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November 23, 2009

Comments

When the options available are escalation, escalation, escalation, or escalation it's hard to see how there are any decisions for our society to make.

That's the natural outcome when you ask the Pentagon for proposals. It's hard to imagine the general who doesn't want more soldiers, more special forces, more bombs, and more remote-control killing machines.

When the options available are escalation, escalation, escalation, or escalation it's hard to see how there are any decisions for our society to make.

Well, right, but I'm talking about through voting, or other means, trying to influence the lawmakers involved in asking for/reacting to said options.

As a society, these are the decisions we will have to make.

i think you mean: as a society, this is a decision we will have no say in, because those decisions are made by people who represent the interests of arms dealers and weapons manufacturers and only pretend to listen to voters.

my kingdom for editable comments.

1: Wait, can I have one without the escalation?

W: Well, there's escalation, drone strikes, COIN, and escalation; that doesn't have much escalation in it.

1: BLEAH! I don't want any escalation.

2: Speak for yourself. I'm having escalation, escalation, escalation, escalation, escalation, escalation, nation-building and escalation!

W: Nation-building is off.

2: Well, can I have escalation instead of the nation-building?

W: You want escalation, escalation, escalation, escalation, escalation, escalation, escalation, and escalation?

[Viking chorus][exeunt]

My resistance was useless, so I hereby apologize to all and sundry.

Poor Eisenhower, with all that rolling over and such...

engine, engine, number 9
on the New York Transit line

(Since it seems the train has already fallen off the track, I'm not bothering with the next line.)

Ahhhhh, but Eric thinks we could influence this by voting, the truth is we already do. We fall for the kneejerk toughguy everytime. It is part of our national psyche. Until we change ourselves, our politicians (including Obama) will continue to pander for our desire to be lead by a toughguy.

'Tis better to have bombed and lost than to than never to have bombed at all.

"We can either have a massive presence in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next quarter century and beyond - and perhaps open up some new fronts - or we can cut back on those enormous expenditures and realign our spending priorities to deliver vital services like infrastructure investment and a true medical social safety net."

Just because both cost money doesn't mean we have to face a choice on them now, or at any point in the near future.

For one thing, it's more than possible to expand and improve health care coverage in a way that ends up costing less money.

For another, it's more than possible to expand and improve our capacity for military intervention in a way that ends up costing less money.

Sure.

Anything is possible in some abstract sense.

But in the here and now, Afghanistan and Iraq are costing much, much, much money. Any foreseeable intervention: same. We're talking multiple trillions of dollars. If we dig in to the tune of several trillion more, our ability to spend on other priorities will be constrained.

As to health coverage, I agree it's possible - but ultimately, if we marry cost cutting with expanded coverage, overall cost will continue to go up and up, even if we get more bang for the buck. And infrastructure and other domestic spending will continue to cost more money.

Back in the "As they stand up" thread, I said this:

According to the CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan's GDP in 2008 was $22 billion in purchasing power parity, and just $12 billion at official exchange rates. Whichever figure we take as more meaningful, either one is much smaller than the $50 billion, minimum, that the US must spend annually to keep 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Whether the US "needs" to "win" in Afghanistan might be debatable. That US jingoes keep pushing for a ludicrously expensive way to go about "winning" is not. That US jingoes are almost exactly the same people who incessantly caterwaul about "wasteful spending" is just icing on the cake.

So I'm glad to see Steve Clemons raise the same point.

I am also glad to see Obey and Levin proposing a "war surtax". The next thing I want to see is a call for CBO to "score" any proposed spending on Afghanistan.

--TP

It's pretty clear that most people understand this choice, and that a small majority of them prefer the social spending to the military spending. It's why they kicked out the Republicans.

The public is pretty smart. Politicians & the media, on the other hand, not so much, which is why we get choices between healthcare reform that kind of sucks and healthcare reform that really sucks a lot, and between a continuing expensive occupation of a country that poses no threat to us and a continuing really, really expensive occupation of same.

"The public is pretty smart. Politicians and the media, on the other hand, not so much, ......"

With Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck and other assorted nincompoops and imbeciles threatening to run for President to great huzzah, not to mention all of the once fairly normal politicans and journalists who inhabit Congress and the media and who have transformed themselves into scenery-chewing, hollowed-out zombie as--oles, one wonders about the alleged savviness of the public.

I think the rabble outnumbers the informed public and now infests our institutions.

What's left of the informed, well-intentioned public (regardless of political persuasion) should beware of the future and what it holds.

The rabble is going to become violent. I don't think there is enough "public" left to prevent the damage.

The average yearly income in Afghanistan is about $400 a year (which, given the state of womens rights in Afghanistan is probably also the household income), the US median household income is $50,000 a year. So it stands to reason that because nature abhors a vacuum and we've opened a portal to Afghanistan, we should expect this to happen.

But the cost argument presents the second question, which is if we could reduce the cost, should we do it? That's why you tout over the horizon strikes as an answer.

This Spencer Ackerman piece should be read in its entirety.

In fairness, campaign-trail Obama did promise more war in Afghanistan so while I oppose this escalation (along with his earlier escalation) it doesn't surprise me.

Are we still supposed to believe in the PNAC fairytale of bombing democracy into the Afghan and Iraqi people? The evidence at hand doesn't encourage me. If the goal was to install a local strongman then I'd like the odds better.

Of course, it's necessary to portray all invasions and bombings as selfless outpourings of goodwill for the invaded and bombed people. If the war in Afghanistan fails, how will we justify benevolent war on Iran, Yemen, and Somalia.

Yeah, well, I didn't say that a very significant minority weren't completely unhinged or that that isn't worrying. I just said that overall a small majority of the public makes smarter decisions faster than the politicians and media conventional wisdom do.

Which as you note is like comparing their performance to a bunch of mindless zombies, so it's a low bar, but nonetheless.

On "Meet the Press" yesterday, when David Gregory asked Senator Lieberman if he would support a tax that would fund our presence in Afghanistan, in order for it to be deficit-neutral, Lieberman's jaw dropped.

The look on his face -- clearly, he was not expecting the question -- was priceless.

"Sure. Anything is possible in some abstract sense."

It's not just the abstract sense -- these things can be financed with more debt or higher taxes. We have the money.

The problem is getting it -- though considering, for example, that the top 0.5% of the country has seen its share of GDP increase 50% in the past couple of decades, I don't think that's really too much of a problem*.

And even if it were, most of government cost growth over the past decades have been health related, followed by the military; in both cases, a not insignificant portion, or most, of the escalation has not served the sectors function.

In health care, we spend incredible sums of money because of poor pooling of resources, lack of preventive care, a fee for service delivery system, etc.**

In defense, at least half the budget is used on programs that serve no function but to fight a conventional or nuclear war -- when (1) any such adversary would currently have far less, and (2) the longer the conflict, the less relevant our military expenditures at the beginning of the conflict would be. IOW, these preparations -- things like most missile defense, or what the F-22 was supposed to be -- are, more likely than not, a waste of money.

*Kudos to bedtime, BTW; while it does illustrate an all too common hypocrisy and cowardice, for me it's just another brick in Liberman's jackass wall

**"but ultimately, if we marry cost cutting with expanded coverage, overall cost will continue to go up and up, even if we get more bang for the buck"

As a share of GDP?

Just saw the clip bedtime referred to -- and it's even better than I thought!

Basically, as I saw it, Sen. Droopy's look was when he found himself forced to say that he would support paying for the war.

I know, he'll probably look to weasel out of it, but it's still nice to see the media do (at least part of) it's job and make politicians at least say they'll do the right thing.

I wonder if Afganistan will end up being for Obama waht Veit nam was for LBJ.

The average yearly income in Afghanistan is about $400 a year

The population is a bit under 30 million. So by just handing out a paltry $12 billion a year we could double the average income. Let's do that every year - making sure to pay the money directly to the Afghans - with the condition that if any group with any connection to Afghanistan launches any sort of terrorist attack the payments stop.

Just a few links from the zeit:


http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120725456&sc=nl&cc=brk-20091123-1914

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/world/asia/24policy.html?hp

http://www.cnas.org/blogs/abumuqawama/2009/11/public-service-announcement.html#

Interesting times.

Ahhhhh, but Eric thinks we could influence this by voting, the truth is we already do. We fall for the kneejerk toughguy everytime. It is part of our national psyche. Until we change ourselves, our politicians (including Obama) will continue to pander for our desire to be lead by a toughguy.

Yup. Or an even tougher girl.

It's not just the abstract sense -- these things can be financed with more debt or higher taxes. We have the money.

Abstract in the sense that getting that money through higher taxes will be a bitch. Further, massively ramping up tax revenue might help us to stay budget neutral, but won't help us to unwind our debt/deficit issues. Even treading water at this point would require a remarkable influx.

As to cost cutting in health care, it's doable, but again, the institutional push back is extremely powerful.

And the band played on...

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama met Monday evening with his national security team to finalize a plan to dispatch some 34,000 additional U.S. troops over the next year to what he's called "a war of necessity" in Afghanistan, U.S. officials told McClatchy.

