Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Contemplating Things Automotive...

I bought an SUV the other day. A 2004 Nissan Xterra. I needed a hauler, a light truck or something, and the SUV was - contrary to news reports - the most economical option. It's not something to drive every day on our commute (that's what the Honda Accord is for). There are several Hybrid trucks and SUV's out there now. Contrary to the reports I've been reading and hearing, they're not even all that hard to find sitting on the lots. The Toyota Dealership I went to had 35 Priuses sitting on the lot. 25 new ones and 10 used (returned lease vehicles, I believe). And despite this evidence that the scarcity that is being alleged in order to inflate the price is either exagerrated or non-existant, the prices are exhorbitant.

I wanted to buy a truck, not put myself in hock. So we bought the Xterra. It's a really nice truck. It's bright freaking "CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?" yellow, which someone who has recently been injured (though not as badly as I might have been, thank God) in a major auto accident finds especially attractive.

I really like the idea of kissing Shell and Exxon-Mobile goodbye, but how is it possible? The market is extremely confused right now. A four-cylinder 2000 truck that's been beat to hell would cost more than a 2004 pristine V-6 SUV. And don't even try to buy a hybrid Chevy Tahoe or Ford Explorer or any of the Japanese brands. Forget it.

I know the arguments for allowing the market to address issues like this, that supply and demand will eventually self-correct. And to a certain degree, that may be true. But watching over the course of the two months I've spent shopping for cars has made it abundantly clear to me that the current market-that-is has to date utterly failed to take us off the greasy grid. And until today (I'll get to that in a minute) I had despaired that it ever would.

For some time now, Denny and I have corresponded offlist - dating back to before the formation of this blog, I believe - regarding the feasibility of alternative automotive technology. We've touched on hydrogen and hybrids, but mostly, this has centered around the always-on-the-horizon Chevy Volt electric concept car.

I have my doubts about the feasibility of electric or hydrogen motoring stepping in to take the place of the Petro-mobile for many reasons (at least anytime soon) not the least of which is the lack of supporting infrastructure. To get, say, Hydrogen cars into every driveway in America is beyond daunting. It would require either our government or an entity the likes of a Standard Oil to step up to the plate and say: "We're focusing all of our energy and billions in capital on this technology to the exclusion of all others. We will develop and implement the infrastructure, the technology, the science and then we will convince the American people (or the Russian people, whatever) to buy into it."

Uh huh. Good luck with that. And good luck convincing a risk-averse Wall Street to pay for it.

The government has historically lacked the political will. The petroleum companies are paralyzed with indecision, and I've been convinced up to this point that they were ultimately going to have to be the ones to admit that the need for another option is indicated. This is complicated by the complexity of the technologies in question. Gasoline infrastructure was pretty easy to create by comparison. An internal combustion engine was an internal combustion engine. By the time it got more complicated than that, the standards were engraved in stone. Now, there are so many competing technologies, fuels, alternatives and (heaven help us) PAC's pushing thier pet solution(s) that it boggles the mind. And no standard has presented itself. No infrastructure plan has sounded workable. And - again - who will pay for it?

I know that there are many and diverse opinions here about the veracity and scope of global climate change claims, and to be honest, I don't care what you think about the Greenhouse Effect. Because it's a reality that what we're really facing on the ground is a choice between energy independence and the continued yoke of the oil states, including the one that just invaded Georgia, a debutante by a reemergent economic and military power bouyed by petroleum revenues.

For as long as our dependency on oil continues, this will be the state of things and our claim to Superpower status will continue to be undercut by global petro-politics. They have it, we don't. But we need it. We can wring the last drop of oil out of every moose in Alaska, put up a wall of oil derricks off the shores of both costs and the likelihood of truly slipping the noose of Asian and sub-Saharan oil oligarchs is a vain hope. It's a wyrm that eats its own tail.

So... electric? Where does the electricity come from? How many people can plug cars into a powergrid already groaning under the load of booming demand and brownouts up and down both coasts? More nuclear? More coal? Wind? Solar?

