Electrically Flaccid

According to the corporate media, the the Obama administration, and the usual crowd of half-informed conspiracy theorists and technophiles, plug-in electric cars are both possible and almost here as a viable automotive fleet-replacement technology.

flush According to the corporate media, the Obama administration, and the usual crowd of half-informed conspiracy theorists and technophiles, “plug-in” electric cars are both possible and almost here as a viable automotive fleet-replacement technology.

Alas, the laws of physics, which enforce a rather strict connection between an object’s mass and the amount of energy it takes to move it, seem to continue to govern the universe, despite fervent contrary wishes.

Introduced as a concept car in early 2007, the ballyhooed Chevy Volt, to name one telling example, remains a mere industrial experiment.

And, meanwhile, here are the findings of a January 7 research report from the Boston Consulting Group:

DETROIT, January 7, 2010—Although electric-car battery costs are expected to fall sharply over the coming decade, they are unlikely to drop enough to spark widespread adoption of  fully electric vehicles without a major breakthrough in battery technology, according to a new study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

The study, released today, concludes that the long-term cost target used by many carmakers in planning their future fleets of electric cars—$250 per kilowatt-hour (kWh)—is unlikely to be achieved unless there is a major breakthrough in battery chemistry that substantially increases the energy a battery can store without signifi-cantly increasing the cost of either battery materials or the manufacturing process.

“Given current technology options, we see substantial challenges to achieving this goal by 2020,” said Xavier Mosquet, Detroit-based leader of BCG’s global automotive practice and a coauthor of the study. “For years, people have been saying that one of the keys to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels is the electrification of the vehicle fleet. The reality is, electric-car batteries are both too expensive and too technologically limited for this to happen in the foreseeable future.”

Most electric cars in the new decade will use lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter and more powerful than the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries used today in hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Citing the current cost of similar lithium-ion batteries used in consumer electronics (about $250 to $400 per kWh), many original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) hope that the cost of an automotive lithium-ion battery pack will fall from its current price of between $1,000 and 1,200 per kWh to between $250 and $500 per kWh at scaled production. BCG, however, points out that consumer batteries are simpler than car batteries and must meet significantly less demanding requirements, especially regarding safety and life span. So actual battery costs will likely be higher than what carmakers predict.

Interestingly, these facts are almost certainly well-known to the overseers of the remaining auto corporations.  For instance, the fresh-faced change agent Ed Whitacre, GM’s “new” CEO, seems appropriately jaded:  “I know we have to have an electric car.” Hardly the statement of somebody about to unleash a new epoch-making invention!

Also of note is the corporate media’s predictable mis-reporting of the source of “the challenge” underlying the electric car conversion fantasy.  In The Washington Post‘s telling, a reporter with the Dickensianly perfect name of Peter Whoriskey would have it this way:

But overshadowing prospects for the transition of the vast U.S. auto fleet to electric — and the billions of dollars the automakers have invested in the switch — is the question of whether anyone beyond a sliver of enthusiasts will soon embrace the newfangled cars, which force drivers to rethink their habits and expectations of convenience.

This, of course, fits the standard ideology, in which automobiles come from Joe Sixpack and Joe Sixpack only, no capitalists involved — so all problems return to the humble Sixpack doorstep, not the needs and dictates of the corporate overclass.

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Do Cars Cause 100,000 U.S. Deaths a Year?

carskullIt would be hard to invent another everyday transportation order as wasteful of human well-being as the cars-first arrangement that has long prevailed in the United States.  In this, the initial post here on Death by Car, I review the most basic facts in this area from recent sources:

► In the year 2008, automotive collisions killed 37,261 people in the United States.  That’s 102 a day; 717 a week; 3,105 a month. And 2008 was no anomaly: Since World War II, more than 2 million individuals have perished in U.S. car crashes.

► In a nation that likes the sound of “no child left behind,” car crashes have long ranked as the #1 cause of death for every single age-year from 3 through 21.

► In typical years, the number of people “severely or critically” injured, but not killed, in U.S. car crashes surpasses the number killed.  In the Maximum Abbreviated Injury Scale (MAIS), a standard international system for ranking and tracking traumatic injuries, “severe or critical” injuries are those that surpass “serious” ones.v Injuries classified as merely “serious” (and hence not bad enough to be ranked “severe” or “critical”) only involve things like open leg fractures, amputated arms, and major nerve lacerations. To be classified “severe” or “critical,” a non-fatal collision must involve something like a severed spinal cord or a head injury with an extended period of unconsciousness and lasting brain damage.  In the words of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “For MAIS 4-5 [i.e. “severe” and “critical” injuries], the predominant [monetary] costs [of the crash] are related to lifetime medical care.”  Of course, as the authors of one study explain, “Persons injured in these crashes often suffer physical pain and emotional anguish that is beyond any economic recompense. The permanent disability of spinal cord damage, loss of mobility, loss of eyesight, and serious brain injury can profoundly limit a person’s life, and can result in dependence on others for routine physical care.”

► If the United States has a national odor, it is automotive exhaust. The smell, of course, is but the tip of the iceberg. “Automobile emissions are the main cause of urban air pollution and contain thousands of chemicals, several of which are recognized as mutagenic or carcinogenic.”  In addition, as a glance at the roadside after an urban snowstorm will confirm, both by fuel combustion and the normal wear of tires and roadbeds, automobiles –- especially those with diesel engines — also create large amounts of “particulate matter.” Breathing particulate matter is most dangerous for children, the sick, and the elderly, and exposure to it is heaviest among the poor, who are disproportionately non-white, and who disproportionately live near major urban highways.

► Because air-pollution damage to the human body accumulates over time and complicates several complex multiple-cause diseases, at present, we can only guesstimate the exact amount of suffering and death caused by automotive air pollution. A recent special report in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the overall annual “airborne toxics” death toll in the United States is now running somewhere between 22,000 and 52,000 a year.  Even if the bottom of this range is right, and even if cars account for only a quarter of all U.S. air pollution exposure, that would mean autos-űber-alles causes over 5,000 more premature U.S. deaths each year, on top of its collision toll. Meanwhile, some medical researchers suspect that we may be radically under-estimating air pollution’s impact on human health.

► Either way, it’s certain that automotive air pollution also produces a mountain of non-lethal health costs. San Jose’s The Mercury-News, one of the few major U.S. newspapers to attend to the topic at all, reports:

The death toll due to air pollution only begins to touch the vast magnitude of human suffering caused by breathing our dirty air — for every 75 deaths per year due to air pollution in the U.S., health scientists have estimated that there are 505 hospital admissions for asthma and other respiratory diseases, 3,500 respiratory emergency doctor visits, 180,000 asthma attacks, 930,000 restricted activity days, and 2,000,000 acute respiratory symptom days.

► Autos-über-alles’ biggest health impact may lie in its discouragement of walking and bicycling. Studies confirm that the United States has by far the lowest percentage of miles traveled by foot or bike in the world.  Meanwhile, a rapidly worsening obesity epidemic plagues the nation, with health consequences for Americans that may soon surpass those caused by cigarettes. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “poor diet and physical inactivity” are now causing 400,000 deaths a year in the United States.  Even if car dependency explains only 10 percent of the society’s deepening food-exercise imbalance, that would mean another 40,000 American lives being sacrificed to the automobile every year.

Detailed sources for all the above factual claims will be published in my forthcoming book, Automobiles-Über-Alles: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States (Monthly Review Press).