a millennium to pay for the machine. I realized that a lot of what we were seeing was just big company razzle-dazzle and not practical science.

There is much to be said about basic research that is good. This experiment with the cheap plant and the multi-thousand dollar machine has its merits rooted in basic research, which is a good thing. However, bringing it out as a display as a solution for poor quality arid soils was ridiculous. From there I was able to connect the dots to a variety of demonstrated technical solutions presented in prototype that were extremely impractical and presented as a solution to the crushing problems of our day. Those displays were too impractical to ever make it to the market place yet they pushed more credible solutions to the wayside.

The large US automakers talked about what they were going to do, while things in essence stayed the same. Their failure to adjust to the market place with product rather than rhetoric instilled in me my first critical view of the American automobile industry. That view was clear to me as a teenager in the mid 1970's and unfortunately remains today. The view I held then is the same one I hold today. That is that in the face of very serious industrial and market change the US automakers fail to change significantly enough to maintain their markets, their sales and their profitability.

They doggedly hold onto a model of the market that they want to sell into rather than the market that will buy their cars. It took the US auto industry ten years to answer OPEC with smaller more fuel efficient cars. All the while the US auto industry whined about how hard it was for them to produce smaller cars, how they couldn't make any money making small cars, how the consumers didn't want smaller cars. It took so long that by the time they were finally able to get something that American's wanted the crisis was over and gasoline prices began to stabilize at a much higher cost but lower then where they had been. The only thing that the American automakers had to face after the oil embargo was over was the vaunted quality issue, of which two decades after that crisis began America auto industry finally made inroads into the problem of quality. Unfortunately, Japan's quality had improved, the product line of Japanese cars had already adjusted to the new likes and tastes of its American consumers and Europeans had reaffirmed themselves in the marketplace with better quality products and higher performance then that of their American counterparts. The view stayed the same. In the face of very serious industrial and market change the US automakers fail to change significantly enough to maintain their markets, their sales and their profitability.

Back as a teenager the oil companies very carefully manipulated public sentiment by coining the OPEC created and Oil Company profited artificial crisis in oil production as a broader "Energy Crisis." I remember almost immediately talking about conserving electricity, I remember people pushing for more nuclear power plants, I remember conservation becoming the watch word and conserving coal as being a major focus of that thrust. A ridiculous notion since we had about 600 years worth of easily accessible coal in the ground and there was no threat of shortages any time soon. What we had was an embargo, which meant at that time there was plenty of oil in the ground and plenty of oil available; it was that OPEC nations weren't sending it to us, a factor that showed all of us how vulnerable we were having allowed ourselves to become too dependent on a single source of energy. It begged the question, why, if being dependent on oil makes us so vulnerable economically to other nations, nations that may view us as their enemy, would we allow ourselves to maintain that vulnerability?

President Jimmy Carter weaned the United States electric power industry off of oil almost instantly. A proper response to the threat, however, the automobile industry didn't do anything to mitigate the threat. I, to this day scratch my head and wonder; why, if so much damage was done by the oil embargo to the American auto industry would automobile executives allow themselves to be so vulnerable again? If I were an executive of the American auto industry that had lived through the near bankruptcy of my industry, seeing Chrysler being bailed out by the Federal Government and seeing large portions of our market share ceded to the Japanese, why wouldn't I be working like crazy in the intervening years to mitigate the threat of the thing that did so much damage to my company and to my industry. Instead the American auto industry's response was to go headlong into the practices and market vulnerability that they so enjoyed in the 1970's. And almost like clockwork the same scenario occurred again. How does the saying go? Those who fail to learn from the failures of the past are doomed to repeat them. For me the times we are living today are a repeat of the 1970's failures in energy policy and executive readiness. All you need to do is replace the words small cars with hybrids and big cars with SUVs and you would be using the same language. Why didn't the executives at our automobile manufacturing companies learn the lessons of history? Why didn't our legislatures put laws in place to maintain our economic security?

Since the artificial oil only crisis of the 1970s I have been trying to keep up with all of the innovations to alternative fuels and energy as best as I could. Nothing got me as excited as the World Solar Challenge except the announced soon after by GM those electric vehicles would be available for the general public soon, all things that came to pass in the last decade of the previous century. The innovations centered around the same things. That was, make the vehicle as light as possible, improve regenerative breaking, make heating and cooling more efficient, and managed propulsion energy use better, all to overcome the shortcomings of the battery. I focused like a laser beam on this new stuff. I aimed my master's thesis on alternative fuel's barriers to entry into the market place. I wanted to understand why we weren't moving forward in America to reduce our vulnerability to oil shocks by diversifying our motive fuel choices.

Every morning on the radio GM plays an advertisement where the head designer of their fuel-cell vehicle talks about his inspiration to become an engineer. He claims it was Sputnik. How appropriate that a Soviet Era technology would inspire the leading engineer to design the drivable fuel-cell vehicle, given that it would take Soviet communism like government control to force fuel-cells on the American public. Now, when people ask me when did I first become interested in electric cars? I think I can safely say, it goes back a long time. It goes back to a time when we had all of the reasons to free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil, but didn't do it. I became interested in EVs when I first saw the first entrepreneurial solution to the 1970's OPEC created oil crisis. I became interested when my eyes first saw Bob Beaumont's Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar?

Tags: alternative energy, batteries, electric cars, Environment, Ethanol, vehicles (all tags)


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