We really are a nation of hollowed-out, zombie a--holes, as the wise man put it up thread.

Yeah, that seems to be true of just about every public policy these days.

To take the example of transportation and infrastructure -- these actually aren't paid for (at least primarily) with the general fund*, but through the gas tax.

It's a great system -- since transit and roads benefit directly people who drive -- but it's run into problems as people use less gas, causing revenues to slip.

Now, if you wanted a simple, sane response to the problem, you'd raise the gas tax**, while slipping in a car VAT as you see diminishing returns.

But that's not going to happen, because, these days, anytime a politician says "tax" and doesn't precede or follow it with "cut", too many people go apesh*t.

I don't think this country has a problem of priorities, so much as... well, something worse, really...

*which reminds me, Eric's inclusion of infrastructure in our nation's budget priorities is a flawed argument

**Since (a) it's currently very small, much smaller than just about any other industrialized nation -- (b) so small, in fact, that the regular alterations in gas prices more than make up for it -- and (c) you, ya know, want people to be driving less anyway

JTC, my last post was re to Eric

wow, typepad just ate a lengthy comment [shakes fist] TYPEPAD!!! I got a very strange page of code, which crashed Firefox.

I don't feel like retyping it, so..a short version.

We have been at a crossroads for a while, and have been flirting with choosing the wrong road since the 80s. The choice is between denial and facing reality. I'm not optimistic, but do have fingers crossed about Obama's new Afghanistan policy. I have a lot of problems with him, but if he gets this right, it will be really major.

OBL couldn't be happier if Ugh's excerpt turns out to be accurate. We're such bumbling fools, over and over again.

"Further, massively ramping up tax revenue might help us to stay budget neutral, but won't help us to unwind our debt/deficit issues."

It's not a long jump from being budget neutral to running a surplus; if we can combine savings in health care and defense, while bringing in more revenue, this shouldn't be a problem*.

The debt's a long term problem; ideally, a simple matter (at least on paper) of being essentially budget neutral for a prolonged period.

*though it probably will be

It's a great system -- since transit and roads benefit directly people who drive -- but it's run into problems as people use less gas, causing revenues to slip.

Really? I thought it was running into problems because (1) the gas tax is a fixed fee per gallon that doesn't change with either inflation or the price of gas and (2) the gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993. Now, does anyone here believe that prices have generally remained constant since 1993? Has the cost of asphalt or the wages paid to road crews remained exactly the same? Of course not. Inflation exists. Having a gas tax that doesn't rise with either inflation or fuel costs is self-evidently absurd in a country where the Senate is obsessed with never raising taxes no matter what.

All this talk about "people driving less" being the problem is just wrong.

Now, if you wanted a simple, sane response to the problem, you'd raise the gas tax**, while slipping in a car VAT as you see diminishing returns.

Given that you've completely failed to correctly diagnose the problem, your solution is, unsurprisingly, wrong.

"I know, he'll probably look to weasel out of it, but it's still nice to see the media do (at least part of) it's job and make politicians at least say they'll do the right thing."

Yeah, I was surprised when Gregory asked the question and snapped to attention to hear/see Senator Droopy's response.

It's about time someone took off the gloves with Lieberman, who inexplicably, along with McCain, is a regular on the Sunday shows. At least Liberman's swing-vote status makes what he says noteworthy, but I will always view him as a traitor to the Democratic Party.

---

Ugh's update about President Obama calling Afghanistan "a war of necessity" is discouraging. Meanwhile, as AQ's presence there shrinks, finding Osama bin Laden continues to be a non-priority.

And once again, Barack Obama looks no different than George Bush.

I'll thank Turb for catching me on the gas tax's abeyant rate in response to inflation -- I should have included it.

Nonetheless, people have been reducing gas use, and, in the long term, the gas tax will likely need to be phased out.

And, in the short term, raise the gas tax*.

*Even if you then connect it, via formula, to inflation afterwords, your still going to run into diminishing returns

I think what you're looking for is a sales tax on gasoline, instead of (or in addition to) the existing excise tax.

Nonetheless, people have been reducing gas use, and, in the long term, the gas tax will likely need to be phased out.

Really? Do you have a cite for that?

It is possible that total miles driven per year has failed to keep up with population growth, although looking at the data, I don't see any such trend.

Moreover, we know that the fuel economy of the vehicle fleet has not changed much at all:

From 1980 to 2004 the fuel economy of U.S. vehicles has remained stagnant despite apparent technological advances. The average fuel economy of the U.S. new passenger automobile fleet increased by less than 6.5 percent, while the average horsepower of new passenger cars increased by 80 percent, and their average curb weight increased by 12 percent. For light duty trucks, average horsepower has increased by 99 percent and average weight increased by 26 percent over this period. But there’s more to this story: in 1980, light truck sales were roughly 20 percent of total passenger vehicles sales — in 2004, they were over 51 percent.

And, in the short term, raise the gas tax*.

The need to raise the gas tax has been apparent to thinking people for a long long time. Simply exhorting Congress to "just do it" has not worked and will not work in the future, so you need not waste your time doing so. Have you ever considered why Congress refuses to perform what seem to you to be self-evidently correct actions? Or is this just another failure of will?

*Even if you then connect it, via formula, to inflation afterwords, your still going to run into diminishing returns

This argument is not correct. Road construction and maintenance costs a certain amount of money per year. If we set the gas tax by simply dividing the expected costs by the expected number of gallons consumed, there would be no problem. There are no diminishing returns.

Turb

The key is fuel efficiency -- it's gone up roughly 5% since 1975 overall, and the current administration is looking to do double that in the next eight years.

http://forcechange.com/2008/10/15/those-who-dont-know-their-energy-policy-history-are-destined-to-repeat-it/

http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/obama-fuel-efficiency-47052002

When people pay more for something, they tend to use less of it. Combine that with an overall goal of reducing our use of petroleum and fossil fuels, your going to see diminishing returns from a gas tax.

Also, this is an interesting argument:

"The need to [do X*] has been apparent to thinking people for a long long time. Simply exhorting Congress to "just do it" has not worked and will not work in the future, so you need not waste your time doing so. Have you ever considered why Congress refuses to perform what seem to you to be self-evidently correct actions? Or is this just another failure of will?"

Now, TBF to myself, I think I made reference to a number of people "going apes*t" on anything tax related in a previous comment.

Still, this expresses what, when you get down to it, is what really poses America's number one challenge -- the very capacity of the citizenry to discuss and engage the issues, and of their representative government to function.

*X being any given sane and necessary policy

Fuel efficiency has gone up considerably; it's gas mileage that's the problem. See the aforementioned gains in horsepower. (I'm only being half a wise-ass in making this distinction.)

One of the very few times, perhaps the only time, I can recall agreeing with Charles Krauthammer was when, on one of the Sunday morning shows a couple years ago, he said the simplest and most effective way to force automakers to produce cars and trucks that get better gas mileage and force the driving public to consume less gas was to increase the gas tax to, say, $4 per gallon (or something around that). Granted, I don't think he was advocating such a policy so much as saying it would be effective with regard to a particular set of goals.

Mileage gains could happen (relatively) quickly, given the technological advances that have already occurred, but that are being applied to increasing horsepower moreso than gas mileage.

Returns might dimish, although from a different (i.e. higher) starting point. I'm not so sure that's a problem if it results in achieving worthwhile goals.

"Returns might dimish, although from a different (i.e. higher) starting point. I'm not so sure that's a problem if it results in achieving worthwhile goals."

Right. That's why my thinking was we should phase in an alternate overtime, so that we don't have to make cuts or unduly ration capital for infrastructure, transit, and the like*.

*as an example -- the US is far behind the rest of the world in high speed rail

The key is fuel efficiency -- it's gone up roughly 5% since 1975 overall, and the current administration is looking to do double that in the next eight years.

So, over the last 35 years, the economy has grown by a factor of 3 but the fuel efficiency has grown by a factor of 1.05. I think that proves my point, don't you? Heck, over the last decade, the efficiency of household refrigerators has gone up by a factor of 2.

Please provide a cite on the administration's specific plans to double fuel efficiency of the fleet over the next 8 years.
When people pay more for something, they tend to use less of it. Combine that with an overall goal of reducing our use of petroleum and fossil fuels, your going to see diminishing returns from a gas tax.

We are not going to have a society where no one uses roads. So there is no problem with ratcheting up the gas tax over time so as to cover the costs associated with road construction and maintenance. If vehicular efficiency suddenly improves, this fact does not change. If every car tomorrow became twice as efficient, then simply doubly the gas tax would keep funding constant. Seriously Point, can you explain to me (rather than just asserting sans evidence) precisely what problems would arise if we simply raised the gas tax to cover costs?

Still, this expresses what, when you get down to it, is what really poses America's number one challenge -- the very capacity of the citizenry to discuss and engage the issues, and of their representative government to function.

