Wednesday, August 26, 2009

i'll need 10,000 copies

Another New Yorker feature (by Tad Friend) has drawn me in. This one, from the same issue as the divers, features Elon Musk and Tesla Motors. Musk, who has all sorts of business, engineering, and entrepreneurial history behind him, is pushing for a full-electric vehicle that uses lithium-ion batteries. It was this small portion of the piece that jumped out at me:

“The Roadster’s battery is a highly engineered arrangement of six thousand eight hundred and thirty-one finger-size laptop cells imported from Japan. Tesla adds two fuses to each cell so they’re all triple-fused, packs them all in six hundred and twenty-one cell modules, maintains the modules at a constant temperature with radiator coolant, and monitors them with twelve computers, then houses this amphibious latticework in a thick aluminum case shaped like a baby grand piano. The unit weighs half a ton.”

What I immediately screamed, in my head, was “How the hell is this going to work? A half a ton? Triple-fused cells numbering in the thousands? The mere idea is absurd.” It’s a nature reaction, isn’t it? Shortly after coming down from my perch of incredulity I remembered that phrase the Bill Gates allegedly uttered decades ago about no one ever needing more than 256K of computing power. It was a short hop and skip to a little research into the original PC; a product that must have seemed nigh impossible for the home or normal people. Here’s the wikipedia background on the forerunner to the PC life we take for granted: the IBM 5100. A few quick details most salient to my wonder:

A 5” CRT display
Several hundred kilobytes of ROM
64K of RAM
It weighed 55 pounds (and had a carrying case!)
12 different models ranged in price from $9,000-$20,000

Bear in mind that the price was in 1975 dollars – that range in 2009 dollars would be $31,000 – $81,000 for a big, old 55lb behemoth of circuits and high-end computing power.

My point? Aside from going to the moon, which isn’t yet an everyday or every person proposition, the going price of $100,000 for a Tesla roadster isn’t anything to worry much about in the long run. (We would be more willing to spent $100K on a car than $81K on a computer.) Musk believes that the price of the car will continue to halve as each new development/version rolls off the line. Whether or not the price actual does come down at the rate he suggests isn’t as important as believing we’ll get there; it’ll take someone half-crazed, and probably privately funded, to make it happen. IBM seems to me to be the equivalent in the 1970s of the American carmakers today: can’t be done, won’t be done, and we don’t much care. All the technology that can be developed to increase the viability and decrease the cost will come sooner or later; hopefully sooner. If it takes a decade, so be it. At least there’s someone out there who doesn’t find it all too pie-in-the-sky.

If you think we won’t eventually get to a non-gasoline burning vehicle then I’d not only point at the laptap on your lap but the iPod in your bag. Take a good, long look at them. The only thing that will stop the progress will be those that would rather see everything destroyed than give up with they have. Sorry, that was a bit off the deep…


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