Unless someone steps up and says "I have an idea" and goes on to prove that it's not only a good idea, but it's scalable to the demands beyond just the coastal population centers, that it's affordable, feasible now... well, if you followed the link to the Wired.com article above, you'll find an intriguing article about a guy that's thrown his hat into that ring. Shai Agassi not only has an idea for an infrastructure, but a way to implement it using existing technologies. No waiting for better batteries to be invented (as in the case of the Volt), no waiting people to get over a generational hindenberghydrogenophobia.

The guy's a dreamer on a grand scale. What if we could tell the entire oil-producing world "Thanks, but we've got another idea..." What if the need for oil was reduced to plastics and lubricants? How would our lives be different if we didn't need the good will of countries like Saudi Arabia? Russia?

It's not a perfect plan. Neither was gasoline, frankly. Outside population centers it will be slow to catch on, but then, so was electricity and telephones and broadband, and... and... and... I'm not convinced that the extant grid can accept the additional load, but if he builds power generation plants dedicated to this specific use... I think it could work. In fact, he's sold a lot of people on the idea, including venture capitalists, the governments of Israel and Denmark. Proof of concept will be those two countries.

Here' s the idea in a nutshell (and feel free to correct any errors or omissions).........
You own the vehicle. The company owns the battery. You pay by the mile, like a cell phone plan. The car's OS calculates your destination and how much power it will require. If you have enough time to generate a charge, you plug into the grid and charge normally. There will be stations set up at population centers where you would generally expect to find a gas station. If there's not enough time for the desired charge to be generated, the computer contacts a repository (think a Jiffy Lube for batteries) and arranges for you to have a fresh battery installed for your longer trip. Fully automated. No charge for the change because the batteries belong to the company in much the same way your Visa card belongs to the issuing bank.

One of the drawbacks to electric cars is the time necessary to generate the charge necessary to go, say 100 miles, as it compares to the amount of time it takes me to put 100miles worth of gasoline in my gas tank. This system would - in theory - eliminate that drawback with it's battery exhange program.

Until the personal teleporter is perfected, this might just be the ticket we need to cut the middle eastern apron strings.

So this isn't a polemic, I don't think either of the presidential candidates is saying anything compelling or new about energy. This is just Official Notice That Scott Is Intrigued... in case anyone cares. I want to learn more. And I want to know what everyone else thinks.

Monday, August 4, 2008

RE: Denny's Farming Post

What can I do about it? This guy had an interesting idea. A return to the Victory Garden, anyone?

The demise of the American fish wrap

Recent news reveals the rapid decline of the American newspaper. Some even claim that the American newspaper is dead. Many people put forth many reasons why, but I believe the answer is simple.

Somewhere along the line, American newspapers stopped providing Americans the resources they wanted.

Since the advent of television news, American newspapers felt they had to compete with other forms of media to remain the source of breaking news and to remain the source of record. Along the way, however, Americans realized that they can get different kinds of news from different kinds of sources, but many newspapers failed to adapt to the new niches new ways of delivering the news created.

One niche that newspapers have ignored is local news. I am not talking about reporting on how many murders or fires happened, but what is going on in the place that the paper claims to serve. I am not talking about a glorified community calendar, but in depth coverage of what is going right, what is going wrong, and how the paper’s readers can be involved.

Newspapers have also missed the niche of impact. Local newspapers are in a better position than any other kind of news organization to deliver in-depth coverage of local, state, national, and international news in a way that makes such news relevant to local readers.

How can papers fill these niches? Simply by focusing themselves locally. Bigger papers need to create multiple, hyper-local editions. Smaller papers need to focus on what is going on outside their own front doors. Papers need to employ people who write for the benefit of other people, even if those writers are not “trained journalists”. Papers need to focus not just on events, not just on problems, but on trends, ideas, and solutions as well.

The newspapers that will survive the current changing marketplace will be the ones who see these niches and exploit them. The ones that fail will be the ones that continue to try to be something their readers to not want or need them to be.

Maybe I should go start a paper. I bet I could buy the Dayton Daily Fishwrap (News) in a couple of years because I understand what would sell papers.


Cross-posted on Dennis L Hitzeman’s Worldview Weblog

Cross-posted on Journalistic Pursuits