The Future of Cars

I claim no expertise on anything that this piece talks about. Almost anything I say on this topic could be laughably wrong or foolish. I decided to do it anyway.

Some people think cars in the future will look massively different–three-wheeled, pod-shaped, etc–I do not. I think predictions like that are generally a mistake. Before I explain that though, let me tell you why the cars of the future are probably going to electric.

The question of what will make cars move in the future was a pretty hot topic five years ago, when everyone seemed convinced that hydrogen was the solution. I think all that fervor died down because hydrogen is a gas at room temperature and thus hard to contain (and when contained, prone to explosions). It took a while, but we now realize we won’t solve that problem soon.

Two fuels still enjoy some place is the public imagination: biodiesel and ethanol. They both have a huge drawback: neither is ready to be the primary thing propelling cars forward. While I think both have the potential to move some cars in the future, I expect they’ll stay pretty firmly in liquefied natural gas territory. (LNG fuels many small municipal fleets,  it never has and probably never will be the primary fuel used by the public at large.) Here’s why.

Biodiesel’s fun. Who doesn’t want their car exhaust to smell like french fries? The big issue is, excess cooking grease could, at best, fuel 1% of the cars currently in existence. We’re promised algae-based diesel, but no one has yet produced it at commercial scale. This is, in short, the hydrogen problem. (That is: we’ll be ready within five ten twenty etc years.)

Ethanol, dispensing with the particular issues of the corn-based stuff, has the primary issue of competing directly with our food and libation supply. All corn, sugarcane, potatoes, and whatever else we might make into alcohol to run our cars takes away from our ability to eat or drink those agriculture products. Simply, there is no way we can today grow enough of edible crops to feed the world and run our auto fleet. “Cellulosic ethanol” promises to take the parts of plants we currently consider waste and turn that into alcohol. But it, like algae-derived biodiesel and safely stored hydrogen, is currently vaporware.

And so we’re left with the one thing we know we could make with today’s technology: the electrified car fleet. Unlike the other technologies discussed, electricity is currently created from diversified sources at huge volumes. And while the gripe that much of that production is from dirty, finite resources shouldn’t be ignored, our electricity generation has gotten cleaner and more renewable through the century we’ve been doing it. And as the diversity and renewability our energy production increased, we’d automatically make our existing car fleet cleaner and more reliable. This is not true any other technology under consideration.

The real question, then, is how will we fuel up our cars with this electricity? And I think the solution is so painfully obvious that I’m astounded I’ve been hearing so much recently about all manner of businesses trying different design and distribution plans for vehicle recharging stations. Swappable batteries (a compliment, not replacement for home-charging stations) are the future. They have to be.

If I have a Tesla today and I want to drive across America today with any speed, I need to get another car. While the Tesla does have impressive aerodynamics and top speed, the four hour stops to charge up would slow the trip to a crawl.

The obvious solution is that all cars in the future should run on massive swappable rechargeables made to a commodity standard–think rechargeable AAs, but a lot bigger–that are sold charged at every single one of those places we today call “gas stations.” Your car would house somewhere between 6 and 60 of these rechargeable under it’s hood (remember, electric cars have small motors at the wheels, not huge engines under the hood), depending on it’s weight, size, and desired travel distance. When you needed more power without the time to recharge, you’d pull up to a “gas station” and swap them out. (They would then charge those that came out of your car, and pass them on to the next person in need.)

Convenience and accessibility in refueling aren’t the only reasons cars would look much the same as they do now. There’s also the practical argument that the basic shape used industry-wide today has pretty excellent safety and creature comfort advantages over anything different anyone has dreamed up. Lacking a good reason for something to change, a futurecaster is sure to go wrong by predicting that it will.

While I’m sure I could go on with more details that the future is likely to prove incorrect, I’ll stop. I gave you a pretty good blueprint for getting rich (or poor) in the next 40 years, and that’s enough for today.

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