I'm not sure I see a problem with citizen's inability to discuss issues. I mean, if you explained to everyone you know that the gas tax has remained at $0.18 for the last 16 years while the price of the things we pay for using the gas tax have doubled, I think that just about everyone would understand the problem and be able to explain reasonable solutions.

Fuel efficiency has gone up considerably; it's gas mileage that's the problem. See the aforementioned gains in horsepower. (I'm only being half a wise-ass in making this distinction.)

No. Total fuel efficiency of the vehicular fleet that we actually have has not gone up considerably. Fuel efficiency of theoretical vehicles that Americans are not willing to purchase in significant numbers has gone up a great deal, but since no one is buying those vehicles, they don't matter much.

Right. That's why my thinking was we should phase in an alternate overtime, so that we don't have to make cuts or unduly ration capital for infrastructure, transit, and the like*.

Why do we need an alternative? There will be many people using roads in the future, no matter what. Those people should pay for road construction and upkeep. Why on earth would improving fuel economy make a gas tax any less feasible a mechanism for doing so?

Point, for that argument to work, you need to incorporate the elasticity of gasoline prices. This summary suggests a long-term (one year and over) elasticity of -0.58 e.g. a 10% increase in fuel price reduces long-term fuel use by 5.8%.

In numbers, doubling the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon would increase pump price by 6-10% (considering high and low prices in 2009). That would decrease fuel use by 3-6%. For revenue, that's 200% (doubling per-gallon revenue) times 94-97%, giving a total of 188-194% of no-tax-increase revenue.

Is that a case of diminishing returns? Of course it is -- diminishing returns are the rule, not the exception. But, even diminished, those returns are positive and large.

(Additionally, people with environmental concerns consider the reduction in fuel use to be a positive aspect.)

Fuel efficiency of theoretical vehicles that Americans are not willing to purchase in significant numbers has gone up a great deal, but since no one is buying those vehicles, they don't matter much.

You're missing the point I was trying to make (I guess), which was a distinction between gas mileage and fuel efficiency. If I can put out 80% more horsepower with the same amount of fuel, that is more efficient, even if I end up using the same amount of gas (with better acceleration). Maybe that's a stupid point to be making, but it's entirely different than what what you seem to be responding to, Turb.

"Why on earth would improving fuel economy make a gas tax any less feasible a mechanism for doing so?"

Because it would result in less gas usage.

If all goes well, this country's roads will primarily provide for electric vehicles before too long; if and when we reach that point, we'll need something other than a gas tax to pay for them.

"Is that a case of diminishing returns? Of course it is -- diminishing returns are the rule, not the exception. But, even diminished, those returns are positive and large."

That's my point -- that's why raising the gas tax is sanity in transportation policy.

Ah thanks for explaining HSH, I think I see what you're saying now. You're right, I've been using gas mileage and fuel economy interchangeably and that was dumb; I've meant gas mileage. But I don't really understand why this is relevant to questions about the suitability of the gas tax for funding road construction and maintenance. Can you spell out the argument? Or did you just want to point out the inconsistency?

Maybe this will clarify things somewhat:

http://earthtrends.wri.org/searchable_db/results.php?years=1990-1990,2000-2000,2005-2005&variable_ID=292&theme=6&cID=190&ccID=

Gas consumption per capita increased in the 1990's, but has been falling in the past decade.

So: I think I could eat some crow, granting that my original point -- that we're using less gas -- was right. And it's the later that determines the revenue raised by the gas tax.

If all goes well, this country's roads will primarily provide for electric vehicles before too long; if and when we reach that point, we'll need something other than a gas tax to pay for them.

Thanks for explaining your (until now unstated) assumption.

I don't think this is a reasonable assumption at all. From a climate change perspective, there isn't much of a difference between a vehicle powered by gasoline and one powered by electricity generated by a coal fired or natural gas burning power plant. I mean,your regional power plant is much more efficient than your car's engine because it burns fuel at much higher temperatures but you lose a lot of those efficiency gains by actually pushing the power through the electrical distribution network and dealing with large batteries. The environmental costs of battery construction and disposal cannot be ignored. As a result, efforts to mitigate climate change seem unlikely to trigger a massive swing towards electric vehicles.

Beyond that, purely electric vehicles have significant costs; at the end of the day, gasoline is a really effective energy storage medium. It has a high energy density and is pretty easy to transport and store. Let's say you drive a car that gets on average 30 miles/gallon about 30,000 miles per year and you pay $2.50/gallon. If cap and trade effectively taxes gasoline at $0.125 per gallon (which isn't completely crazy), you'd be paying an extra $125 per year. Now, compare the price difference between comparable hybrid and non-hybrid vehicles. It boils down to a great deal more than $125...And bear in mind that purely electric vehicles have so far been significantly more expensive than hybrids. Under most cap and trade regimes, it seems unlikely that it will make economic sense for more drivers to switch to purely electric vehicles.

If you have a hybrid with a decent battery and an average commute, you're can be practically driving electric.

At any rate, your using a lot less gas, which is good -- but if enough people are doing it, and the revenue system is unchanged*, then that's less money for the roads you're still using.

*no change in gas tax or additional sources

"From a climate change perspective, there isn't much of a difference between a vehicle powered by gasoline and one powered by electricity generated by a coal fired or natural gas burning power plant."

This is a reasonable concern but it's not actually true, for a number of extremely sound reasons.

Firstly and most importantly, battery-electric cars are charged overnight. At night a fairly large percentage of electric power generated is wasted. There's very little power demand at night, but coal, nuclear, hydro, and wind power plants all produce all night long. Very little energy is generated from sources that can be shut off as desired. And there is essentially no power storage on the grid. This is why your electric utility is willing to sell you power in the middle of the night for next to nothing - because otherwise it just goes to waste.

In fact I would be surprised if the climate-change emissions of a coal-powered electric car were higher than those of a conventional gasoline car.

The other factor is that the system of grid power and electric cars is vastly more efficient than the system of gas cars, even taking into account transmission losses & battery storage. Gasoline engines are spectacularly inefficient - about 20% efficient. Newer fossil-fuel power plants are over 40% efficient with the latest being nearly 50% efficient. So, even with transmission losses, battery losses & motor losses, electric cars are still much more efficient because they start off with a 2x-2.5x efficiency advantage at the point where the fuel is burned. I mean, think about it - power plants are enormous stationary machines that do not need to be optimized for weight efficiency and that can be connected to other systems to make use of the waste heat. Car engines are tiny little machines that have to be as light as possible and cannot possibly make significant use of the waste heat. It's no wonder they're much less efficient.

You're right that a tax of $0.125/gallon is not going to be enough to cause significant changes in behavior. But the price difference between hybrid and non-hybrid vehicles is going to fall and pretty soon will point in the other direction. I say that with a great deal of faith because the transition is from a mechanical system - the gas motor - to an electronic system. And electronic systems respond far better to economics of scale and to innovation than do mechanical systems.

On top of which, pure-electric vehicles will require almost no maintenance because they have very few moving parts. (This is one of, if not the major reason that the car companies have been reluctant to introduce them.) Tires, steering racks & suspension will still need maintenance. (And electrical systems!) But most of the maintenance costs of cars are on belts, gaskets, spark plugs, oil changes, air filters, catalytic converters, exhaust systems, radiators, water pumps, hoses - none of which are needed in an electric car.

Give it 20 years and the idea that you would have a water-cooled gasoline engine in every car is going to see completely insane - like putting a coal-fired power plant next to every house that the homeowner had to pay to maintain.

So even if the electric-drivetrain components only halve in price (which I think is a pessimistic take), the lifetime savings from a car that requires almost no maintenance would exceed them by far.

The gas-price shock of the naughts will be seen as a wake-up call here, but the electric car was just waiting for battery technology to catch up. Well, it caught up. It's here.

(In relation to the overall problem of climate change, though, cars are pretty much a distraction. The big, big, big target is coal-fired power generation, which has to go away. If you want to make a difference in the world, press your politicians (either party) to accept that coal power has to go the way of the dodo, despite the real pain that that will cause many people in coal-producing states - pain that should be mitigated but will be real. Driving a Prius does very close to nothing to deal with the problem of climate change.)

Gas consumption per capita increased in the 1990's, but has been falling in the past decade.

I would hesitate to draw any conclusions from those numbers until you compensate for the effect of macroeconomic and demographic changes. The population is growing older, which means, all other things being equal, one expects that per capita consumption should decline over time since elderly folks are somewhat less likely to drive. So I don't think these numbers settle anything.

So: I think I could eat some crow, granting that my original point -- that we're using less gas -- was right. And it's the later that determines the revenue raised by the gas tax.

First, the assertion that we're using less gas is just wrong. Look at this graph. Do you see a serious long term downward trend (note that the bottom of the y-axis does not start at 0)? I don't. In any event, whatever decline you can pull out of that data is insignificant compared to the fact that the gas tax has been stuck at $0.18 per mile for the last 16 years even though both the price of gasoline and the costs of doing road maintenance and construction have increased significantly over that time.

