Accepting that electric cars still only make up a microscopic percentage of road vehicles, I believe their impact is going to be far reaching, affecting things far beyond transport. Their mere existence asks some very big questions, electric vehicles are disruptive technology and they ask fundamental questions about what appears to be a perfectly good system. Internal combustion engines, fuel stations, refineries, extraction technology, shipping systems. It’s all well embedded, semi invisible and just plain ‘normal.’ Electric cars tend to mess all that up.
The moment I sat in the electric car I asked ‘but where does the electricity come from?’ The moment I got back in my petrol car I suddenly thought, for the first time in my life ‘where does the petrol come from?’ Why do we use the fuels we use now, why do we waste so much of the materials and inventiveness of the modern world in order to live the way we do. I realize now, having met a lot of them, that these are the questions engineers ask.
I fully acknowledge that in my lifetime I have witnessed enormous benefits from the expansion of world trade, the lowering of entry barriers for international travel, for increased communication around the globe, for massive leaps in not only efficiency but in the colossal quantity of goods shipped around our planet.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few days in container ports making TV programs, I’ve spent time on massive container ships, I’ve helped unload hundreds of cars off monstrous car transport ships and marveled at the complexity and efficiency of these systems. So I’m no tree hugging, tofu eating mystic who dismisses the modern world and wants to return to a crude, agrarian society with no health care and dodgy mythical beliefs, but I do question some of the unthinking assumptions about the way we do things now and suggest they may not be ‘normal’.
Technology, inventiveness and imagination are pushing us toward a new age
It would be all too easy at my time of life to shrug, suggest the world is up the proverbial creek in the proverbial barbwire canoe, but that’s lazy and ill informed. I don’t think it’s the case at all.
I think the world is an incredible place, I believe we are at yet another turning point where technology, inventiveness and imagination are pushing us toward a new age that is at the same time fascinating, hopeful and potentially a bit terrifying. It’s not really that much different than if you were a peasant farmer in some remote spot and watched a gang of laborers toiling away building a railway embankment across the once pristine landscape. It was the end of a very long era of agrarian poverty and the start of something very different. It’s not all been positive but I would argue the good bits just about outweigh the negative.
Ever since James Watt got the steam engine to work properly the speed of development has been ever increasing. So I am fascinated by technological developments and what they can do to the big picture. When scientists were fiddling about with batteries in the 1960’s and 70’s, even they had no idea what that technology might do. They knew they could make smaller, lighter and cheaper batteries than were available at the time. They mostly pictured them powering small electronic devices and they did that with great success. The industry grew, the devices became smaller, lighter and ever more powerful.
Early experimental electric cars used the same batteries to power the motors, they literally took batteries out of lap tops, strapped them together and wired them up. At the same time photo voltaic technology, once the preserve of NASA and satellites power systems, became cheaper, more efficient and are now being adopted at a dizzying pace. As soon as big car manufacturers started making electric cars, the connection between the car, the house and solar panels became obvious. I charged my car today with 100% sunlight. No cost, no fuel shipping, no third party involvement.
But this is merely scratching away at the edges of what is possible. Solar roadways, batteries in every home, hydrogen fuel cells powering ships, train lines that are vast solar collectors, autonomous vehicles, stairways in transport hubs that generate power as crowds of commuters travel to and from work, using excess wind power to split water and store hydrogen, charge batteries overnight when demand is low, smart grids that cope with multiple power feeds from community owned renewable systems.
As you can tell, I can go on and on, the possibilities are exciting and world changing, the old power orders are shifting and adapting. Who knows what will happen, I certainly don’t but I’m very confident something will happen and things will change radically over the next 20 years.
I only hope I can hang on long enough to witness some of it.