the mobile battery problem solved, in 1908! (quote of the week)

[Thomas Edison] has so far perfected his storage battery that it will live long enough to stand charges to carry a truck over fifty thousand miles.  The perfected battery will pull twice the load of an ordinary truck, will have double the speed and only take up half the space.  It will modify, to an extent hardly appreciated, the congestion of the down-town streets, for an electric truck equipped with the batteries will be half as long as today's unwieldy wagons.  Being twice as fast, there will be only one eighth of the present congestion in the streets under the new system of speedy motor trucks.

From a fascinating article about Thomas Edison
in Success magazine, 1908, by Robert D. Heil.
The whole article is a delightful read!

This makes so many important points!

  • The technology that Edison "perfected" is something that we're still trying to invent over a century later.  Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl argue that much humbler batteries are close to physically impossible.
  • A century ago, like today, everyone assumed that problems of geometry and economics could be solved by some sort of technology.  Nobody wanted to think about induced demand, the obvious idea that demand for a valuable commodity is affected by its avaialbility.  In a growing city especially, technologies that open up new space for traffic (via either road expansion or vehicle shrinkage) inevitably create more demand for that space, causing congestion to return to an unpleasantly high state sufficient to deter further travel by private vehicle.  This is why all forms of modelling that imply a fixed demand for car travel in some future year (the "traffic is like water" idea) are preposterous.  
  • If you wonder why I rarely hyperventilate about game-changing technologies on this blog, and tend to be skeptical about technological solutions, one reason is that technology doesn't change the laws of geometry and physics, nor does it transform the mathematical concept of scarcity that underlies the law of supply and demand — perhaps the only idea in economics that deserves to be called a "law".  No invention has ever changed these facts, and doing so is the closest thing to an impossibility that we can imagine.  
  • If you wonder why I am skeptical about transformative claims made for driverless taxis, well, one reason is that Edison is making the same claims about congestion reduction benefits, based on the same limited assessment of impact.
  • More generally, if you've been fortunate to have some training in literature or history, you have read a lot of stuff that sounds like this.  If you study the history of "this-technology-will-change-everything" rhetoric, all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, much of what we hear today from technology promoters sounds thoroughly familiar, just as Edison's claims here should sound familiar to those following the driverless car debate (on which I have an article in the works).  You learn that most great ideas come to nothing, or have quite different impacts from those promised, often because of problems of physics, math, or basic economics that any rational, non-hyperventilating person could have thought about at the time.  

Obviously, stuff gets invented that changes things, but when technology claims to fix a physics problem, such as seems to underlie the challenge of mobile batteries, or a problem of supply and demand, like the role of induced demand in congestion, be skeptical.  

Hat tip: @enf, (Eric Fischer)

13 Responses to the mobile battery problem solved, in 1908! (quote of the week)

  1. Ant6n February 20, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    I think it’s physically and geometrically impossible to solve the problem of transportation-related horse manure. You will always have to deal with it, it has to go somewhere, right? Anybody who claims they’ve solved the problem via some techno-fix clearly is some sort of crackpot.

    Some problems have been solved, some via technical inventions, that previously looked physically/geometrically impossible to solve. Some technologies have broken previous ideas about the mathematical concept of scarcity – in particular wrt copying of data.
    Lots of technology changed-everything. The existence of many promises in the past that ware not fulfilled is not proof that none of the today’s promises won’t be fulfilled.

  2. Dean N. Alterman February 20, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Conversely, new technology creates new demand, or at least new consumption. The demand for transportation (measured in people-miles traveled) skyrocketed after railroads were built, and then again after automobiles, and then again after jet planes. I read some time ago an article about our consumption of light: it shot up when we moved from candles to oil, and then from oil to gas, and then from gas to electric lamps, and will do the same for LEDs. Many people have cars today who wouldn’t have had horses 120 years ago.

  3. Novacek February 20, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    “has so far perfected his storage battery that it will live long enough to stand charges to carry a truck over fifty thousand miles”
    Note the “charge(S)”, plural. they arent talking about a battery that stores enough in a single charge for a 50,000 mile range. They’re talking about a battery that stores enough for a few miles, gets recharged, repeat, until 50,000 total miles. Batteries wear out, just like engines.

  4. Jarrett February 20, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    To ant6n’s riposte, I’d agree that the physical limitations of batteries issue could have some chemical solution yet to be invented, though I respect those who think it can’t. The dynamics of supply and demand, however, including induced demand, are not the sort of problem that technology by itself has ever solved. Those problems respond only to pricing, which nobody wants to talk about.

  5. Jarrett February 20, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Novacek: Good catch; I’ve corrected the post to delete that reference.

