NASA Killed the Electric Car

Posted: February 3, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Technology

(This is a short piece I did for my journalism class)

The hot topic of the last decade was fossil fuels and all of the troubles currently surrounding them.  While most of our effort was spent on imagining a post apocalyptic world without oil or wasted on pipe dreams, the practical solution has been largely ignored.  We need to invent something drastically different to power our stuff.  Who do we turn to for this solution?  Uhh… auto manufacturers?  Weapon companies?  That company we used to have called Boeing?  Fat chance.

Who we would have turned to in decades past is government funded researchers who although mostly developing horrifying bombs, often invented microwaves, cell phones and the internet by accident.  The organization most likely to have already solved this problem would have been NASA.  If the National Aeronautic and Space Administration had devoted less time and money to scientific curiosity and maybe blown up a few less school teachers in the last two decades, we would be in future cars already.  Although taking pictures of distant nebulae to see what gases are in them is exciting stuff, putting a gazillion dollar device out in space for this purpose in no way solves Earth problems.

If NASA had been made up of real people, instead of 100% science robots, they might have realized that they could actually produce something with those billions of tax dollars.  Scanning the local asteroid belt for useful materials would have been a fantastic use for some of those space probes.  Keepers could then be pushed into an orbit that would take them close to Earth in 20 years or so.  If we had done this 20 years ago, we could have 2 acre chunks of metal floating around, ready for delivery to a large open space near you.  In trying to harvest the resources of the Solar system, they would have quickly ran into the problem of rocket fuel being pricey.  This would have likely led to the development of alternatives long before the “Inconvenient Truth” fad.  Since the government was still throwing money at NASA during the Cold War, this would have been possible without relying on private corporations.

Which is where the current problem lies.  The movie I reference in the title of my article makes it seem like there is a conspiracy of private corporations trying to kill the planet.  The reality is far less compelling and wouldn’t even rate a PBS special.  The automotive and energy companies are buying up the patents for alternatives and not researching them not because they don’t want them, but because they can’t afford to miss.  A change is necessary and everyone knows it, but everyone is just waiting for it to happen.  No car company wants to be the first to ask people to step into a nuclear-powered family car and no power company wants to be the first to build 2 wind turbines and a solar panel per each house in a town they service.  With the economy on the brink and companies conglomerating into unwieldy beasts, most can only afford to retrofit once.  If Chevrolet switches over every factory to make hydrogen cars and then a different technology wins out, Chevy and all of it’s many, many subsidiaries would fold.

So the smart strategy is to buy as many promising patents as possible in hopes of claiming some stake in whatever technology takes off.  The unfortunate result is that everyone from Ford to Disney owns a vital part of the future and nobody wants to share.  It’s like the Russian fable of the villagers who each horded their individual produce until the wise old woman taught them to combine them to make delicious stew for everyone.  As long as the greedy, beady eyed merchants staring each other down are in charge of human advancement, we’re screwed.  This is where NASA and the government come back into it.

Currently our government R&D is mostly military.  As civilians aren’t buying many new jets or helicopters any more, this no longer benefits the world economy much at all.  Combined with what I mentioned before about the private sector, the result is that cell phone, television and rifle sight technology is booming, while nobody with any resources is working on alternative fuel.  How is this possible?  My opinion: NASA f-cked up when they had the chance.  It’s unlikely we’ll see another outfit with that kind of funding before fuel becomes a World War situation, so it’s likely it will be missile research that once again gets things rolling.

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