Last week, commenter Ken asked why I get so militant on the subject of electric vehicles, both here and in the digital pages of Hagerty. Yesterday, one of our most time-honored and respected commenters suggested, in his own kind way, that this blog had become “anti-science”.
If nobody minds, I’d like to respond to this pair of comments together, because there’s a strong common thread running through both of them. Trigger warning: this post is likely to contain Master of Orion content.
“Likely” to contain MoO content? More like certain to contain it. Master Of Orion, for those of you who had actual sex lives during the Nineties, was a game where you set out to conquer the galaxy as one of several different races. Oh, the jokes I could make here! Unlike in The Current Year here on earth, however, where all races are precisely equal in IQ and intellectual achievements, the races in MoO were very different. Silicoids could live on hostile planets, Humans were cunning diplomats, there was a race that looked like cats (I think).
How did you win the game? Well, you could conquer all the planets, you could sign a bunch of treaties, you could find a secret planet where an ancient super-race had all their goodies… there were a few different ways. But all of them involved a “tech tree”. The tech tree worked like so: Your scientists would offer to research a certain weapon or spaceflight technology. You’d give them resources. And the breakthrough would eventually come. While there were a few random factors involved, by and large you got the tech you “paid” for. It was inevitable. Your scientists never came back and said, “Well, you paid us 10% of your GDP for 20 years to develop PLASMA CANNON, but it turns out that PLASMA CANNON doesn’t work.”
Master of Orion was far from the only video game to have a “tech tree” or a “research tree” or something like that. It’s part of most sci-fi strategy games and even appears in arguably the greatest computer non-sci-fi strategy game of all time, Civilization III. Given that many people in my generation and the generations afterwards have spent nontrivial time playing games like that, it’s no surprise that the notion of “tech tree” has crept into our core assumptions about how the universe works.
There’s just one little problem: the “tech tree” has virtually no connection to reality. Yes, most innovations depend on previous innovations, but rarely is there anything inevitable about the next scientific breakthrough. You can spend 10% — or 99%! — of your GDP on an innovation for a very long time and come up with… nothing.
The above fact should be self-evident to all thinking human beings, but it is not, partially because our society works to obscure it in countless ways, from the ridiculous and unscientific “Moore’s Law” to the 3G-4G-5G way we describe the progression of cellular-tower tech. We are told about “moonshot efforts” that, by and large, are really just the work that has to be put in to realize the benefits of a known scientific discovery. The Manhattan Project? There was no new science there. The physics behind “Little Boy” were so certain that they never bothered to test the bomb before dropping it on Hiroshima. The moon landing? It was a combination of a hundred previously-known scientific achievements.
The opposite of the Little Boy bomb is probably “perpetual motion”, which is generally understood to be impossible and therefore no further serious effort is being put into it. (That’s a fairly recent development; well into the Twentieth Century very knowledgeable people were still convinced it could happen.) In between you have something like “cold fusion”, which is exceptionally difficult to achieve in conditions most people still wouldn’t consider “cold” and will likely never lead to a “Mr. Fusion” device a la Back To The Future.
Alright. Let’s talk about electric vehicles. The science behind the EV is older than the science behind the internal combustion engine. The electric motor is more or less at maximum development. The problem is, and always has been, the storage of energy. The batteries.
Gasoline is an astoundingly compact and efficient energy source. Quoting Menlo Energy,
A gallon of gasoline (roughly 4.5 liters) weighs approximately 6 pounds (less than 3 kilos), occupies a mere 230 cubic inches but contains the equivalent of 36 kWhs of electrical energy. For better or worse, this is the energy density standard to which the driving public has gotten accustomed over the years. Anything heavier, bulkier or with less energy density would be considered inferior, hence the main obstacle to popularity of PEVs.
Most current EVs use lithium-ion batteries that store no more than the equivalent of 16-24 kWh of energy in a single charge, short of the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline. The Tesla, currently among the most powerful PEVs on the market, can store the equivalent of 53 kWh when fully charged. A subcompact car with a 10-gallon gas tank can store the energy equivalent of 7 Teslas, 15 Nissan Leafs or 23 Chevy Volts, according to industry sources.
This is from 2012, but not much has changed. Today’s Tesla can give you 100kWh, which is three gallons of gas, using just 1,200 pounds worth of batteries. It uses that energy more efficiently than an internal-combustion engine, which is why it can go much further on that energy than a similarly-sized car, but it’s still fairly poverty-stricken.
If the real world operated on Master Of Orion rules, we would just RESEARCH SUPER BATTERY and eventually everything would work out. Indeed, that’s what pretty much everyone is doing — but in the real world, you can research the hell out of a super battery and never get one. Or you do get one, and it’s a pyromaniac safety hazard, like the Lithium Polymer battery that lets my Kriss Vector airsoft gun shoot a thousand high-speed rounds at 500 rounds a minute using a cell the size of a Life Savers roll but which also just adores bursting into flame during charging, discharge, or even steady state storage.
It is entirely possible that SCIENCE! will come up with a super-battery next month. It is equally possible, perhaps more so, that SCIENCE! will never come up with one, the same way cold fusion will probably never power your car. There’s no way to know for sure. Let’s review the characteristics the super battery would need:
- An energy density perhaps ten times current standards
- Recharge time perhaps one-tenth of current standards
- Heat stable, impact stable, time stable, non-flammable unless seriously provoked
- Relatively affordable
- Made from environmentally sustainable materials
- Environmentally safe for disposal
Holy shit, that’s a terrifying list. Today’s NiMH or Li-Ion batteries go 1-for-6 against that list, assuming you think a Tesla is affordable. LiPo is about 2.5-for-6. An article in Financial Times argues for solid-state batteries but contains a worrisome quote:
“How soon we get to mass production is simply a function of how much is invested,” says Kim at Hana Ventures. “In chip making, for example, most limitations — including those once said to be technologically impossible — have been overcome by increasing funding. The recent growth in the electric car market means that much more capital can now be allocated to bringing solid-state batteries to market.”
