05 December 2008

Auto industry and the common good

Ok, some postulates:

  1. Internal combustion engines are a bad idea from every perspective except performance
  2. Modern materials and engineering can beat internal combustion engine performance using other means
  3. While it's not in Canada's interest to have a whole bunch of people out of work or no cars to buy, it's not in the national interest to spend a lot of money to keep making the kind of cars we have now.
So, what to do?

A good solution keeps people employed at good, stable jobs; it maintains the power of labour to bargain collectively; it produces cars that don't use internal combustion engines; it produces stuff we can export; it supports a longer term removal of energy dependence on fossil carbon.

Which is really pretty easy.

Long term energy storage ideal results are unknown; we have no idea when or if someone will come up with a way to have a big tank of electrons with an energy density greater than that gasoline. What we do know is that a combination of a generator, some chemical engine, some batteries, and direct electric drive can beat internal combustion engines on performance, thermal efficiency, and parts count grounds. (Parts count is important because cost scales with parts count; getting the parts count down drives costs down, even when some of the individual parts remain expensive.)

So the governments of Canada and those provinces (mostly Ontario) with a large auto sector need to do four things:
  1. Take over the existing auto makers in Canada, outright; just buy them. All of GM's market capitalization is down to 2.5 billion. The other two "big three" are in about that kind of shape. Toyota and Honda are likely smart enough to want in on this; talk to them about what kind of capital and other resources they are willing to put up. This is not a tough deal to cut with resources of a solvent Canada.
  2. Standardize on electric drive characteristics; the voltage, at a minimum, but battery pack physical characteristics (size, weight) is good, too. This is so car designs (if not actual cars already made) can have different power packs swapped in when that genius or geniuses gets the electron tank going.
  3. Start—capitalize, fund training for, and own a substantial stake in—four or five car companies to produce electric-drive electric and hybrid vehicles. None of the hybrids us internal combustion. The other capital stake goes to the workers; they are eventually going to buy out most or all of the government stake.
  4. Specify a potentially non-fossil fuel or two. (Methane/methanol seems the only plausible choice, here.) Under no circumstances may this fuel use food stocks. (Direct cellulose conversion, conversion from sewage, yes; grain to methanol or ethanol, absolutely not.)
So we've got Stirling-electric, fuel-cell electric, battery-electric, and so on; they all have in common that they use direct electric drive, and hopefully, as time goes on, all the cool stuff like regenerative breaking and powered suspensions.

There are some details around the edges; someone is going to have to come up with a tractor plant, too, but food production and the train locomotives go after getting the cars sorted out. There's an issue about adapting all those gas stations to direct battery charging and variants on methane. There's another issue making sure the kinds of vehicles required are produced. (It's no good if we've got 8 kinds of commuter car and no light trucks, or vice-versa.) There's going to need to be a date when the last gas station with actual gas in it closes, and when the last internal combustion engine vehicle leaves the roads. Fire trucks will be interesting. So will replacing the current dealer system with something worker-owned.

None of this is difficult in a technical sense; all of these technologies have been demonstrated in bits and snippets, and an educated, motivated work force can do a lot. The only real problem is political will; to make the change to stop burning oil, and to explain to people that they're going to be a bit uncertain about their next car for a couple-three years.

Nor is it really difficult to tackle the next project, which is non-fossil methane sources and getting people working on that electron tank.

In return, we get a stable domestic car industry; we get an international leadership position in terms of technical development; we get to stop burning fossil carbon. There isn't much not to like.

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