the ‘better battery bugaboo’ and the (electric?) car of tomorrow

Thanks Brayden and hello… 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 readers think: Is our historic inability to (re-)construct the storage battery a challenge to our understanding of the plasticity of technology?


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Written by dakirsch

September 8, 2011 at 5:44 am

Posted in uncategorized

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9 Responses

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  1. Our expectations of driving speed, traveling distance, weight carrying ability (family of 4 plus luggage, sports gear and camping equipment) and safety features have made increasing demands on battery power storage capacity for electric automobile travel over the years. Our changing usage expectations increased our battery power demand faster than battery technological improvements could supply. Add our growing impatience over the years and our want for faster recharging.

    In areas where our usage expectations can be met currently by battery technology, electric vehicles exist and are used regularly. For example, golf carts, motorized wheel chairs, electric scooters, electric lawn mowers, electric forklifts and motorized power movers in commercial settings to move equipment and inventory, such as used by box stores to reclaim their shopping carts from the parking lot, all exist in battery powered form.

    if cars traveled today as they did at the turn of the century at 5-10 miles per hour for a distance of only a few miles from the farm to town and back again, and only once or twice per week at most, battery powered autos would be commonplace today. If battery powered vehicles only had to compete against the horse, ox, donkey or mule, we would have battery powered vehicles today.

    Milton Recht

    September 8, 2011 at 6:54 am

  2. Great post, David. I I love the idea of using this case to remind us that the social construction of technology is what occurs *on the margin* rather than being the main action. (This reminds me of a faculty meeting a few years ago here at MIT, in which it was announced that a defibrillator had been installed, and that there would be some training in how to use it. Can’t recall how the conversation turned, but it led to hilarious teasing of those in the room who are prominently associated with ‘user innovation’ and the ‘social construction of technology’ to the effect that we shouldn’t presume that the artifact was to be used as intended, and that instead perhaps it could be used in all kinds of unintended ways [to power a spacecraft, to fry an omelet, etc] Was great fun, and very helpful in reminding us of the limits you are hinting at. And thank God though for whoever actually invented the defibrillator and its defined technological possibilities.)


    September 8, 2011 at 10:26 am

  3. I think few in the SCOT camp or user innovation circles would deny the underlying physics or engineering of batteries (or defibrillators for that matter). But I think David is asking something a little different. The problem David recalls is a familiar one to historians of socio-technical systems in which individual elements prove recalcitrant in advancing the interests of the system as a whole, what historian Tom Hughes calls “reverse salients”. Such salients are expected, however, to focus the attention of innovators on creating the necessary technological innovations to overcome these problems. The locus classicus is Edison’s DC generator, which was easier to understand in physics/engineering terms, but bad at transmitting electricity over appreciable distances. When long-distance transmission was identified as a problem, we see the introduction of the A/C generator capable of longer distances.

    So if David is right that electric batteries have been the major reverse salients for electric cars, why have innovators not stepped up to solve the problem? One answer can be what you imply Ezra–batteries are constrained by their particular physical properties or engineering challenges. Certainly, the energy density of battery pales in comparison to your average fossil fuel. I’m sympathetic to such an answer, but that doesn’t seem very org theory-y to me. We may ask, instead, despite the constant rhetoric that electric batteries are a problem, we should ask to what extent are resources (R&D expenditures, attention, legitimacy) flowing to this problem? Within car companies or research labs what is the ratio of engineers, scientists, technologists working on fossil fuels to electric batteries?


    September 8, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  4. it led to hilarious teasing of those in the room who are prominently associated with ‘user innovation’ and the ‘social construction of technology’ to the effect that we shouldn’t presume that the artifact was to be used as intended, and that instead perhaps it could be used in all kinds of unintended ways [to power a spacecraft, to fry an omelet, etc]

    Or indeed, when installed without an accompanying salaried EMT or other trained professional—it can be used as a more or less symbolic item whose job is to hang there on the wall and signal your home or office’s compliance with certain rationalized myths. (This doesn’t get the end-user-innovation people off the original hook, of course.)