If you ask me, “Kim at Hana Ventures” has been playing too much Master Of Orion. Or simply playing too much at being a financial Master Of The Universe. Not everything in this world or the next will simply yield to an avalanche of cash. Not that the average scientist is any better at predicting the future. How long have you been reading imminent predictions of “strong AI”? Guess what? We’re no closer to “strong AI” than we were in 1955. Not a step closer. We have expert systems, advanced pattern recognition, GPT-3, but there are obstacles to actual intelligent and/or conscious behavior that are just as high now as they were for the people who designed the Altair 8800.
Of course, the world is proceeding as if super-batteries and Level 5 autonomy and strong AI were just around the corner. Because the world is profoundly stupid and has no idea how science actually works. Clarke’s note that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is sadly applicable to ninety-nine percent of America, including the 130-IQ kinda-normies who think they’re smart enough to have the final say on things in corporations and government. The average New York Review Of Books reader thinks science is a black box that accepts money and produces miracles; it may be neither doubted nor questioned. We are repeatedly told to “TRUST THE SCIENCE!!!!” but the very defining characteristic of science is that it requires zero trust. Indeed, it requires that you regard it with zero trust, if it is to continue operating correctly.
Because The Powers That Be think science is a tech tree operated by magic gnomes, they see no problem with legislating the autonomous, gasoline-equivalent EV as if were actually a real thing rather than a pipe dream. It seems obvious to them that the Master Of Orion commands of RESEARCH SUPER BATTERY and RESEARCH STRONG AI just need to be funded properly, at which point the desired advances will simply appear on command. This idiocy is made even more dangerous by the fact that the EV will be ready for urban prime time long before it is ready to serve rural America. Indeed, if you live in Chicago and never want to go anywhere else, a Nissan Leaf will do you just fine. The problem is that about half the country lives in places where an EV is inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst. Let’s not forget the fact that the American power grid is already insufficient to the demands placed upon it, and almost no effort is being put into addressing the problem.
Not that any of this matters to the O’Briens who run the country at the moment. When they tell you to TRUST THE SCIENCE what they really mean is: You must completely submit to whatever pop-culture interpretation of scientific results currently serves the people in power. The limitations of that approach are currently on full display with regards to the various COVID-19 studies out there, from the not-quite-vaccines to the not-quite-treatments. The FDA stated in February of this year that the mRNA treatments didn’t cause heart problems in young men. Ninety days later, they reversed course and admitted that the treatments do, in fact, cause heart problems, albeit at a low rate. This is how science works; you obtain more data over time and make better inferences. But that didn’t stop people from screaming “TRUST THE SCIENCE!” at people who had concerns about heart problems prior to the second announcement.
One odd side effect of the Uniparty’s Science As Secular Midwit Religion policy is that the following meme has a little more truth than most people would care to admit:
You can see a similar distribution with EVs: the rednecks in the sticks are all like YOU CAIN’T TAKE MAH GAS CAR, the midwits are all like EV IS THE INEVITABLE FUTURE AND YOU MUST ACCEPT IT! while the people who can actually read a paper on battery performance studies are all like YOU CAIN’T TAKE MAH GAS CAR. The same is true for “climate change”; exceptionally stupid people say the weather can’t be changed by anybody but God, the media call it “settled science”, and the people on the far end of the curve are just unpleasant enough to point out that much of the theory relies on measured changes in historical temperature data that rarely exceed the margin of error for that data.
Much of what I have read over the past forty years suggests that the Midwit Bell Curve phenomenon is relatively new to Western society, because it relies on the politicization of the education process. We no longer teach much in the way of logic or reason to young people; instead, we teach them to parrot a dogma as a means to advancement. Some percentage of the people who read this will come away thinking I am engaged in “science denial” or “anti-science” behavior because I don’t always agree with “science” as presented by CNN or USA Today. My last-ditch attempt to engage those people is something I call “The Flying Car Theory” and it goes like this:
In 1950, pretty much everyone thought we’d eventually all drive flying cars. It was de facto understood that there would be a natural progression from foot traffic to horse traffic to motorized traffic to flying traffic. Flight was seen as simply the next frontier. And spaceflight, probably faster than light, would be a natural follow-up to that. Now, there was never any actual science to suggest a working technical pathway to flying cars. The power density and recovery required to make a flying car in the same form factor as a 1953 Chevrolet do not exist outside laboratories and never did. Nor is there any evidence that faster-than-light travel is possible for any being composed of standard atomic matter. Yet people proceeded as if these things would eventually become real. Scientists talked about them as if they were real. Governments made plans. But it was never real, and never will be real.
Technologically speaking, the gasoline-equivalent EV is about as difficult and unlikely as a mass-market flying car. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow; it just means that we have no current pathway to understanding the next steps. To quote Donald Rumsfeld, there are unknown unknowns. I think it is suicidal for America to proceed as if we are on a tech tree when in fact we are on a road to nowhere. That’s all for today. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
For Hagerty, I wrote a story of a bad person with a good truck.