Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Do Cars Cost So Much?

This connects to a site and group that I'm in the process of developing (slowly since I have other projects higher up the list), suggesting that it should be possible to profitably build and sell a safe, reliable car in the US that retails for less than $5,000.

I was just reading a letter about a $4,000 car that GM was developing last year, but only to sell outside the US. The requirements imposed by the Federal Government, it is said, make it impossible to sell a car at such a low price here.

And, to a certain extent, this is true. But the auto makers are padding the statistics by overstating the cost of the government's requirements as well (and now that the US Government owns a substantial amount of GM, this is unlikely to change). I mean, if you really think about the technology, labor, and physical material that goes into these systems, they really shouldn't cost nearly as much as they do.

For instance, I can walk into my local Home Depot and get a 5,000 BTU air conditioner that will easily cool a small bedroom for about a hundred bucks. A small bedroom is 960 cubic feet of space. A small car contans less than 50 cubic feet of occupant space. So why does an air conditioner for a car cost over a thousand dollars?

And then why should we believe an automaker that tells us that the airbag systems required by law add $1,000 to $1,500 to the cost of a car? Why does this component cost so much?

While the rest of new technology has plummeted in price, especially in inflation-adjusted dollars, the cost of technology used in cars has remained high. Is this a matter of necessity? Or is this just because auto makers can get away with it?

Just as I've said that an electric car that is practical and affordable will not come from any car company you already know, a truly affordable low-end car will come from out of left field. It will be a tough fight, against the power of the entrenched automotive industry (remember the Tucker!), and it will only be won if American consumers demand it.

Monday, June 21, 2010


I couldn't help noticing when an ad for the new electric car from Nissan came up on my Facebook page, and I just had to follow the link to find out about it. I like the idea of an electric car; with a clean source of electricity (nuclear, anyone? but that's another discussion) and the right battery technology, good electric cars could solve a lot of our transportation-related energy problems.

But the problem is that the major car companies don't seem to actually want to sell electric cars. I can think of lots of good conspiracy theories to why that might be so, but we needn't speculate as to why in order to demonstrate that it is, in fact, true.

Let's start with the price of the Nissan LEAF. About $32,000. People's car, right? That's for a subcompact five-seater with a range of about 100 miles per charge. Nissan is trying to send a message, which is, basically, "don't buy this car." Anyone with an eye on their budget will get the message, and only hard-core eco-fanatics will pony up so much money for so little transportation.

And there's another message Nissan is trying to send: this electric car thing is just so difficult and complicated that we can't possibly make it viable in the marketplace.

But come on, people, this is old news! Not only did we have a working electric car twenty years ago, but the car companies, especially General Motors, used the same arguments and tactics to kill it. This is not as complicated as they make it out. Tesla invented the brushless AC electric motor more than 100 years ago, and Thomas Edison created an electric car that could be recharged using water.

The EV1, the General Motors electric from the late 80s, had a range of 80 miles using conventional lead-acid batteries. Is Nissan trying to tell us that, twenty years later, they can only get 25% more range?

Look, if the major car companies wanted to build and market a viable electric car, they could make one with sufficient range and at a reasonable cost. This is not an exotic technolgy like, say, hybrids or hydrogen fuel cells. Lets just all admit that if the electric car is to be a part of modern transportation, it is not going to come from any manufacturer you've ever heard of.

And when that car comes along, we'll just have to fight to make sure the big car makers and the Feds dont' get in its way. More on that some other time, and perhaps in some other blog.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Distracted Driving Laws

I spend a lot of time driving. Two hours a day commuting, plus another half hour or more getting the kids from day care, and all of the weekend trips we take. So I'm on the roads in New Hampshire a lot. So obviously, I can see the dangerous behavior of drivers who are using their cell phones or eating while driving, right?

Well, no, not really. The drivers I fear most usually aren't doing either of these. No, what the worst drivers on the road are doing is simply being stupid.

They are tailgating, following at barely half a car length going 65 miles an hour. Passing on blind curves and in the fog. Weaving in and out of traffic, and changing lanes on the bridge. Drifting over far to the right of the traveling lanes and then catching themselves just before they run off the road. Waiting just long enough before pulling into traffic to make sure that it is unsafe to do so.

And at no time that I recall have I looked at one of these jokers and said, "huh, no wonder, he's talking on his cell phone." Because for the most part, they're not.

I'm all for improved highway safety, as long as it's approached reasonably. And to me the most reasonable approach is to crack down on driving practices that actually cause the majority of accidents.

Granted you can't outlaw stupidity. But you can try your best to keep it off the road.

Having A Job Is Too Much Work

Okay, trading time for money is a very limiting way to make a living, and it's something I'd like to change. But this morning I was also thinking about all the time I spend on work-related matters that I don't get paid for.

No, I don't mean my employer is making me do unpaid work; that's not even possible in my job, where my work is inexorably tied to my location. But I commute ten hours every week. And because my work day starts fairly early in the day, I take breakfast as well as lunch, and I have to make sure it's all taken care of before I go. And because my work does not use much of my brainpower, I need to supply my iPod with a constant stream of audiobooks and music, downloaded from the Internet or transferred from CDs.

All of this takes a lot of time. As well as making sure I have appropriate clothing (and keeping up with laundry is a challenge in an unfinished house). All in all, I think I probably spend about fifteen hours every week getting myself ready for work and getting to work. That means I'm getting forty hours' pay for 55 hours of effort.

And frankly, that's a pay cut I can't afford.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

21st Century Disaster Relief

I was listening to a report on NPR Radio this morning talking about people in Haiti who still are living in lean-to shelters on a median strip of a highway, using inadequate portable toilets that they have to cross traffic to use, and that fill up before the day is out.

By an odd coincidence, I am in the middle of listening to an audio book of the novel 1906, set in San Francisco in the days leading up to, during, and following the great quake.

Now, in terms of the actual earthquake and its immediate aftermath, those in power in 1906 San Francisco had far fewer excuses for their lack of preparedness than those controlling the government in 2010 Haiti. After all, San Francisco was less than 40 years past its last major quake, while Haiti's most recent quake had been some 200 years before.

But as far as providing food, shelter, and sanitation, among other things, I think we could be doing better by now. This is not one of those "if we can send a man to the moon" arguments that are, I admit, quite popular with people of my generation (I was twelve when Buzz Armstrong put his footprint in the lunar dust). It is an opinion based on things I have read recently about people who, for reasons other than disaster relief, are doing some rather amazing things in these realms.

Like the company in Malaysia that converts shipping containers to motel rooms. Or the Dutch company Spacebox, who builds stackable module to create housing units. There are companies working on low- or no-water sustainable toilets and water purification systems. And there are a lot of companies and researchers working on the problems of preserving or creating food under harsh conditions.

The problem, I think, is that many of those who control disaster aid, those who are considered "experts," are stuck in a certain mentality. It reminds me of an architect, someone who specializes in very small houses, who wanted to bid on a low-cost housing project. He had many excellent ideas on how to make small spaces liveable and save time, cost, and materials without compromising quality. But when he got the specs, he found that the bid called for minimum 1200 square-foot, three bedroom houses.

Convention can get in the way of real solutions. When you start with the end in mind, trying to think about what's needed instead of the ways things have always been done, you sometimes find that solutions that are faster, better, and cheaper really are available, especially at the level of technical and creative sophistication we find ourselves in right now.

I don't have all the answers; I don't think anybody does. But what is more important for those in charge is much more basic: ask the right questions. And don't just go to your usual experts for answers.