Friday, April 26, 2013

Is the Government Screwing Up the Electric Car?

The Fisker Karma - very cool but bankrupt

There is nothing stranger and sadder than thinking you can manufacture demand. Sure you can spend millions marketing the “Leaf” with every conceivable cultural bribe you have in your bag, environment, style, design, and sex (electric sex is certainly better than gasoline sex, don’t you think?). You can offer federal grants, tax rebates, and even push for higher gas taxes. All to push the consumer into something they still fear – and I mean fear. I’ve written at least five blogs on the problems and blessings of the electric vehicle:
The Urban Umbilical Cord – Part 2 – September 3, 2010      
and others that looked at batteries and bribes.

My favorite economist Ludwig von Mises famously said in his great book on economic systems Human Action, A Treatise on Economics, “The market is supreme.” And right now the market is saying an emphatic, “NO!” There is too much confusion, an accumulation of never ending poor news, and the overriding sense of an industry that is failing. Battery makers (with government guarantees) going out of business, car companies failing (the Fisker Karma bankruptcy is the most dramatic due in great part to poor construction, software, and price – against its very cool design), and the confusion about hybrids and electrics in general.

This is not an argument against the product, it will be the primary type of urban vehicle at some point in the future but it has to get past this welfare image that tells a buyer that the only way they can come to market is through some sort of government gift or outright grant. They will tell you in marketing perception is everything and right now the electric car is very, very questionable. Visions of an out of work Depression worker with his hand out comes to mind when I think of the industry.

Will I run out of power before I can get home? Will it be safe? Will it explode if the battery overheats? What happens if the battery goes to zero – can it be recharged or will I have to pay $30,000 to fix it? Is this only a product for the rich and ostentatious? Is Tesla really telling us the truth about its mileage or do I have to buy one to find out?

Like everything there is a classic bell curve of acceptance, a long slow climb then acceleration to the level of almost a fad – it happened with everything including the radio, television, computer, even the mobile phone. The time frames were long or compressed but the curve is still there. The electric automobile still has a way to go. And the competition is increasing; look for more cars powered by natural gas (which we have a lot of now and it’s cheaper) and the technology for those vehicles is a lot closer to the gasoline and diesel powered machines.

I have maintained that a vehicle with a replaceable (think refuelable) battery is the future – the extension cord at work and home is all so very DIY, but the electric vehicle’s use as a replacement for the gas-guzzler must meet a different standard. They are two different technologies – car building versus battery making, ask Boeing about that. Build the car with a slot that accepts a battery with a range of options: range (storage amount), price (to essentially rent the unit), and source (nuclear, wind, solar, natural gas). The last is for the touchy-feelies out there.

The government (feds and state) keep trying to pick a winner by throwing cash around like drunks at a strip club. For what was wasted at Solyndra ($535M loan) and Fisker ($529M loan) we could keep the airport towers operating for two years (FAA cut due to sequestration is $600M). That is why the electric car is in trouble – government diddling.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . . . .

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Paolo Soleri (1919-2013) - An Innocent Architect

Back in the day, when I was at Michigan State studying landscape architecture and urban planning, the great architects were Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen. Bold, dramatic, controversial, and if you included Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier you could enjoy a pleasant evening of arguing and threats of bodily harm. Each had their acolytes and each carried an ego as large or larger than their buildings. Yet none came close to the imagination and utter boundless belief in architecture as habitats as Paolo Soleri, who passed away this week, he was 93.

From the Arcosanti Website:
Paolo Soleri (1919-2013), the founder of Arcosanti
Through his work as an architect, urban designer, artist, craftsman, and philosopher, Paolo Soleri has been exploring the countless possibilities of human aspiration. One outstanding endeavor is Arcosanti, an urban laboratory, constructed in the Arizona high desert. It attempts to test and demonstrate an alternative human habitat which is greatly needed in this increasingly perplexing world. This project also exemplifies his steadfast devotion to creating an experiential space to "prototype" an environment in harmony with man.
In his philosophy “arcology” (architecture + ecology), Soleri formulated a path that may aid us on our evolutionary journey toward a state of aesthetic, equity, and compassion. For more than a half century, his work, marked by a broad-ranging and coherent intellect (so scarce in the age of specialization), has influenced many in search of a new paradigm for our built environment.
If the act of living includes the pioneering of reality through imagination and sweat, Soleri has given us more than enough food for thought in the examples he has left on paper and in the desert wind.

For a young architecture student in 1971, Soleri’s imagination was a source of boundless inspiration. I remember walking through an exhibition of his work at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art during this period of time (a spectacular traveling exhibition of his works), enthralled and frightened. His building concepts included whole cities built into a dam, massive structures where jet planes landed on the 80th floor, models and sketches that used model airplanes as set pieces to understand their scale. To this day I wonder where those models are stored – another generation of architects could use a kick in the pants by just studying these.

In the summer of 1970 I took a pilgrimage from Chicago to California and back. A coming of age thing – and it worked. A year later I was in California, newly married, and a practicing professional. How cool was that! On the trip I stopped to see the Arch in St. Louis (Saarinen), the Grand Canyon (God), Taliesin West (Wright), Los Angeles (smog was in high season), the Marin Civic Center (another Wright), and Soleri’s small encampment in Scottsdale. More than enough buildings and structures to set my malleable mind on fire.

Paolo Soleri was an Italian from Turin, he studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1940s (was fired), and in 1956 he settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. Wright and the dramatic structures of the desert were to have a profound impact on this man. His career and his artistic works would take books (and they have) to fill. Take a minute and look at his Wiki site (here).

A new documentary called The Vision of Paolo Soleri in the Desert has just been released (I have not seen it), but here is the trailer.

Dreams are the molds that form our futures.