Bob and I would sometimes get in a family car and drive to the top of Gore Hill just to see if we could coast back down the hill to the river. It was a bit tricky with his dad's old Chevy working better than our family Falcon. The Chevy was a bit more aerodynamic. To minimize rolling resistance you would pump the tire pressure up to as much as you thought you could get away with. Cheap retreaded snow tires in cool weather worked much better than Summer tires. Early Sunday mornings with little or no traffic and a day with no headwind (strong winds from the West were cheating too). Turn onto the on-ramp, scan for traffic and the police, clutch-in, shift to neutral and turn the engine off.
We made it twice, but there must have been thirty or forty attempts. Pure fun. There was also the ride to Choteau. It took you through a bit real prairie, a Hutterite colony, fields of hops, and brought you close to the edge of the Bob Marshall Wildness (know to locals as 'The Bob'). The draw, of course, was Choteau's first traffic light and driving the sixty or so miles from Great Falls to find the next red light was a quintessentially teenage activity in the day.
A few decades ago a central coming of age event for many teens in the US was getting a driver's license. The family car, if you could borrow it, represented freedom. Kids with their own cars had status. Training for the car culture. As danah and many others have documented, teens were allowed a greater freedom of place and there were places to go.1 Local malls, parks, even mindless joyrides with friends.
While there was real freedom for teens and families on vacation, the current reality of driving is different. Cars with over four hundred horsepower and the ability to reach sixty miles per hour in under five seconds are shown driving in fantasy regions that don't exist for most of us. Driving has become a burden and millennials appear to be coming to grips with reality more rapidly than their elders.
In the early days of the automobile driving was hallenging to the point of adventure. Roads were terrible and breakdowns were common. Mobility was greatly improved and there was the prospect of a changed life. Madison Avenue figured out how to romanticize the potential with Ned Jordan and the Jordan Motor Company. Folklore has it that he saw a beautiful woman racing her horse by the train on a trip through Wyoming. He asked the conductor where they were and heard: Oh, somewhere west of Laramie. He penned an ad for the Jordan Playboy which was published in The Saturday Evening Post. I seen it cited as a watershed moment for associating a product with romance rather than the product itself.
... the text of the ad (if it is difficult to read)
Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about.
She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome.
The truth is--the Playboy was built for her.
Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race.
She loves the cross of the wild and the tame.
There’s a savor of links about that car--of laughter and lilt and light--a hint of old loves--and saddle and quirt. It’s a brawny thing--yet a graceful thing for the sweep o’ the Avenue.
Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things gone dead and stale.
Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.
That brings us to today.
There has been a lot of speculation on the future of cars with speculation on electric power being made necessary by global warming along with advanced like driverless vehicles. But change comes slowly to the automobile industry - especially when there are new technologies, usage patterns and even notions on what is romantic.
Tesla may seem to be at the forefront, but I would suggest they are just making a large and spendy American car. A very nice car, but an incremental improvement on what the current state of the art. It isn't particularly green unless you have a very green power source - wind, solar, hydro, or nuclear. It may be a beautiful ride that can take you a few hundred miles between charges, but it is nearly two and a half tons of vehicle and physics tells you a automobile's usage pattern is not efficient if you are moving a lot of mass around.2 Of course the tailpipe emissions of an electric are a big plus and a certain status attached, but this is not an innovation.3
Currently there are about a billion cars on the road. In areas where usage is close to saturation there is a great deal of resistance to change even though the need for change seems clear. Infrastructure is expensive to change, new manufacturing processes are difficult to scale, regulations are difficult to adjust and, perhaps most of all, people have a deeply routed idea of what a car is.
Change seems much more likely in the next billion cars that will mostly go into the developing world. There are also some interesting niches where automobiles have reached their limits and have lost much of their practicality - dense urban areas.