  6. Ed February 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    I don’t know if you caught Dave Roberts comments in Grist below. Basically he argues that it looks like electric cars probably won’t replace internal combustion cars ever for long hall trips. A battery operated car probably can’t store the power to push around a huge car for 300 miles. But he also argues that it probably doesn’t matter. What matters isn’t the widget but the system. What matters is replacing the internal combustion engine (ICE) system and for that electric cars are a big step forward.
    For short trips, electric cars are competitive with ICE vehicles right now. If you deploy them in a car sharing network, that means that lots of families that currently have two cars, can likely get by with one or less individually owned cars. Assuming that we do at some point get some type of self-driving electric vehicles in the future, that will make easier for the car sharing networks to re balance there loads, so you never have to look to far away to find a vehicle and you can easily fetch one if there isn’t any in the immediate vicinity. In suburban areas, this could be a game changer. Does this mean that car sharing networks will eliminate all privately owned vehicles for everyone and/or eliminate the need for mass transit? No. But it may shift the demand curve for some types of transit and likely will reduce the demand so that not everyone in suburbia will need their own cars. It may also shift how we build out new communities in the future. Cumulatively all these changes would be a big shift.
    The age of widespread automobile ownership didn’t materially affect the transit demand on Manhattan. On the other hand cities like Los Angeles and Houston were developed very differently than Manhattan and Paris because they were built out during the auto age. Because buildings are long term capital assets, changes in technology rarely radically transform existing built out areas, but they do have changes in newer areas. There vehicle choice and transportation costs will effect how communities are built out.

  7. Transit Riding Transit Planner February 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    I agree that there will be more substantial system changes rather than widget changes before we will see wider acceptance of electric cars.
    One of my biggest problems imagining how an electric car would work in my life is that I have made a conscious effort over the years to arrange my life so that short routine trips (the ones EV’s are good for) can be accomplished by walking, biking and transit. I would suspect the same is true for many people who would otherwise be open to reducing their carbon footprints. So what’s left? Hiking and road trips. The lower cost end of the electric car spectrum (Leaf, Ford Focus EV) offers a range of about 73-76 miles. That limits me to hikes within 35 miles of home (no destination chargers in the wilderness, unfortunately) and visiting people and places within 70 miles, unless there is a workable transit option or I can rent a car or use car share. Well, car rental is too unreliable (limited weekend hours, no guarantee of availability) and the closest car share to me is 2 miles and the pricing is too high. So, I’ll sit back and wait for the system to evolve for the time being.

  8. Ant6n February 21, 2013 at 6:00 am #

    To make a more reasonable argument: there exist mathematical/geometric constraints that we cannot techno-fix our way out of, and yes, people will always promise technologies that somehow will. But sometimes the actual constraints are not the ones we think they are. For example a hundred years ago people may have though that transport capacity is constraint by the ability to deal with horse manure, switching away from horses ‘techno-fixed’ that.
    A more modern example may be branching lines. When we see that, we may think there is the constraint that branching reduces frequency (or transit is like a river). In reality, the constraint is actually a capacity constraint – the capacity of the two branches together equals the capacity of the common trunk section. That in reality this also implies reduced frequency is a technological problem. And the techno-fix (in the case of railed vehicles) comes in the form of automatic couples and fancy signal systems (rolling blocks?).
    Your point about induced demand is of course correct. And switching the propulsion system of cars doesn’t change the relationships between cars, trucks, roads and congestion. 😉

  9. Robert Wightman February 21, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    The big problem That no one seems to mention is not the driving range but the lack of adequate “hotel power” or heating and cooling. In Toronto you need to be able to heat the vehicle from Late October until early May and to cool it from June to September. I have never seen any adequate analysis of the power required to do this and how it impacts vehicle range.
    The idea of hybrid vehicles for most people does not make economic sense. If you have to pay market value cost of the batteries, both original and replacement, you can buy a lot of fuel while driving a much less complicated auto. I think that the main value of Hybrids and Battery cars is that they make the driver feel good. I still do not believe that when viewed in a total impact evaluation that they will show up as beneficial in most uses,

  10. Zoltán February 21, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

    Robert Wightman,
    This is precisely my problem with hybrid cars, or cars of any kind of electric power. It gives a driver a perverse sense that driving around in one is somehow environmentally beneficial. Yet no matter how power is delivered, they’re still carrying around a metal box of many times their weight.
    Sure, their hybrid might have lower emissions per traveller than a half-empty diesel bus, but emissions will increase by approximately zero for their sitting on that bus.

  11. Jase February 21, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Predictions are hard, to make, especially about the future.
    this blog compends past visions of the future. hilairty ensues

  12. Robert Wightman February 23, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    I just found this article about a Bombardier test of their inductive power system, Primove Technology, to be used in Montreal to test an electric bus next winter.
    If this system works I can see motorist using it and following electric buses around to get free re charges. Actually it sounds like some thing Nicolas Tesla developed years go to deliver electricity without wires. The only problem was trying to figure out how to charge people for their usage. It actually might be quite easy to charge them. I wouldn’t want to have a pacemaker near one of these inductive loops.

  13. Doug Bell February 26, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    As per today age The Obama Administration decided to fund battery technology development to help mobile development . They called James Greenberger of the National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries and asked how much money was needed. Greenberger gave them a wild, off-the-cuff figure of $2 billion not expecting that anything like that amount would be made available.