Thursday, July 31, 2008

A New Thing

On my way to work this morning, I saw something I'd never seen before: a yuppie woman in an expensive-looking business suit riding a bad-ass motorcycle to work.

I wonder if that has anything to do with the still-relatively-newly-high price of gasoline.

I know most people who read this are fellow New Yorkers, who don't generally drive cars and are only affected by high petroleum prices when paying for certain well-traveled food items at the grocery store, or when booking a flight to the west coast or overseas. (I myself am allowing the high price of jet fuel to deter me from going to Burning Man this year. Not that I needed a strong external deterrent. I'm now leaning most heavily toward using my vacation days for some kind of relaxing writing retreat.) But I do have plenty of friends out there in the hinterlands who've got to drive a car pretty much every day.

And it's not like this whole oil thing is a temporary condition. Exxon just posted the largest quarterly earnings of any company in US history, and the amount of oil in earth's crust is still finite. Even if Obama wins, and even if we stop fighting wasteful wars, and even if we implement a strong energy policy, and start demanding justice and fairness from the oil-industry, the high cost of petroleum-based transportation is never going to improve significantly. It only stands to worsen, really.

Which is obviously a huge pain in the ass for all the folks out there who rely on gas-guzzlers to make a living (or to get pussy, etc.). Yet, it is ultimately a good thing, as it will discourage us from emitting carbon, and encourage us to find creative solutions to this whole 'a to b' problem.

I've got one of them creative-type solutions bouncing around in the back of me noggin' and I'd like to share it with all y'all (though if anybody gets rich off this idea, it should be me!)...

Electric cars!

Okay, I know plenty of purely-electric cars already exist. And people don't like 'em because...

1. it takes too long to recharge their batteries (using today's common technologies)
2. their range is too limited (using today's technologies)
3. golf-cart aesthetics

Well, first of all, for 90% of the driving that 90% of Americans do, the short range and low speed of even the cheapest all-electric cars would be perfectly fine. You'd use your car the way you currently use your cell phone. Wake up in the morning, unplug your car from the wall outlet (in your garage, say), drive to work. Work. Drive to the supermarket. Drive home. Plug your car in. Eat dinner, watch TV, go to sleep. Repeat ad infinitum.

Ah, but the reason why the market doesn't go for that, is because of the other 10% of the time, when it's the weekend, say, or other leisure time, and a longer trip up the California coast to Big Sur, say, is desired. From LA to Big Sur is about 300 miles. There ain't a single all-electric car ever made that could do that trip on a single charge. And look how great it is at Big Sur. Don't you just want to be there? There's really no way to get there except by car (unless you're an even more dedicated cyclist than I am, which most Americans definitely are not).

So, how can you get from LA to Big Sur in an all-electric vehicle, even a really good one like this?

Well, some companies suggest using a small internal combustion engine (ICE) to power an on-board generator, which will trickle-charge the car's batteries as you drive, thus extending the range by several hundred miles on not too much fuel. It's basically a form of hybrid, only a little different from the hybrid cars currently on the roads. But such range-extended electric vehicles (REEVs) still need fossil fuels and still emit carbon.

Some people suggest creating recharge stations all over the highways. Which is fine, except people still don't like the thought of having to stop for a long time to recharge before heading back out on the road.

SO, the Jon Levin solution is as follows: tow a flatbed trailer of solar panels with your electric car. A flexible power cable runs from the flatbed to the power-socket on the car. The flatbed would only add a small amount of weight and could be designed to induce as little aerodynamic drag as possible. It might have to be really long in order to have enough surface area for photo-voltaic panels sufficient to generate the electricity needed to continually trickle-charge the batteries in your electric car, but so what? Once you're out on the highway, who cares how long the thing you're towing is? Maybe once you get to your destination, the thing collapses, accordion-style, to take up less room. Or maybe it can be reconfigured to fold up over the car, while parked in the lot of the local Wal*Mart, say. Keeps your car shaded, keeps your batteries full, doesn't take up extra room in the parking lot, especially if the car you're starting with is a Smart Car.

But what if it rains?

Come on, don't be stupid -- who wants to drive up the California coast to Big Sur in the rain?

You heard it here first!

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