Google recently announced a new prototype of their self-driving car. Previously they've modified existing family cars and have driven them mostly in suburban environments. There are several important points. The areas where this can be used are tightly constrained - it has a 40 km/h speed limit, about 25 miles per hour. That means passenger crash protection is much cheaper and lighter. The car can be very light - perhaps 500kg or so in final form. This, combined with its top speed and a reasonable range means you could get away with less than ten horsepower. It is a plug-in electric. At this weight in common urban driving patterns the battery could be small and the drive train would probably be less expensive than a conventional high efficiency internal combustion engine. Maintenance of a pure electric vechile is much lower than that of a conventional car and lifetimes can be much longer. Finally the self-driving only nature of the car means, combined with a dense urban area, means it is practical to go to a car sharing ownership model. It is likely companies or local governments will own and maintain the vehicles.4 You'll just buy the transport you need. Think of it as a more efficient and less expensive taxi.
Google loves to show off their exploratory work and it the publicity appears to be part of building and maintaining their mystique. They're hunting for new businesses that will take them beyond peak growth in search and ad revenue. There are many possibilities and they're throwing a lot of darts at the wall. This is one of those darts. It seems reasonable to me that we could see small sized electric self navigating cars in a few urban and even suburban environments in the next three or four years. Moving to the North American notion of what an automobile's job is happens to be much more complicated and will wait much longer.
There will be a lot of competition in this area as a dozen other companies have projects investigating the same space. The megacity car for developing countries is likely to be the growth path for automobile companies - you've know some of the names, but it also seems likely there will be major players that aren't building cars at this point and may not exist yet. The history of technology suggests that the people who work on technologies that eventually become major innovations rarely are those who dominate the innovation stage.
I've burned up my hour without saying much about the efficiency of electric versus internal combustion power trains, how mass and aerodynamics get involved and why physics may dictate where change first appears. Fodder for the next post.
1 Much has been written on the increase in the structure of teenage lives. It is a core theme in danah boyd's new book It's Complicated, which is a must read for anyone interested in the sociology of computer mediated communications.
2 If you really want to optimize your carbon emissions there are many other uses for your money than buying an electric car given the cost differential. Better to reduce your driving and flying, insulate your home, and so on.
3 Tesla is working on two potential innovations. One is breaking the dealer-based car sales model in the US and the other is the widespread use of stationary batteries to augment a slightly smarter grid and allow a much greater penetration of intermittent alternative energy sources.
4 I have problems with the term 'sharing economy' and only use it to give a general idea of how this might happen. Many models will probably be tried and there is a good chance the best model for New York City would be very different from Madrid or Shanghai. Rather than write something on 'sharing economy' I'll link to a piece by Susie Cagle... I'm roughly in her camp.
To own a dish you need to make it a lot - perhaps dozens of times so you can understand how it works as ingredients change in taste and freshness as well as discovering some new tricks. One of the dishes I love is an afghan lentil soup that tried to equal that of a few restaurants. I like it better than any of the restaurants now.
The key ingredient is the dried sour plums. You can find them in major cities like NYC, but I use Fastachi in Boston as a reliable mailorder supplier. Dried sour plums are one of those revelatory ingredients that can kick off some interesting experiments.
Afghan Red Lentil Soup with Sour Plums
° 4 tbl extra virgin olive oil
° 2 medium-large yellow onions minced (it is a bit different and also good with red onions)
° 6 large garlic cloves minced
° 6 cups water (may need to add more)
° 2 cups red lentils (cleaned!)
° 1/2 tsp red pepper
° 1 tsp turmeric
° 16 dried sour plums - a good source is Fastachi
° non-iodized sea salt to taste, after freshly ground black pepper to taste
° saute onions and garlic in olive oil until the onions are golden
° add water, plums, spices and salt and bring to boil
° cut heat to medium and add lentils and stir
° cut heat a bit more and cover
° cook 40-45 minutes - stir regularly and add water as necessary
° puree it and season to taste (it can take a lot of black pepper and it is important to note that black pepper ages quickly)
° serve with a warm, crusty bread. The soup does improve with time.