Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 July 2008

A Loser’s Confession

One of the most depressing things to read is a confession of failure. Even more depressing is the confession of a prominent loser whose unjustified social position gives him a megaphone to trumpet “it can’t be done!”

That megaphone was, in essence, what the Wall Street Journal’s Joe White gave former GM CEO Robert Stempel yesterday [subscription required].

Stempel is the paradigmatic high-profile corporate loser, a walking demonstration of the Peter Principle. He helped put GM on the path to its dramatic decline and within falling distance of bankruptcy today. He was ousted as CEO by GM’s board in 1992. His next failure involved unsuccessfully trying to develop nickel-cadmium batteries for cars as CEO of Power Conversion Devices.

Today, according to White, Stempel doubts we will ever have economical electric cars. Good batteries, he reportedly thinks, will always be decades away.

But what, pray tell, does a mechanical engineer who spent much of his adult life as a management failure know about batteries? The few remaining problems in upscaling lithium-ion batteries involve control electronics, solid-state physics, metallurgy and materials science, with perhaps a touch of basic physics and chemistry. Last time I checked, mechanical engineers didn’t learn or know much about these subjects at all, let alone at the cutting edge of technology today.

Developers of high-power batteries for cars have encountered some problems of reliability and cost. But unlike Stempel, the managers now in charge of GM are neither pessimistic nor unimaginative about solving them. Just last month, GM’s board decided to produce the Chevy Volt, which requires reliable high-power lithium-ion batteries. That decision demonstrates the directors’ confidence and commitment.

Their confidence is well deserved. Lithium is the third lightest chemical element and the only one that is solid at room temperature. Lithium-based batteries have a power-to-weight advantage over lead-based batteries of nearly fifteen, and about nine over cadmium-based batteries. That’s nearly a factor-of-ten advantage over the nickel-cadmium batteries that Stempel, as former CEO of battery developer Power Conversion Devices, once labored unsuccessfully to make economical.

Lithium-ion batteries will solve the weight-to-power ratio that has held electric cars back for over a century. We have them now, and they work now, as GM’s board’s recent decision testifies. Do you think GM’s board would have approved the Volt’s production based on a mere promise of future research?

The batteries are still costly. GM’s most recent price estimate for the Volt is now $40,000, about $10,000 more than its original cost estimate. The change suggests a cost for the batteries alone of at least $15,000.

But lithium-ion technology for high-power batteries is still in its infancy. The first commercial lithium-ion battery for any application is only seventeen years old. Car-battery technology is about five years old.

At a less insecure and more “can do” moment in our national history, we didn’t quail at solving problems far more complex. When the Manhattan Project began, atomic weapons were nothing more than an untested, abstract theory. We had to mine and refine sufficient uranium for them and learn to concentrate its fissionable isotope. No one knew for sure whether a nuclear chain reaction could produce an explosion, as distinguished from the slow heat of an atomic pile. In order to trigger such an explosion, physicists had to develop novel electronic circuits and detonation devices to provide, instantaneously, a perfectly spherical implosive charge. The night before the first atomic test, they labored with obscure calculations to verify that the resulting explosion, if successful, would not ignite the Earth’s atmosphere and destroy all life on Earth. Nations like India, Iran, Korea and Pakistan, had and are still having difficulty duplicating these technical feats over half a century later.

Next to the technical problems the Manhattan Project overcame in just six years, the problems of making lithium-ion batteries reliable and reducing their cost are child’s play.

All we need is a similar a national commitment, one that recruits the best minds for the job regardless of their fields of study, location and current employment. As I’ve suggested, maybe an approach based on randomly formed and haphazardly funded private ventures is not the best approach. We need imagination and a national commitment of the same sort that motivated the Manhattan Project and made it succeed.

What we don’t need is a mechanical engineer from one of our most technologically backward industries—let alone one who helped drive it into the ditch—telling us what can’t be done.


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