Second, even if lower gas usage was actually happening in the real world, there is no reason that a gas tax couldn't be raised every year to compensate. Your hypothesis that we're about to replace a large fraction of the fleet with electric vehicles is...not well supported to say the least.

If you have a hybrid with a decent battery and an average commute, you're can be practically driving electric.

Go visit fueleconomy.gov and compare a Honda Civic to a Civic Hybrid. Highway mileage goes from 34 mpg to 45 mpg. I do not think reducing fuel consumption by 35% is even remotely like driving an electric car. Do you disagree?

At any rate, your using a lot less gas, which is good -- but if enough people are doing it, and the revenue system is unchanged*, then that's less money for the roads you're still using.

35%. I guess that's a lot.

*no change in gas tax or additional sources

Which do you think is easier: indexing the current gas tax to inflation or introducing a new vehicle VAT and/or a satellite tracking system mileage taxation program? I don't think there is any comparison here.

PS - the fact that electric cars are now practical means that the Kunstlerite dreams of a carless future based on peak oil are, um, no longer operational.

Those guys are going to have to figure out some other way to get people to give up their cars. As someone who thinks that less car-centric development patterns would make people happier and would also be more energy-efficient, I guess I'm supposed to think that's a pity. I don't. The idea of a deus ex machina in the form of peak oil is as childish as the premillenialists dreaming of the Rapture - it is a wish that the universe will prove you right in the end. Well, the universe doesn't roll like that. Persuade people of the merits of your ideas, by all means, but don't count on divine intervention to force everyone to live the way you think they should.

But I don't really understand why this is relevant to questions about the suitability of the gas tax for funding road construction and maintenance. Can you spell out the argument? Or did you just want to point out the inconsistency?

It wasn't so much about the suitability of gas tax-funded roads so much as about the ability of automakers to increase gas mileage fairly quickly with existing technology, were the incentives there to do so. One possible market-based (well, sort of) incentive would be to simply raise the gas tax significantly (i.e. by an order of magnitude, and then some). There would be no need for mandates or tax credits or research subsidies to get automakers to change course quickly (not that these other measures would even necessarily be effective).

The same goes for the public. Relative demand for higher-mileage cars would jump as would car-pooling, use of public transit, telecommuting, etc.

The change in legislation, in and of itself, would be quite simple. The politics in passing it, not so much.

Please forgive my extra "so much" in the beginning of that last one.

"Which do you think is easier: indexing the current gas tax to inflation or introducing a new vehicle VAT and/or a satellite tracking system mileage taxation program? I don't think there is any comparison here."

The cost of a GPS tracking system that can report back the miles driven is, right now, about $100.

Any cellphone with a GPS chip already has every piece of technology that is required. Slap it in a tamperproof box attached to the rear license plate frame so the cops can pull you over if it's missing or messed with, introduce it as a voluntary program for the first 5 years and required on all new cars, you're done. $100 to the baseline cost of a new car is nothing.

The major change would be the bureaucracy, which would be no more or less extensive than the existing vehicle licensing system. In fact, you could save a lot of costs by removing the entire sticker-issuing bureaucracy and replacing it with a light on the box on the license plate. Red light = paid up and working. No light, or a flashing light = system disabled, or you haven't paid the road use fee, please pull me over.

Privacy concerns: a tamperproof system could report only the miles traveled - aggregated and reported once a month - and not where and when you traveled them. Reporting could be over existing cellphone networks, or using the government-owned Iridium network (in volume the parts for an Iridium transceiver ought to cost not much more than those for a cellphone).

Hey, now I want to write the software for this and try to sell it to the State of California. Because I just don't have enough projects.

@Point's 3:11 reply: Thanks for clarifying that. I was unsure whether you were making that point or the untrue but popular Reagan/Laffer-inspired argument that raising tax rates decreases tax revenue in common cases.

Speaking of which, Reagan is the reason the U.S. can't have an adult conversation about anything serious. People loved his folksy and feelgood but shallow and wrong explanations on everything. Taxes don't build roads, they only exist to feed big government. Welfare doesn't provide minimal dignity and support for the poor, it buys Cadillacs for undeserving lazy not-white people. Trees cause pollution. Nuclear power plants produce little waste.

Turbulence: "Seriously Point, can you explain to me (rather than just asserting sans evidence) precisely what problems would arise if we simply raised the gas tax to cover costs?"

You can't raise the gas tax enough to cover costs over time. Assume for the moment fixed efficiency, so a per-gallon tax is also a per-mile tax. The problem is that road maintenance is a function like A+Bx, where x is the miles driven, and both A and B are positive. If you just let the road sit, with no one driving on it, it slowly falls apart anyway. If miles driven goes down with increasing fuel cost, then you end up with (I'm not going to do the derivation) a difference equation that looks something like this

x[t] = C + (D / x[t-1])

where the subscript represents time, C is a positive constant and D is negative. All grossly simplified, of course, but the point is that the sequence of x[t] is strictly decreasing (and the corresponding tax is strictly increasing, going to infinity as x[t] approaches zero).

If x[t] starts out very large, things look stable for a long time. If you can get a sufficient increase in efficiency each year, the system looks stable for a long time. Thermodynamics eventually gets in the way of that; there's a non-zero limit to the amount of energy required to move a vehicle a mile. The system is stable if usage is perfectly inelastic; ie, the same number of miles get driven regardless of the per-mile cost. If fuel starts out cheap enough, things can look that way for a long time. If you can get far enough ahead on tax collections and earn enough interest on the balance, the system can be stable.

In practical terms, though, at some point you need to cover that A term out of revenue not based on usage.

"From a climate change perspective, there isn't much of a difference between a vehicle powered by gasoline and one powered by electricity generated by a coal fired or natural gas burning power plant."

This is a reasonable concern but it's not actually true, for a number of extremely sound reasons.

This EPRI report suggests that I'm correct. For the moderate scenarios, we're looking at a 30% reduction in GHG in 2050 (see table 5-3). Not nothing certainly, but also not that much. Note that it is very much in EPRI's interests to hype electric vehicles.

Firstly and most importantly, battery-electric cars are charged overnight.

There are essentially no plug in hybrids on the market today, so no, this is not true.

In fact I would be surprised if the climate-change emissions of a coal-powered electric car were higher than those of a conventional gasoline car.

Are we assuming that batteries can be created and disposed of with zero environmental impact?

The other factor is that the system of grid power and electric cars is vastly more efficient than the system of gas cars, even taking into account transmission losses & battery storage.

We're going to need a smarter grid no matter what we do, and a smarter grid should allow producers to reduce the amount of surplus power available. Which means that nighttime users will end up paying an electric price much closer to the actual generation cost.

You're right that a tax of $0.125/gallon is not going to be enough to cause significant changes in behavior. But the price difference between hybrid and non-hybrid vehicles is going to fall and pretty soon will point in the other direction.

Do you have any cites to justify this belief? Any expert opinion?

I say that with a great deal of faith because the transition is from a mechanical system - the gas motor - to an electronic system. And electronic systems respond far better to economics of scale and to innovation than do mechanical systems.

Um, no. This is very very wrong.

If you look at why computer technology is able to advance faster than other technologies, you'll see all sorts of reasons that do not apply to electric vehicles. I can talk about the reasons in detail if you're interested.

To put it another way, over the last few decades, has the price to performance ratio of batteries grown at nearly the same rate as computer power? Are you now able to heat your entire home using a battery small enough to fit inside your watch? Why not? I mean, batteries are electronic, right?

On top of which, pure-electric vehicles will require almost no maintenance because they have very few moving parts. (This is one of, if not the major reason that the car companies have been reluctant to introduce them.)

Ha ha ha ha ha! The conspiracy theory bit makes this even more amusing.

Give it 20 years and the idea that you would have a water-cooled gasoline engine in every car is going to see completely insane - like putting a coal-fired power plant next to every house that the homeowner had to pay to maintain.

Is it more or less insane than the belief of everyone during the 1950s that pretty soon everyone would have jetpacks and atomic vacuum cleaners?

So even if the electric-drivetrain components only halve in price (which I think is a pessimistic take), the lifetime savings from a car that requires almost no maintenance would exceed them by far.

Again, there's no sound basis for claiming that the cost of electric drivetrain components will decrease significantly simply because the cost of integrated semiconductor devices has decreased. Maintenance savings might be significant, but I'd prefer to see a cite for this point.

The gas-price shock of the naughts will be seen as a wake-up call here, but the electric car was just waiting for battery technology to catch up. Well, it caught up. It's here.

Really? Does that mean that I can go purchase a plug-in electrical vehicle that is comparable (including price) to my current automobile? Last time I looked, pure electric vehicles were only a few tens of thousands of dollars more expensive than my car.

Driving a Prius does very close to nothing to deal with the problem of climate change.)

On this, we agree.

The cost of a GPS tracking system that can report back the miles driven is, right now, about $100. Any cellphone with a GPS chip already has every piece of technology that is required. Slap it in a tamperproof box attached to the rear license plate frame so the cops can pull you over if it's missing or messed with, introduce it as a voluntary program for the first 5 years and required on all new cars, you're done. $100 to the baseline cost of a new car is nothing.