    September 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm

  5. dr: Sure, “few would… deny” physics and engineering based limits to the social construction of technology, but the problem is that such denials are lip service unless they actually enter into the explanations. Relatedly, it is worrisome to say that we “should” avoid a line of explanation because it “doesn’t seem very orgtheor-y.” The real risk is that we end up just focusing on nails because we have a hammer (or that we look for the keys on the lamppost; choose your favorite metaphor for theoretical blinders). Note in this regard that the contrast between A/C and DC is very interesting and important, but it is still selecting on the dependent variable, in that it is a contrast between two *successful* technologies, in that they had each vaulted the main technical hurdles and could have been viable if the other had never been developed. This is what I mean by social construction being important *on the margin*.

    Kieran: Thanks for the link to the NYT story. It certainly makes sense that much of the adoption of defibrillators was symbolic (especially if that is stretched to include insurance and liability concerns, etc). Though note that some of the adoption was undoubtedly based on an attempt to save lives, and one cannot infer anything else from this article. Could be that the adopters made the assumption, which was reasonable ex ante but now shown to be wrong ex post, that you don’t need trained techs around for defibrillators to be worth it. Perhaps the key question now is whether adjustments are made to address this problem. (Though presumably budget constraints will make it difficult for many who want to adjust)


    September 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm

  6. I never suggested avoiding the engineering/physics answer, but rather that org theory has little to say about the energy density of lithium-ion batteries versus fossil fuels (correct me if I’m wrong). But I want to question the extent to which social construction happens on the margins. Technical and physical constraints are always an issue with any technological system, but their salience and solutions are always negotiable. Here I’m thinking of a wonderful passage from Berk (1994: 7) on railroads: “…technologies can typically be put to more than one use, each having unique and nonordinal efficiency advantages. That is, some uses will be superior on one performance criterion, while others will be superior on another. Absent a metarule of effciency, there is no noncontroversial, or at least nonpolitical, way to choose among them”. One can always imagine (or better find true examples often cross-nationally) alternative images of the same system or industry in which

    As Milton notes above, the constraints imposed by its batteries become issues or problems when framed as such–ie, we want cars that haul a lot of stuff, go long distances, and be extra safe, thus extra-energy usage becomes an issue.


    September 8, 2011 at 5:11 pm

  7. *in which things worked out differently.


    September 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm

  8. dr: We are clearly talking past each other.


    September 8, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  9. David, thank you for the nice post. I appreciate dr bring up Hughes – certainly appropriate in this context. There are two other points that Hughes makes which are relevant here. First, he talks about technological momentum – i.e., at times the technology dominates over the broader social context in which it is embedded. This is an episodic explanation of bracketing social construction. Yet, it is not clear that technological momentum has set in yet in this case. The other is his systems view of technology. So, in this case, the battery is part of a broader technological system. This brings up so interesting questions. First of all, we should ask which system are we talking about – the battery itself, the car, or some broader electrical system? This discussion thus far jumps between these different systems, but there are important implications for being clear about this.

    If we are talking about the car, then this technological system is experiencing a radical technological change – shifting from a car with the combustible engine as the dominant design to a new design – much like the initial period that David has looked at and Fabio explained in his post (an electric car has different parts than a combustible engine). Innovation theory tells us that during these transitions there are multiple potential solutions, one of which can emerge as the new dominant design. So, battery-powered cars are but one kind of replacement technology, another is the hydrogen car, etc … So, if the car is the system, my question is why is the United States so focused on the battery as the replacement? Theory tells us this is a crucial time in the technology lifecycle to explore options as opposed to constrain them.

    The answer to this question may be related to the fact that the battery is part of the broader electrical system and economic history (we became owners of car companies through the bailout). Battery technology can be considered an infrastructure type of technology such that advances in batteries are related to the broader issues associated with improving the electric grid. So, general investemnt in this technology has broader implications beyond the car. This is complicated by the fact of the failure of the main automobile companies and the government getting directly involved and pushing for money to be spent on the broader electrical grid (I encourage you to look up where the money was allocated). So, this is a long winded way of saying that there is evidence of social construction influencing the technological trajectory – in this case, government involvement emphasizing a focus on battery-powered/electric cars during a time where innovation theory tells us we should be exploring options.

    Steve Kahl

    September 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm

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