the ‘better battery bugaboo’ and the (electric?) car of tomorrow
Thanks Brayden and hello OrgTheory.net… My first crack at guest blogging… I was going to start out with a slightly longer intro but as Fabio mentioned the Nissan Leaf, I’ll start there and try to bring it back to OrgTheory broadly defined, of course.
My writings on the early (1897-1925) history of the electric vehicle (article 1, article 2 and book versions, JSTOR or MUSE subscriptions required, and yes, there were electric vehicles way back then, perhaps even in your home town!) left me struggling with questions that come out in Fabio’s post and its comments.
First: the electric car is always 10 years away, plus or minus 5 years. The book contains lots of evidence of experts predicting the imminent arrival of the electric car in the late 1890s, the 1900s, the 1910s and the 1920s. Since then, working with UMD doctoral student Byungchae Jin, we’ve found similar statements from the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, and, of course, the 2000s. I will not tar Fabio with the label of “electric vehicle expert”, but none other than Nobel Laureate and current Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the following in Cancun last year at a UN climate conference (quote and context from Reuters):
Cars that run on batteries will begin to be competitive with ones that burn petroleum fuels in about five years, the U.S. energy secretary said at the annual U.N. climate talks. ‘It’s not like it’s 10 years off,’ Chu said at a press conference on U.S. clean energy efforts on the sidelines of the climate talks. ‘It’s about five years and it could be sooner. Meanwhile the batteries we do have today are soon going to get better by a factor of two.’
So, the electric car is and always has been the car of tomorrow, but never the car of today. Why? That’s seems like an interesting question from the perspective of someone who’s curious about the interaction of technology, organization, industrial evolution, policy and consumer behavior. Fabio and the comments touch on many of these factors. Why have so many very smart people been so consistently wrong for so long?
One factor that inevitably comes up is the battery. What does it mean to say that we need better batteries or, as Secretary Chu says, that the better battery is about five years away? University of Arizona cultural archeologist Michael Schiffer has called this unquestioned belief in the transformative role of the battery of the future the “better battery bugaboo.” The BBB is the idea that the fate of the electric vehicle has been, is and always will be inextricably linked to (always, it seems) lagging developments in the science of electricity storage. But what about the social construction of technology? Isn’t it one of our hardest won intellectual battles that technology is what we as a society make it to be? How can it be that this recalcitrant thing, this stubborn artifact, has been standing in our way for so long? What does this say about our theories of technology? Is everything but the battery socially constructed?
I’ll say a little more about this in the days ahead, and I’ll also say a bit about whether I believe, as Fabio said, that it’s different this time, but for the moment, I’m curious what OT.net readers think: Is our historic inability to (re-)construct the storage battery a challenge to our understanding of the plasticity of technology?