We can't even make tamper proof voting machines that have to function one day a year in a secured environment surrounded by onlookers. And you think we can just magic up a hundred million tamper proof devices that have to live for years at a time in the possession of untrusted adversaries? Note also that a GPS device by itself is useless and that a cellphone with a GPS device costs a lot more than $100.

Heck, look at the Oyster card and similar devices. Thought to be completely secure and tamperproof. But easily hacked. Government's track record for what you're describing is pretty poor, don't you think?

Privacy concerns: a tamperproof system could report only the miles traveled - aggregated and reported once a month - and not where and when you traveled them. Reporting could be over existing cellphone networks, or using the government-owned Iridium network (in volume the parts for an Iridium transceiver ought to cost not much more than those for a cellphone).

There are a few minor problems here. Such as the ability to jam GPS signals so as to convince a GPS receiver that it is in a different spot than it actually is. I don't think you can come up with a secure, tamper proof, affordable system that does not provide the government with location data on everyone. I mean, if nothing else, you have a cell phone transmitter in the damn thing, right? So, even if it only reports mileage driven, your location data can still be easily triangulated from cell tower logs. What you're describing is a system that is incredibly hard to audit, which doesn't bode well for its integrity.

But this whole premise is absurd anyway: there's no way the government would build a system that theoretically allowed them to track all vehicles but specifically designed it so they could not do that. America is a nation of bedwetters. Obviously, any new system will allow complete tracking by default. I mean, there's just no precedent for thinking otherwise. We live in a country where the government can legally sniff your library book records and seems to monitor every telecommunication without any oversight. We live in a country where people are held indefinitely without trial.

If miles driven goes down with increasing fuel cost, then you end up with (I'm not going to do the derivation) a difference equation

Your difference equation is not relevant here because this assumption is wrong. We have a build environment that necessitates that many millions of people drive substantial amounts every day. That built environment can only change very very slowly. There are very serious limits to how quickly the number of vehicle miles driven can shrink and to how low a level it can reach.

Moreover, if climate change carbon pricing is the primary driver for reducing vehicle miles driven, we're not going to see a very large reduction because the effective price per gallon is so small.

You've got a very nice theoretical model that's just completely irrelevant to the real world. Show me a model that incorporates the structure of the built environment and the rebellion that would occur if the government made it impossible for most drivers to drive their cars and then we can talk.

"Ha ha ha ha ha! The conspiracy theory bit makes this even more amusing."

Hey, are we having a polite conversation between peers who both have interests and expertise in the areas being discussed, or is this a playground slap fight?

I thought it was the former. You seem to think it's the latter. If it's the former, how about sticking to making your substantive point and refraining from the playground crap? If it's the latter, well, I'm not interested in playing.

My apologies Jacob. I shouldn't have written that. I am interested in seeing your substantiative response however.

I'm especially curious to see any evidence you have proving that automakers have deliberately refused to produce electric vehicles because they don't want to lose the opportunity to make money on maintenance.

Thank you, I appreciate the apology. So, where were we?

Firstly, can we agree that carmakers did not devote significant resources to electric car production even during the California subsidy period? (If you really want a cite for it I am sure I can find one, but I don't think that's actually the point in contention.)

What we're really arguing about is their motivation for not devoting resources to electric car development. Did they not do so because their experiments and those of the other big carmakers showed that the technology was immature and not practical for widespread use, or did they not do so because they saw that no other carmakers were seriously developing electric vehicles - no conspiracy required to know that, that was public information - and because they knew that doing so would hurt their profit margins once they started selling electric cars?

That's one I don't think any amount of public evidence can really answer. But the idea that a large corporation would refrain from devoting resources to developing a new product that would directly cannibalize sales of a much more profitable existing product is not unreasonable at all. Large carmakers are in a saturated market, and they look at exactly two factors when thinking about what kind of R&D to pursue: market share, and profit margin. Would an electric car help them expand market share? Maybe, maybe not. (I think it would, and I think the Volt will prove it - but this wouldn't be the first time business management took a conservative line.)

And would an electric car help their profit margins? NO with a bullet - a substantial portion of the profit from the sale of a vehicle comes from maintenance fees. Those fees are paid to car dealers and not directly to the manufacturer, but the manufacturer sells parts to the dealers, and more importantly the prospect of future maintenance income is one of the reasons why car dealers take an extremely small markup on new car sales compared to other retailers. Reduce their income from maintenance and they will demand a higher markup. That means less profit for the manufacturer. And this doesn't require a conspiracy - this just requires each individual car manufacturer to have the same thought: "If we sell someone an electric car instead of a gas car we will make less money". My contention is not that there was a conspiracy requiring collusion, but only that individual manufacturers acting alone were influenced in where to place their R&D dollars by the prospect of reduced profits.

The coordination required is not a conspiracy. It's the kind of coordination that exists when a bunch of manual laborers on a job - all motivated by the identical desire to work less hard - silently come to a work-slow agreement. Which if you've ever had a manual job, you will know takes about 5 minutes absent interference from management.

Now the game has changed in the last few years, because they see other carmakers pursuing electric vehicles seriously. There is now a serious threat to market share based on practical electric cars, and that threat is growing regardless of whether any given car company chooses to spend R&D money on EVs. Now it's a race where before it was more like a bunch of guys dawdling around.

I think that the assumptions about market share and even overall profitability were really badly wrong, by the way. And I think several carmakers recognized that - primarily Toyota and Honda, but also GM & Ford to some extent. Toyota and Honda have benefited from their investment in EV technologies, and GM & Ford have to some extent too, and are increasing their investment in it, as is Nissan (and probably some of the European makers too).

(Other points coming in another comment.)

"This EPRI report suggests that I'm correct. For the moderate scenarios, we're looking at a 30% reduction in GHG in 2050 (see table 5-3). Not nothing certainly, but also not that much."

Well, I guess we differ on whether a 30% reduction in GHG intensity amounts to EVs and PHEVs (plug-in hybrids) being significantly more efficient than gas cars. I think it does.

Me: "Firstly and most importantly, battery-electric cars are charged overnight."
Turbulence: "There are essentially no plug in hybrids on the market today, so no, this is not true."

Well, yeah, I didn't say it was the case that there already existed substantial numbers of EVs and PHEVs because that's obviously false. I said that those vehicles will be introduced and will be recharged overnight, both of which seem to be true.

I could care less about the existing hybrids except as a bridge technology to plug-ins and pure EVs. Their fuel savings over small gas motors are pretty much insignificant. But I thought we were talking about whether electric cars (EVs and PHEVs, not the existing hybrids) would be less GHG-intensive than gas cars, not about what is currently on the market.

"a smarter grid should allow producers to reduce the amount of surplus power available."

Yes and no. A smart grid can probably get more power to useful places even at night, but the physical facts that power plants don't like to be shut down overnight and that we have no ability to store large amounts of electric power means that there will be excess power during the night until we find something to use it on. It's possible that some kind of large-scale storage technology will come along, that would be great, but I don't see it coming soon.

"If you look at why computer technology is able to advance faster than other technologies, you'll see all sorts of reasons that do not apply to electric vehicles. I can talk about the reasons in detail if you're interested."

"To put it another way, over the last few decades, has the price to performance ratio of batteries grown at nearly the same rate as computer power?"

But I didn't say that EV technology would advance at rates like those of computer technology. It doesn't need to. A mere doubling of energy/weight ratios and halving of costs for batteries over 10 years would be enough to make all-electric cars practical. We're not talking Moore's Law, there, we're talking pretty ordinary materials technology - the kind of thing that took us from lead-acid batteries in laptops to lithium-ion over the last 30 years. Battery technology hasn't advanced like semiconductors, but it sure has advanced. The prospect of sales of battery packs for every single car on the road dwarfs the potential return from batteries in portable electronics and is driving substantial investment. And expecting a 2x reduction in cost & 2x in efficiency over 10 years is a pretty low expectation.

"Do you have any cites to justify this belief? Any expert opinion?"

No, it's an article of faith. Seriously, it's a speculation - of course there are no cites that can provide a guarantee that it's true. If the technology already existed it wouldn't be a speculation, and EVs would already be cheaper than gas cars. But if you look at the current cost of a gas engine, it's a very substantial portion of the cost of the whole car. Look at the list prices of GM crate engines, which run $2,000-4,000 for a small 4-cylinder, up to $4,500 for a V6, over $5,000 even for small V8s. Retail, sure, but as a portion of retail cost engines are a big chunk.

Now look at the costs of the DIY EV conversion kits - they run $2,000 - $5,000 not counting batteries, and that's retail, with manufacturing volumes that are tiny. More to the point, the parts required for the electric motor & controller are simpler, smaller, and lighter than those for a gas engine, so there is every expectation that in higher-volume production they would wind up being cheaper than gas engines.

But at the end of the day, sure, this is speculation. Given that GM is planning to release a serial-hybrid (basically an EV with a generator) next year, though, it's not like we're talking pie in the sky speculation here.

