Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Electric Car. It's Simple.

The electric car is the future. Mainly this is because it can run on renewable energy, doesn't pollute the air and doesn't require an increasingly scarce natural resource.

However here's another reason: it's simple. Here's how the reasoning goes.

Technology doesn't just become more complex over time. Instead it progresses to a certain point, then there is a quantum shift as something newer, simpler and more effective comes along. This then gets more and more complex until the cycle starts again. If you don't believe me consider these two technologies: steam engines and computers.

From superheaters to superconductors

The first steam engines were so simple you could make a model of one yourself with a tin can and a
few pipes. However by the time the golden age of steam was reached, a hundred odd years later, they were incredibly complex, with superheaters, turbopumps and complex chimneys (called 'ejectors') and so on. They were magnificent creations, but very expensive to maintain and getting them ready first thing in the morning took hours.

Then along came the diesel engine, which you just switched on when you wanted it, and they were history. Complex had given way to simple.

Computers took a similar trajectory. It's just about possible to understand Alan Turing's Colossus, but vacuum-tube computers then swiftly reached mind-boggling levels of complexity. By 1956 ENIAC had 20,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors and 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed in at over 30 tons. When one of those tubes went pop, which happened several times a day, it could take a quarter of an hour to find the fault. Then along came the transistor and simplicity was restored. They didn't stay simple for long, but that's another story.

Horse power

So what about personal transport? Well lets rewind a century and a bit to to the age of the horse. Now I like horses, but as a means of getting about they have their limitations. They need to to bred and reared and trained. They need to be fed and watered and stabled, even when not being used. They get sick and they get lame.

Then came the car. A rich man's toy at first, but by the time the Model T Ford came out in 1908 it was a viable alternative to the horse. Compared to the gee gee, the Model T came off the production line ready to roll, needed nothing when it wasn't being used, and was simple enough to be maintained by the local blacksmith-come-mechanic. It also ran on the simplest of roads.

Now fast forward 90 years to the present day, and take a look at what is now rolling off the production line. Under the bonnet you will find an array of overhead cam shafts, electronic ignitions, turbo chargers and so on. It's a machine that needs regular servicing by a trained mechanic and smooth roads. Like the steam trains of the 1930s, it's magnificent, but complicated.

By contrast, look at the engine on an electric car. It has about half a dozen moving parts. That's it. Simple.

Of course, there's the huge elephant in the room of the battery, a marvel of chemical engineering, but overall you can see the pattern. Like the steam train and the vacuum-tube computer, internal combustion engines have grown too complex.

It is time for simplicity again.

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