Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Paranoia about Big Corporations

At the end of an upbeat article at New Scientist on the future of electric cars, a commenter wrote this:
The second coming of the electric car was around 15 years ago when GM released the EV1 with NiMH batteries that got a range of around 100 miles. But motor vehicle companies didn't want to make electric vehicles because they would eliminate the monopoly of mega-corporations in building cars. They would just be TOO RELIABLE and anybody could fix most problems. Car companies didn't want electric vehicles on the road because they work BETTER than gas guzzlers and a lot of revenue comes from people having to replace parts in their car.
This is interesting because it is so absolutely typical of an enduring American paranoia about capitalism and big corporations. This kind of thinking ignores the technical challenges involved in doing anything new and assumes that since our problems would be easy enough to solve if we tried, there must be a conspiracy behind our failure. There are no technical problems, just moral problems. In fact, though, improving batteries is a very hard problem. So is improving fuel cells, another focus of anti-corporate paranoia. Another reader much more knowledgeable than I am about electric cars made this response:
I suppose you don't even remember how bad the NiMh batteries were 15 years ago. They had awful recharge efficiency, wouldn't perform in the cold and self discharged significantly in a matter of days so if you let your car sit for a while, it would go empty on its own. The car [EV1] was also very small with seats for two and absolutely no carrying capacity beyond that because it weighed more than a normal four door sedan.
The company that first builds a reliable electric car with a decent range is going to get very, very rich. There is no force in the capitalist world strong enough to keep people from pursuing that kind of profit, so if it hasn't happened yet it is because we don't yet know how.

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