My general belief that the manufacturing of electronic and electrical devices can be advanced faster than the manufacturing of mechanical devices is based on looking at the actual development of technology over the last 100 years or so. Mechanical devices that have wear parts and whose reconfiguration requires substantial re-engineering develop slowly, because product revisions are expensive, and any new product must be proven reliable in the field or else incur enormous recall costs. Moving parts mean reliability is always endangered by design changes, which means you're always one design mistake from a maintenance disaster.

Electronic devices whose moving parts are limited to electric motors and whose reconfiguration can often be done in firmware or software develop fast, because product revisions are cheap and easy, and the lack of wear parts means you can pretty much assume if it worked once in the factory it'll keep working forever.

"Is it more or less insane than the belief of everyone during the 1950s that pretty soon everyone would have jetpacks and atomic vacuum cleaners?"

Well, in the 1950s there weren't jetpacks that cost only 4x as much as a car and atomic vacuum cleaners that cost only 2x as much as a regular vacuum cleaner and were 2x the size. If there were, those predictions would be a lot more plausible. We're at the point with EVs where you can (nearly) buy a car that can replace a gas car for about 2-4x the price.

And I do think it's insane to have a water-cooled reciprocating power-generating engine attached to a multi-speed transmission with a zillion moving parts inside every single vehicle, instead of a motor or two and a battery.

On the point about batteries - the environmental costs are not zero but batteries tend to be very recyclable and because they're expensive they also tend to be recycled. Cars in general tend to be recycled much more than other products because of the sheer quantity of materials that go into making them, there's no reason to think batteries would be an exception.

I don't think most of the points about the practicality of a vehicle-by-vehicle tracking system are worth arguing over, that's all very speculative on my part and not really about questions of fact - you may be right overall, you're certainly right that there are significant implementation questions. But I'd bet money that that's where we'll end up.

I do want to make one factual point about the availability of $100 combined GPS/GSM devices:
http://www.chinazrh.com/gpsgsmgprs-tracker-power-saving-p-913.html

As for not building in ubiquitous tracking, yeah, well, I'm an optimist. The experience with local toll-payment systems certainly supports your pessimistic view - there is no real reason why the tolling systems should remember the exact time and date of bridge crossings where the transponder operated, or track you on the open road even where tolls are not in force, but they do anyway. But I can dream, right?

Multi-part !D

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Turb (@ 4:29)

First, your link showed "vehicle miles traveled" which is not the same thing as "gas consumed" -- in fact, the reason I was drawn to VAT was that vehicle travel seems to be pretty steady, even as the vehicles use less gas.

I think we may have to agree to disagree about the market future of plug-in hybrids*.

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The discussion about the feasibility of the VAT (following the comment) was great reading. Kudos to the commenters!

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"Speaking of which, Reagan is the reason the U.S. can't have an adult conversation about anything serious."

I think of him as more of a symptom -- though if he were the cause, he'd be the worst thing to ever happen to this country for that reason alone.

-----

*I apologize for being unclear, just saying "hybrid" -- that includes alot of vehicles these days

Looking at the past two comments, I've got to give cred to Jacob for doing a much better job than anybody here* discussing the market potential of the plug in hybrid...

*certainly me

The post: comparing spending priorities in health care and war

The thread: over half on the gas tax and electric cars

Posted by: ___

On batteries:

The Mac Portable retailed for $6,500 in 1989. It had a 32 watt-hour battery and the whole system weighed 16lbs.

The 17" Macbook Pro retails for $2,500 today. It has a 95 watt-hour battery and the whole system weighs less than 7lbs.

Yeah, screens & keyboards & cases & circuitboards got a little bit lighter, which is why I picked the 17" Macbook, but the history of laptops is really the history of laptop batteries. And here we have a roughly 6x increase in power:weight ratio in 20 years. And as for price - well, the original Mac Portable used a lot of expensive components, but a replacement battery for a Macbook is like $120. As a component of total price, I am guessing the batteries have shrunk considerably, they have certainly gotten a lot cheaper in price:performance terms.

(It'd be really interesting to get the actual power:weight ratios of the batteries in both computers and the retail costs of battery replacements, but I can't find them.)

OK, just one more:

Turbulence: "Moreover, if climate change carbon pricing is the primary driver for reducing vehicle miles driven, we're not going to see a very large reduction because the effective price per gallon is so small."

This is completely correct. Carbon taxes are not going to be a major driver of reductions in fuel consumptions. Gas taxes that are not carbon taxes could be, but politically speaking they don't seem to be on the cards.

The enormous reduction in gas consumption (to the point of near elimination) that I think we'll see by 2050 will be driven by the economics of electric vehicles, based on my expectation that their retail cost, running costs, and maintenance costs will amount to a substantial and unbreakable advantage over gas-fueled cars.

One thing that will happen is that gas is likely to get cheaper as demand falls. But the mere fact that gasoline is a convenient, high-density, portable, safe energy source isn't enough (in my opinion) to keep it from being supplanted by electricity & batteries, because of the cost of building and maintaining complex gasoline engines.

First, your link showed "vehicle miles traveled" which is not the same thing as "gas consumed" -- in fact, the reason I was drawn to VAT was that vehicle travel seems to be pretty steady, even as the vehicles use less gas.

Point, in an earlier comment, I gave links indicating that the fleet is not becoming any more efficient. Did you not see that comment? Do you think the analysis is wrong? Or is it just beneath your dignity to comment on?

Turb, (1) we've had this conversation about fuel efficiency* -- in fact, in the very next comment, I talked about fuel efficiency, looking at it in a different light -- (2) it's still not the same thing as gas consumption.

So no, I didn't think your point was beneath my dignity to comment on. But the way this conversation is going, I'm starting to get that overall impression.

Turb, (1) we've had this conversation about fuel efficiency* -- in fact, in the very next comment, I talked about fuel efficiency, looking at it in a different light -- (2) it's still not the same thing as gas consumption.

In that comment, you failed to address any of the points I raised. You still haven't provided a cite for your claim that fuel efficiency will double in the next eight years. I don't see why you think a 5% increase in fuel efficiency over three decades is significant. Your response is very confusing.

If all goes well, this country's roads will primarily provide for electric vehicles before too long; if and when we reach that point, we'll need something other than a gas tax to pay for them.

If all goes well, won't we all have battery powered ponies?

The gas-price shock of the naughts will be seen as a wake-up call here, but the electric car was just waiting for battery technology to catch up. Well, it caught up. It's here.

It's here, it is also too expensive for mass use and based on the use of raw materials that would run out even faster than oil if used on the same scale. For example, here is the battery technology for the first production electric vehicle:

The Tesla's battery pack is rated at 53 kWh which is enough to power an average U.S. home for 2 days. It is assembled from 6831 individual type 18650 batteries, which are cylindrical cells with about twice the volume of an AA-size battery. They are the same cells used inside laptop batteries. These individual cells are connected together and packaged with a charge controller to monitor and level the charge of the individual cells. Just the wholesale cost for the batteries for that pack would be about $39K assuming a cost of $.74/Wh for Li-ion cells, which I have confirmed with a few Chinese battery suppliers as the typical wholesale pricing for Li-ion cells when purchased in volume.

In addition to the raw cost of the batteries, there is the labor cost of assembling the cells and the cost of the charge controller and housing. It also has a sophisticated arrangement of sensors, microprocessors, and its own liquid cooling system. When you add the assembly labor, controller, and packaging to hold 750 lbs of batteries, my estimate is that this pack costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $50K to manufacture.

So basically you just take thousands of laptop battery cells and hook them together into one hugely expensive super battery.

Then you have to replace the super battery every few years.

Companies are coming out with less powerful cars with a smaller range using the same battery technology, but guess what?

Tahil estimates as much of 15% of the world's known reserves of lithium carbonate and lithium chloride would be required to equip each of the world's 800 million cars and trucks with a relatively small, 8 kWh battery pack. GM's Volt concept car is powered by a 16 kWh lithium battery pack. In his view, this is unsustainable

If you were to attempt to replace the world's vehicle fleet with lithium battery powered vehicles, the world would be at peak lithium well before you were done. Then you would either need to turn to a different battery technology that isn't being used yet because it is even less practical, or turn to that time honored tactic of glibertarians everywhere:

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a pony?

It also has a sophisticated arrangement of sensors, microprocessors, and its own liquid cooling system.

This is obviously not true. I have been assured by Mr. Davies that primitive technology like liquid cooling and radiators have no place in the maintenance-free electric vehicles of the future.

One wonders at the idiocy of GM executives who refused to run to market with a car that only required $50,000 in batteries. How shortsighted they were.

Thanks for the great read, all. Anyone care to share their views on the Wired article at the URL below? It sounds a bit jet-packy/atomic-vacuumy to me, but I thought it was worth sharing.

http://www.wired.com/autopia/2009/08/magnetic-slot-cars/

Phil Carter resigns from the administration. I look forward to the police state of the comong Thune administration.

hsh: That's an interesting concept but the prospect of replacing all 46,876 miles of U.S. interstate with embedded linear motor seems expensive. On the other hand, our wars are spendy too and we'll never get cool future-cars from them, just more corpses.

