Foreign dependence on oil is the triple threat: economic vulnerability, killing the planet, and inciting traditional, terrorist, and religious wars. We need a Manhattan Project slash Go to the Moon by the End of the Decade-like commitment to attack this problem. It’s gotten lip-service and the occasional ineffective government initiative for the past 40 years. We haven’t moved the dial at all. What we need is an aggressive yet realistic program to get energy independent. Now I’m not sure about the math or the pitfalls of the proposal but Andy Grove has an interesting article in the latest edition of McKinsey Quarterly. In it Mr. Grove makes a convincing, concise argument for retrofitting existing cars with batteries as the most practical and expedient method of getting us off our dependence on foreign oil. He makes some really interesting points:
- 80% of cars in the U.S. drive daily distances that wouldn’t make any use of gasoline in a hybrid engine,
- Replacing existing U.S. cars with new hybrids would take too long. If 10 auto makers did as good a job as Toyota in rolling out hybrids, in 10 years they would still only account for 5% of all cars on the road,
- The $10 billion cost of a pilot program is peanuts given everything else we are throwing money at,
- We’d have an opportunity to grow a strategic industry – battery technology
Again, I haven’t looked into the math so I’m taking Mr. Grove’s word for it. But it makes for an interesting discussion.
Battery technology versus alternative fuels is a really interesting dynamic in reducing our foreign oil habit. It’s similar to the disk storage versus high-bandwidth downloads for digital distribution. Storage improvements drive down the alternative cost of just-in-time delivery. In the case of cars, increasing battery technology will drive down costs across the board for powering cars even if batteries themselves aren’t employed widely. However, electric/battery-powered cars are inevitable as we move the technology forward. Witness the recent advance by a Korean research team in solving silicon degradation problems that prevent silicon from replacing graphite in batteries as an example of the progression. Battery technology, in cars and elsewhere, is not there just yet but it’s just a function of time.