A vision for the future

I made a concrete decision to make the use of a car optional instead of a requirement. This means that everything that I need to get done in my life can be done without a car and that anything that requires a car — say, driving to Las Vegas or wine country or into the mountains for a vacation — is a luxury that, worst case situation I can go without.

“Sure,” might say, “But what does that really do? Because, without cars, how is the food you eat going to make it to your grocery store.”

Such questions are the visceral fear that leads one to justify bombing countries for their oil. The fear of change leads one to fear running a chain of consequence. One simply has the mental image of the car that has served them quite well being rendered useless as the gas station attendant hands out the ceremonial last barrel of oil with an eyedropper.

Now, some people assume that because I’m anti-car that I’d somehow dream that bicycles would be the sole means of transportation for veggies or iPads from their source to your kitchen table. But I’ve thought this through a little more carefully.

I was watching, while driving on a vacation, the row of long-haul trucks carrying rectangular trailers all riding in a row next to a train full of packaged containers. In both cases, you’ve got a metal box of approximately the same size, effectively moving in a streamlined row. It’s just that each of those trucks requires at least one driver and one motor, whereas the train operates with fewer people and fewer motors. And, while American trains generally run on diesel, it’s mostly a matter of infrastructure investment to string electric power lines over the existing train lines.

So, in my mind’s eye, I guess I can visualize all of those long-haul trucks being converted to long-haul electric trains. It’s not magic, just engineering the application of already solved problems. And I think about investments and lifespans and progressive changes that simply require you to get over that fear.

For example, most locomotives are of the diesel-electric style. An engine the size of your car uses the meshing of gears as a transmission… but once you reach the size of a locomotive’s motor, it rapidly becomes impossible to construct a practical gearbox. Thus, there’s a generator hanging off of the diesel engine and an electric motor running off of the generator. Which really means that it’s not as hard as you might think to offer conversion kits for a percentage of the fleet that would be able to run off of the overhead wires where they are available and run as a diesel the rest of the time.

One of the problems with long haul trucking the way it works right now is that it’s going to be wicked hard to make it work with electric motors. Far more than electric cars. Part of what makes electric cars at all possible is that they’ve been carefully streamlined and lightened such that the weight penalties that you can actually put enough batteries in it to give it decent range without it being unable to perform as a car. Even then, it’s never going to have enough range to drive across the country without several refueling stops. All of these compromises won’t work for long haul truckers.

On the other hand, making an electric semi-truck that can take containers from the rail depot to their final destination… that’s not actually that bad. Especially because the rail depot could have two or three electric trucks per driver and leaves them charging between deliveries. Or not. Part of the advantage of progressively shifting over to multi-modal containerized shipping is that you can defer a lot of decisions until later. Existing semi trucks still work as a way to do local deliveries.

The real part where people spaz out, I think, is that the cost structure is completely different. See, you can lay down rails and overhead lines and that costs a lot of money. Far more than the equivalent road structure. This is why cars got so much love in prior decades. However, your pavement infrastructure requires constant upkeep, whereas the cost of rail upkeep is far less. Thus, over the long term, rail is cheaper, as long as you get over the initial infrastructural hump.

I don’t get scared about this big change that humanity is sprinting headlong towards because I know there are ways for it to be resolved in such a way that nobody dies in a famine and we don’t look back to the twentieth century as the peak of progress. Given how much better my life is now that I’m biking more and driving less, I’m half suspecting that we’ll look back at the late twentieth century as car-centric foolishness. I know that I’m not a super-genius and that there are probably even better solutions to problems that I envision.

What does scare me is that there is too much short-term gain to be had scaring people about the horrors of the incoming fundamental change that everybody wants to scare you or wave magic wands like cold fusion at you and nobody wants to give you a realistic road forward.