As long as we're dreaming, I'd rather assume the existence of a cheap, current-dense, long-lived bidirectional air electrode. That's only about 5 breakthroughs away and would benefit from miniaturization, etc...

Zinc chemistries are attractive from a materials-cost and energy-density point of view but fail on power-density and lifespan.

Great link, hair! It's an interesting idea, and who knows, maybe some US cities will want to get on board before too long. I just think the country has a love of sprawl that won't go away easy, and would make this transformation (here) pretty unlikely.

yevgeny

I read your second link, and Tahil -- the expert interviewed -- thought the companies would do better using other materials like Zinc, which wouldn't have those material problems. Though, as elm, points out, it has problems to.

And some people are more optimistic about lithium:

"This doesn't sound too good at first, but if the past is any indication of the future, we can probably expect that as demand increases, prices will rise, making both recycling of existing lithium-ion batteries more profitable and exploration for new sources more viable (techniques to extract lithium from sea water in a cost-effective way, for example)."

Ugh: Please don't ever suggest the phrase "President Thune" ever again. On the other hand, "President John Thullen" has a nice ring to it.

Also, congratulations to Carter for resigning, it sucks that beltway manners require him to keep his mouth shut until after reelection. Powell's 2003 fiasco at the U.N. demonstrates what happens when you hang around and allow yourself to be used.

OT: Does any of you know what happens if someone puts a full, normally formatted e-mail address in a comment? Does TypePad simply delete the e-mail address or does it eat the entire comment? Phil suggested I e-mail him on another thread, but there was no e-mail address. I described my e-mail address without typing it out in a follow-up comment, but don't know that he ever saw it. Thanks in advance for any help.

Electric? Naw.
Hybrid? Nope.

My choice: non-polluting, readily available source of raw materials, quiet, hardly any movable parts to wear out, environmentally friendly, and low cost:

the Band-Mobile

"This is obviously not true. I have been assured by Mr. Davies that primitive technology like liquid cooling and radiators have no place in the maintenance-free electric vehicles of the future."

Touché.

Nonetheless saying that electric cars won't be practical because they currently cost $50k is not a prediction I would personally be willing to stand by. If you look at the costs of the first products of any new type they tend to be extremely high, and to fall rapidly once volume production starts. This was true of cars. It was true of laptops. It will probably be true of cars that are made with laptop components. $50k-100k is in the price range of conventional luxury cars (which is why Tesla aimed for that market).

Betting that the $50k mark for batteries represents an unbreakable lower bound is the prediction I view as controversial and in conflict with past experience, though I am wary myself of the "assume a pony" type of prediction. Ponies do not always arrive on cue, especially when they require major scientific breakthroughs or annoying contradictions of basic physical law.

But neither is required to make lithium-ion batteries much cheaper, and that's the only pony required for economical electric cars at this point. And if there's any part of a car amenable to further economies of scale, it would be the quite simple and completely interchangeable part - the lithium-ion cell - that is included in thousands upon thousands of identical units in every EV.

Speaking of lithium, this photo article shows where most of it is-- in Bolivia.

If you look at the costs of the first products of any new type they tend to be extremely high, and to fall rapidly once volume production starts. This was true of cars. It was true of laptops.

An interesting comparison with the laptop. Are lithium batteries new? The technology was first researched in the early 1900s, the first commercial lithium batteries were available in the 1970s, before the first real personal computers.

The first lithium-ion (as opposed to just lithium) batteries were commercially available in the very early 1980s, just before the first computer that was marketed as a "laptop", the Gavilan SC, a 9 lb personal computer with a battery.

If you compare the stats on that first laptop to the current models, the laptop price has dropped by a factor of 10 or so, the laptop cpu speed has increased by a factor of 1,000 or so, the amount of laptop memory has increased by a factor of 10,000 or so, and the battery?

The Gavilan had a nickel cadmium battery that gave it 9 hours of use before a recharge. I'm writing this on a netbook whose lithium-ion battery gives it 3 hours of use. I call it a netbook rather than a laptop because if you try to work with it on your lap it flops over backwards due to the huge battery at the back of the machine. And this is a model that has won praise for its battery life.

Battery technology is, even more than hard disk speed, the one technology that hasn't kept up. It is the prime limiting factor in improving laptop computer design. And it is the factor that a future of pure electric cars would depend on. Not just depend on it improving, but depend on it improving quickly by orders of magnitude without depleting a rare resource that it will have to compete for with consumer electronics that are increasing their usage of lithium by 25% a year.

It is dependent on a massive influx of ponies.

Forget electric cars. Fund research on how to repeal zoning laws that make building the neighborhood I live in illegal. I live in a low crime area where people can live without owning a car more easily than they can live with owning one, and where it takes less time to get places by foot or public transport than it takes for people in suburbs to get places by car. Research how to make it so that if someone tried to build one of those from scratch, they wouldn't be arrested and locked up in a cage as a threat to society.

Otherwise, just keep praying for ponies. It could happen.

If you look at the costs of the first products of any new type they tend to be extremely high, and to fall rapidly once volume production starts. This was true of cars. It was true of laptops.

The details matter here. Prices tend to fall off...upto a point. You don't really see prices continue to fall off for a long period of time except in very few areas, typically those involving semiconductors. I mean, the price of cars has fallen, but it has been pretty stable for a few decades. When I was a kid, my father bought a car for $12,000, so why can't I buy one for $2,000 twenty years later? Newer models aren't that much better.

Alternatively, consider the cost of jet aircraft. Why do hobbyist pilots fly Cesnas rather than jet aircraft? Jet engines have been around for over half a century, so why hasn't the cost fallen to the point where they're competitive with props? I mean, from your perspective, a jet engine is perfect: no liquid cooling, almost no moving parts, extremely high efficiency, etc.

If you look around your house, you'll see all sorts of products whose prices have fallen significantly over time, but that's selection bias: you probably don't have a lot of million dollar plus items in your living room. When you look at things like jet engines or nuclear reactors or even vacuum cleaners though, you don't see the same price changes.

Betting that the $50k mark for batteries represents an unbreakable lower bound is the prediction I view as controversial and in conflict with past experience, though I am wary myself of the "assume a pony" type of prediction.

Electrochemistry is hard. I'm not sure if we'll never have electric cars, but I don't see a lot of room for optimism at the moment. Remember, this discussion started because Point assumed that obviously we were going to switch over almost entirely to electric vehicles; this assumption was so obvious to him that it never occurred to him to mention it. Given the significant technological leaps required, I'd say that there is no basis for such confidence. I stand by that assessment.

The Gavilan had a nickel cadmium battery that gave it 9 hours of use before a recharge. I'm writing this on a netbook whose lithium-ion battery gives it 3 hours of use.

So I wonder: how many hours of use would the laptop have if you stuck the Gavilan battery on it?

Also: which is a more appropriate metric of goodness -- the number of hours a battery-powered computer can keep you occupied? or the number of "tasks" you can accomplish with it per battery charge?

I'm not driving at any deep point with these questions. If I'm hinting at anything, it's this: both the batteries and the computers have evolved, in a weird interplay between technology and taste. What we expect a computer to do for us has changed. We don't stick 9hr battery packs on netbook computers because we don't want to use them the way people imagined computers were meant to be used, when the Gavilan first appeared. We prize portability way beyond what the original suitcase-size "portable" computers offered. It's our tastes, not our technology, that have given us laptops with 3hr battery life.

And our tastes have been shaped by a changing environment: a world full of wireless internet hot-spots, often accompanied by free AC outlets. I suppose there are people who would like to be able to play Solitaire for 24 straight hours in the deep piney woods, and for them a notebook with a Gavilan battery would be just the ticket. But they're not the bulk of the market.

Likewise, I'm sure there are people who need (or just plain want) to be able to drive a "car" (i.e. a 5-passenger sedan) 500 miles without a pit stop, and those people will be buying gasoline for decades yet. But it's not at all clear that smaller, lighter vehicles used mainly to shuttle between homes, office parks, and shopping malls won't become the bulk of the auto market even without magic pony batteries.

I mention shopping malls because I have heard this claim: big box stores might gladly recharge your car battery in their parking lot someday, because the electricity would cost them less than the (statistical) profit they expect from you being in the store while your battery recharges. Maybe that's total BS, maybe it isn't.

But my theme is that our definition of a "car", and our expectations about what capabilities it has, and our ideas of how it's used, may end up meeting battery technology half-way.

--TP

Tony makes the point well that for most people, a battery of a certain capacity can power their vehicle for day to day needs.

I would just add that, for longer ranges, it's not set in stone that we'll still be using petroleum based gas or diesel*.

*though the replacement probably won't be ethanol based on food, like corn

And our tastes have been shaped by a changing environment: a world full of wireless internet hot-spots, often accompanied by free AC outlets. I suppose there are people who would like to be able to play Solitaire for 24 straight hours in the deep piney woods, and for them a notebook with a Gavilan battery would be just the ticket. But they're not the bulk of the market.

