Death by Car

capitalism's drive to carmageddon: news & comments

Electric Lemon Update

ev-lemon A couple recent items on the non-progress of the stillborn idea of reviving the 120-year-old technology known as the “electric” automobile:

First, ex-GM bigwig and blabbermouth Bob Lutz admits in his most recent book that the “EV” is indeed a loss-leader designed to burnish the image of the car corporations and thereby delay media attention to the extreme danger and outdatedness of their product. In Lutz’ words, in the GM boardroom, the whole thing was understood to be “an opportunity to change the public’s perception of GM as a reckless producer of gas guzzlers.”

Had he been CEO of GM, Lutz says that “I would have accelerated the creation of hybrid vehicles as well as all-electric prototypes and auto show concept cars. It’s not that there was, or is today, a huge market for the things. lt’s just that the media praise those who make them and smother them in superlatives for their environmental correctness.”

Admissions don’t get much clearer than that.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Nissan is admitting that deterioration of “EV” batteries is normal, rather than a defect. According to Automotive News:

Nissan Motor Co. has agreed to buy back two of the seven Leaf electric cars whose owners in Arizona have publicly raised concerns about aging batteries. The gesture could help mollify a small group of Leaf owners and green-car enthusiasts who have been raising questions about whether the electric car’s battery is too quickly losing its ability to hold an adequate charge.

The small group of Phoenix customers believes that their Leafs are not holding a charge as long as they should be after only a year or two of use. The seven Phoenix owners claim that their batteries are losing capacity after only a couple of years, and have questioned whether the product is flawed.

In response, Nissan took all seven Leafs to undergo tests at its Arizona proving grounds. Engineers found that the cars in question simply had higher-than-normal mileage, Bailo said in her public letter. She said Nissan concluded that the battery performance was in line with the wear and tear on the specific cars. In estimating the Leaf’s battery will hold 80 percent of its original charge after five years, Nissan said it assumed owners would drive, on average, 12,500 miles a year.

“We’re going to give them all of our data to see for themselves. The data shows that the car is performing as it should be. “We’re 100 percent certain that there is no defect,” [said Nissan].

In other words, one promise of pure “EV”s is mountains of dead batteries, and the usual — perhaps even accelerated — planned obsolescence of individual automobiles.

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More NYT Gibberish

gibberish Saturday, Thomas Friedman told us the world is run by petro-dictators rather than corporate capitalists.

The day before that whopper, one Jonah Lehrer wrote this:

[E]very innovation eventually leads to new shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving electric cars, at least until we run out of lithium.

Yes, sure, Jonah and Jonah’s editors, that’s exactly how electric cars work:  The lithium in their batteries does what petroleum does in regular cars. Vroom, vroom!


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Electric Evasions

lithium battery slurry For any product that gets produced, green-ness involves four questions:

1. Material Intake: How much and what types of material does making the product extract from the environment?

2. Material Output: How does the product end up putting materials back into the environment, in the form of manufacturing, product operation, and garbage/recycling wastes?

3. Energy Use: How much total energy does manufacture, use, and recycling of the product require?

4. Alternatives: How does the product in question perform in the above three areas versus available alternative means of performing the same type of work facilitated by the product in question?

You may have already noticed that capitalists never publicly admit the existence and complexity of all four of these questions.  That is for the obvious reason that capitalism is virtually impossible if these questions are taken seriously.  Making big money almost always requires ignoring one or more of these questions, and the capitalist system as a whole is as heedless of ecological limits as just about any dystopian fantasy one could concoct.

Doubt this?  Then I would invite you to consider the emerging overclass proposition that cars with electric motors are green.

In order for this to be true, the manufacture, use, and eventual trashing of electric cars would have to:

1. Sharply reduce both the overall amount of materials and the level of non-renewable materials presently going into the making and use of personal transportation machinery;

2. Sharply reduce both the overall amount of materials and the level of toxic materials coming out of the making and use of personal transportation machinery;

3. Sharply reduce the overall amount of energy required to make, use, and eventually trash personal transportation machinery; and

4. Score better in all the above areas than alternative forms of personal transportation machinery would, if given the chance.

Electric cars, of course, could never satisfy that fourth criterion.  The laws of physics are very strict, and they dictate that each household or person using a 3,500-pound, 95% idled item to accomplish what could otherwise be accomplished with 1-pound walking shoes, 25-pound bicycles, and the use of shared, constantly operating public transit infrastructures is simply criminally harebrained.

Yet, despite this point, I think it is also very important to consider just how woefully electric cars will, if they ever achieve planned levels of distribution, perform in relation to all three of the prior questions.

Take, for instance, the claim that electric car batteries are somehow green things.

tesla batteryFor starters, the $36,000 battery in the $115,000 (counting the charging equipment) Tesla Roadster contains 6,831 separate lithium-ion battery cells and weighs 992 pounds, or as much as 39 modern, medium-quality, 25-pound bicycles.

Lithium is a non-renewable resource, and is extremely likely to be desperately needed in the future for non-transportation energy storage purposes, in a post-fossil-fuel age of greatly diminished and much more intermittent electricity generation and use.

But, meanwhile, what about the recycling of this 992-pound object at the end of its expected 7-year useful life?  Battery recycling is a process touted by Tesla’s propaganda arm as being wondrously efficient and “non-toxic.”

Let’s take a gander, shall we?

The US Department of Energy has granted $9.5 million to a company in California that plans to build America’s first recycling facility for lithium-ion vehicle batteries.

Anaheim-based Toxco says it will use the funds to expand an existing facility in Lancaster, OH, that already recycles the lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries used in today’s hybrid-electric vehicles.

There is currently little economic need to recycle lithium-ion batteries. Most batteries contain only small amounts of lithium carbonate as a percentage of weight and the material is relatively inexpensive compared to most other metals.

But experts say that having a recycling infrastructure in place will ease concerns that the adoption of vehicles that use lithium-ion batteries could lead to a shortage of lithium carbonate and a dependence on countries such as China, Russia, and Bolivia, which control the bulk of global lithium reserves.

When old batteries arrive they go into a hammer mill and are shredded, allowing components made of aluminum, cooper, and steel to be separated easily. Larger batteries that might still hold a charge are cryogenically frozen with liquid nitrogen before being hammered and shredded; at -325 degrees Fahrenheit, the reactivity of the cells is reduced to zero. Lithium is then extracted by flooding the battery chambers in a caustic bath that dissolves lithium salts, which are filtered out and used to produce lithium carbonate. The remaining sludge is processed to recover cobalt, which is used to make battery electrodes. [Source: Technology Review]

Tesla’s publicists, of course, do not mention things like the energy expense of cryogenic freezing; exactly what substances comprise that “caustic bath”; or whether industrial cobalt powder is really “non-toxic.”

Worse, even Tesla’s P.R. department admits this much:  “The result from this process is that we are able to recycle about 60% of the battery material.”

In other words, 40 percent of the rare and toxic and energy-intensive things that go into an electric car battery will be lost and injected as garbage into the environment after each and every 7-year manifestation of these things.

Such is the substance of “green” in our market-totalitarian epoch…Gods help us all.

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