Saturday, November 19, 2011

Q: Is it possible to own a car in good conscience?

A: Might be, might be

I find it funny in a way that for the last 5 years I have made my living coding around the automobile industry. I don't particularly like driving and each time I get behind the wheel I think of myself as an ecological liability. Yet, there I go driving around solo like most of the other people in LA, sucking up gas and throwing out carbon monoxide in a mechanical conglomeration of metal, glass, plastic and hand-crafted leather that will last longer than my time on Earth.

Owning a car causes me no end of moral dilemma. Yeah, I try to reduce my ecological footprint. I drive about 8 miles a day. I own a car manufactured in 2003. I rarely drive on the weekend, walking whenever I can, which might be de rigueur on the island of Manhattan, but is quite the oddity here in Tinsel Town. Yet, at the end of the day, I own and maintain close to two tons of environmental terror.

But, last week I learned something that offered me a morsel of hope that those of us driving on the highways of the planet can actually do so without bringing Mother Nature to her knees.

There is a little doubt the the electric car is here to stay. Just about all the major manufacturers are pumping out battery powered vehicles. And, new manufacturers such as Tesla and Coda are completely dedicated to the electric car space. So for me, it is not very hard to image a future 10 years from now when there are 50 million electric vehicles traveling the highways and byways of the nation. And, each of these puppies is going to require charging everyday. That's a lot of demand to drop on the power generation capabilities of America. That's the bad news.

The good news is that our national power grid has gotten pretty good at figuring out how to provide large amounts of electricity on demand to consumers everywhere, without putting the entire country into a state of anticipatory anxiety due to episodic blackouts.

Right now many houses have two power meters. One for the usual household stuff and the other for the central air conditioner. The reason for this separation is that having the air conditioner on a separate meter allows the Power Company to effectively monitor and control the device. In other words, the Power Company knows your air conditioner, it knows how much electricity it is using, has used and is likely to use. Also, the Power Company has the ability to turn the air conditioner on and off. So, when it's noontime on a hot July day in Topeka, Kansas and every air conditioner in the area wants to go on, machine intelligence at the Power Company can assess the situation and say, "well, we have so much electricity to go around and all these air conditioners want a part of it. Let's see if we can turn some of the air conditioners off for 10 minutes and allow the ones left on to get the cooling going. Then, we'll turn off those that are running and turn on the dormant ones. The humans will never notice a thing."

Great technology. So what does this have to do with cars?

This is what it has to do with cars: Most modern cars are digitally identifiable. For example, if you have a car with OnStar installed, the company will send you an email each month that reports the state of your car--do you need an oil change? Do you need to inflate your tires, etc...? OnStar technology talks to your car's on-board computing system and sends the email.

When it comes to electric cars, it will be possible to pass certain information about you and the car onto the Power Company: What is your customer profile? Where is the car being charge? What type of car you have? What is your current battery state? When do you need the vehicle fully charged?

Based on this information, the Power Company can figure out demand in terms of the Big Picture: "We know we have to charge 50 million cars in the next 8 hours. Given our super duper computing capabilities, we can figure out the most efficient way to charge all these cars to the specification of all these customers."

It's the typical win-win: the consumer gets another day of driving bliss; Mother Nature remains chaste.

I gotta tell ya, for the longest time I felt as if we are driving our way to vehicular Armageddon, without a care in the world about the effect that our 300 horse-power, fuel-injected beasts have on others and our planet. But, when I learn about something like the ability to power all the cars in the world using smart supply, I sleep better at night. Maybe this technology thing works, just maybe.