Have you ever traveled with a laptop? Ever waited in line at in airport terminal for a chance to plug your laptop in? Ever scoured an airport or train station or bus station looking for an outlet that you could use? Forget about travel; I sometimes take my laptop to work in coffeeshops near my house and outlets are often a problem.

I'm sure there are some people that wouldn't benefit from a laptop with a battery life longer than three hours, but there are a lot of people that would benefit.

Tony makes the point well that for most people, a battery of a certain capacity can power their vehicle for day to day needs.

Oh, absolutely. Unfortunately that battery costs $50,000 and is only usable for a 1000-2000 charge cycles at the moment (but then you can recycle it!). But I'm sure those mere technical challenges will be easily overcome. Any day now. Its just a small matter of programming after all.

"When I was a kid, my father bought a car for $12,000, so why can't I buy one for $2,000 twenty years later? Newer models aren't that much better."

A) They are much better. Much, much, much better. As in, most of the time you'll survive a crash in a modern car, whereas most of the time you'll be killed in a crash in an 30+ year old car. That is the #1 most important difference, but pick just about any characteristic of cars from 30 years ago and the comparison is just as stark. Fuel efficiency? Smog emissions? Rust resistance? Reliability? Every one is enormously better. You couldn't count on driving any 30 year old car for 150-200k miles, but damn near anything you buy today will be good for that long.

B) I don't know how old you are. $12,000 in the year I was born, 1977, is the equivalent of $34,500 in 2009 dollars (CPI deflator). Looked at the other way, $2,000 in 1977 dollars is $5,750 in 2009 dollars. Yeah, okay, you can't buy a new car for $5,750 but you can get a much, much better car for $15,000 now than you could get for $12,000 (i.e. $34,500 in 2009 dollars) in 1977.

C) Cars continue to involve thousands of different parts, probably half of which are in the engine. The cost of assembling complex machines has probably increased over the decades (especially in America), not decreased. Electric cars have a radically decreased parts count over gas engined cars (with the exception of the batteries, which however do not involve skilled assembly).

Honestly since this is not an argument suitable for settling one way or another right here, while I've enjoyed it, I don't know that we have any additional light to shed on the subject. I'm not a gambler but I would be extremely surprised if within 5 years every single major manufacturer did not have a sub-$50k electric car on the market. That's the bottom line, and I think the best arguments pro and con have already been made here.

I'm sure there are some people that wouldn't benefit from a laptop with a battery life longer than three hours, but there are a lot of people that would benefit.

No dispute about that. But laptop batteries are literally a snap to replace. So if you really need 9 hrs of computation between access to AC outlets, you can -- if it's to your taste -- carry a couple of fully charged spare batteries. And the cost of doing that, in both money and weight, is the relevant comparison to the Gavilan's battery.

I don't know why nobody makes a laptop with a 9 hr battery in it, nowadays. Maybe it's because few people would buy it -- even though it would be lighter and cheaper, not to mention incredibly more capable, than the Gavilan was. There's no accounting for tastes.

Incidentally, here is an item from the September 1847(!) issue of Scientific American:

On August 19, electrical cabs began to ply for hire in the streets of London in competition with the ordinary hackney carriages. The new vehicle resembles very closely a horseless and shaftless coupe, carried on four wooden solid rubber-tired wheels. A three-horsepower motor is supplied with current by 1,400 pounds of storage batteries. The cabs can travel up to thirty-five miles per charge and at speeds up to nine miles per hour. It is intended to have electric supply stations at other parts of London besides that at Juxon Street, Lambeth.
My jaw dropped when I read that bit in a book called Scientific American's THE BIG IDEA: 150 Years of the Best and Worst Ideas of Modern Science which I bought by chance several years ago. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the original story. The book doesn't classify each idea as "best" or "worst", so I won't either. I am just shocked (shocked!) that they actually had electric motors that early. I suppose it was not a commercial success, as I never heard of this anywhere else.

But I must say that 3 horses surely weigh more than 1,400 pounds, and probably don't have much more than 35 miles range. So the idea probably seemed good enough at the time:)

--TP

Laptop batteries would last quite a lot longer if we didn't insist on repacking our laptops with higher processing power and better and brighter displays.

I think a Dell Mini 10 lasts about 6 hours with the larger battery. It's not a number-crunching machine, but it's more than satisfactory for browsing the net and composing documents.

What we expect a computer to do for us has changed. We don't stick 9hr battery packs on netbook computers because we don't want to use them the way people imagined computers were meant to be used, when the Gavilan first appeared. We prize portability way beyond what the original suitcase-size "portable" computers offered. It's our tastes, not our technology, that have given us laptops with 3hr battery life.

Who is this "we" to whom you refer? It certainly isn't the public. Battery life (both how long the charge lasts and how many times the battery can be recharged before it needs to be replaced) is one of the most common complaints from users of laptop computers - as well as from users of things like internet enabled phones and portable DVD players. Some of the other common complaints are weight, lack of decent audio, and a display that isn't bright enough and those are all related to the limitations of battery technology also.

As for the reason that "nobody makes a laptop with a 9 hr battery in it, nowadays", it's pretty simple. If they added any more weight to the laptop, people would buy a different one. If they made the battery less powerful to save weight people would also buy a different one. The current state is related to tradeoffs made necessary by the limits of battery cell technology.

The second glibertarian fantasy being displayed here (the first being that all our future problems will be solved by the miracle of technology and ponies) is that if the public wanted a technology, it would magically come into existence. Why are laptop battery so underpowered? Because that's what the public wants! Why are they so large (the bulge from the battery at the back of my netbook is the only thing keeping it from literally fitting in a coat pocket)? That's what the public wants! Why do laptop batteries often explode or catch on fire, sometimes killing their users, burning down houses, destroying vehicles? Otherwise the public wouldn't buy them! Why does using a laptop on the lap decrease fertility in men, according to one study? It must be the voice of the market!

Getting back to the point here, if lithium-ion battery technology had improved at the same rate as other laptop components, we wouldn't be discussing a 3 hour battery charge versus a 9 hour battery charge. If battery technology had improved by the same orders of magnitude as computer chips, you could have a battery at one tenth the cost of the 1983 version that would only need to be recharged once every ten years. And yes, "we" would see that as a feature.

That sort of improvement isn't ever going to happen, because chemical technologies are fundamentally different than information technology and the improvement in the former has been incremental rather than exponential. And that is why it is so dangerous to simply assume that battery technology will quickly improve by the orders of magnitude needed (and that huge new supplies of lithium will magically appear) in order to make replacing all vehicles with electric vehicles feasible.

The world is producing less oil than it was 5 years ago - even though the price has increased greatly since then. Electric vehicles, if they ever become feasible on a mass scale without government subsidy, will only be one tiny component of the solution to the problem of flat or declining oil production. The main solutions will need to be either political solutions, or sparkly new ponies.

"The second glibertarian fantasy being displayed here (the first being that all our future problems will be solved by the miracle of technology and ponies)"

Yeah. Keep telling yourself that everyone who disagrees with you is a glibertarian idiot and everything they have to say can be reduced to "all our future problems will be solved with ponies". Because that's such a worthwhile use of your time. Never mind that the number of actual glibertarian-types present in this thread is zero* and the suggestion that "all our future problems" are even solvable - let alone that they will be solved - is also not in evidence.

We were talking about electric cars. We were not talking about any of the usual glibertarian shibboleths like cheap nuclear power or geoengineering, and if you bothered to inquire about those I think you'd find nobody here with naive opinions about the potential of those kinds of things.

Electric cars are a very specific technology that is at a very specific point in development, one in which essentialy the only barrier to economical introduction is battery price. Every other barrier to practical use of the technology has been overcome already.

Now you can make an argument in good faith that battery technology does not have imminent potential for further reductions in cost or lifetime, or that crucial raw materials do not exist in sufficient quantities. That's fine. But it's not like the situation with the usual favorites of the glibertarian techno-optimist strain, like pebble-bed reactors or atmospheric sulfur injection. Those technologies do not exist but at a cost of merely twice the cost of their alternatives. They don't exist at all. That's the difference. And you're better off making the limited good faith argument than in coming up with straw man depictions of those who disagree with you, I suggest.

* If you are counting me as a glibertarian you are so hilariously off-base I don't know where to start in correcting you.

I'm really late to this, but I think (perhaps because I think it is cool technology) what will make electric cars viable is flywheel technology, which will allow the energy to be stored. This is a Wired article from 2000.

As for measuring miles driven without giving routes away the digital tachograph* (the mechanical ones are too easy to temper with) would imo be the easiest solution. An authorised readout** of the memory card could be filed with the tax return.

*mandatory for commercial trucks in Europe
**In Germany and most EU countries cars have to be inspected on a regular base for safety. During these checks the readout could happen without inconveniencing car owners more than is already mandatory. Don't know, whether a similar system exists in the US.

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