Data Driven hackathon kicks off Boing Boing: Ingenuity


I’m not sure where the best place is to raise this issue, so I’m going to raise it here. You guys must not have done any homework on the current state of hybrids (e.g., Prius), pluggable hybrids (e.g., Ford C-Max), electric-only cars (e.g., Tesla S, Nissan Leaf), and all-electric-motor cars with a back-up electric generator (e.g., Chevrolet Volt). The Ford C-Max–a pluggable hybrid that will reduce your gas consumption a little bit more than a regular hybrid–is probably among the last major “advances” that we will see with hybrid technology. It is not ingenuity headed toward the future. It’s ingenuity headed toward the sunset. This Ford/C-Max partnership is a partnership that undermines the credibility of your INGENUITY conference (a BoingBoing event which I am very excited about and want to support).

Let me do some of your missing homework for you and explain why C-Max is not the kind of “ingenuity” you want to be associated with (even though I am sure they are very nice people):

Hybrids. Hybrid technology is fundamentally old-school, a petroleum-burning engine car with some electric battery, electric motor add ons. It’s a dead-end form of ingenuity because it’s all still completely based on burning petroleum as the core energy source. The fact that the Prius has such a positive, pointed-toward-the-future image is much more a product of Toyota’s MARKETING INGENUITY (and the gullibility of our recent less-than-stellar group of automotive journalists) than of any real engineering ingenuity. Hybrids are not a practical long-term technology solution toward reducing our automotive dependence on petroleum. They reduce gasoline use incrementally, but continue to promote the dominance of a petroleum-burning technology.

Pluggable hybrids. These are hybrids that you can plug-in to charge up the battery with an outside source of electricity. Again, they incrementally reduce gasoline consumption, but continue to perpetuate the current petroleum burning system. Depending on the size of the battery and your driving habits, you could potentially drive this car around mostly on the external charge and not the petroleum-burning engine. But then you’ve got a really not-ingenious engineering set-up: a fundamentally petroleum based engine with electrical add-ons that is now downplaying its core engine and relying on the add ons. At that point an electric-only car (with great range) or an all-electric-motor vehicle with a back-up electrical-generator makes more design and engineering sense. This is where the Ford C-Max sits: a pluggable hybrid that took about five years too long to get to market, that is a small “advance” (add on?) for automotive hybrids–a fundamentally dead-end technology whose core platform is petroleum-burning technology. This is not getting us to the future. This is not impressive ingenuity.

Let me just cut to the chase and assert that electric-only vehicle technology-- electric-motor driven vehicles that rely entirely on externally charge electric batteries–is where we need to go, where the future is. This whole issue is very complicated, of course, with major environmental, political, economic, and societal dimensions, but let me give you just one simple argument for my assertion: electricity is the smartest form or energy that we work with (you’re looking at an incredibly smart, efficient, vast, and coordinated use of energy/electrons while staring at this display screen). Thermal energy (produced by burning/exploding petroleum) is crude, in-efficient, limited, and hard-to-store energy…has no where near the precision, control, and sophistication that we have developed with electrical energy. Thermal energy isn’t the future of vehicle transportation, it’s the crude and inefficient past. Hybrids and pluggable hybrids are designed AROUND the petroleum-burning engine. It doesn’t matter how many electrical gizmos (e.g., regenerative braking, pluggable batteries, more efficient and bigger batteries) you add-on, you’re engineering and design platform is old-school thermal energy.

Electric only. Wheels connected to an electric motor connected to a battery and some intervening electrical controls. Compared to petroleum-burning engine drive trains, this is engineering elegance. Simple (many fewer parts than a petroleum burning vehicle) and efficient (much more of the stored electrical energy gets applied as force to the wheels and not lost as heat as in petroleum-burning engines). Electric motors are faster responding and less sluggish than petroleum-burning engines (maximum torque up front). We’d probably ALL be driving electric vehicles today if it wasn’t for the very limited storage capacity of our electrical batteries (relative to their size and weight), their slowness in recharging (relative to filling up a tank of gasoline) and their expense to manufacture. Conventional wisdom seems to be that as electrical storage capacity increases and/or re-charging times decrease (and at a cost that is at least fairly competitive with the cost of petroleum and thermal vehicles), more and more of us will be driving all-electric cars. Advances are being announced in all of these areas. All electric vehicles–either propelled by quick-charging long-life batteries or on board hydrogen fuel-cell electrical generators–are the future, The Tesla-S is beautiful, but the all-electric future isn’t quite here for everybody. Yet.

So how do we get to “the future?”

Hybrids are often described as being a bridge to the future, a way of getting more efficiency/miles out of petroleum-burning vehicles until the all-electric future is here. Unfortunately, hybrids–including pluggable hybrids like Ford’s C-Max–are helping prolong the dead-end technology of petroleum burning engines. More a bridge to the past than the future. A misdirect that helped a lot well-intentioned people who bought hybrids feel like they were promoting a better environment and a path to the future.

All-electric-motor cars with a back-up generator. Although many people (including a lot of automotive journalists and engineers!) describe this as being a “hybrid” this configuration is actually the opposite of what a Prius hybrid is: the core platform is an electric motor and re-chargeable battery; a petroleum-burning electrical generator (like the electrical generators people crank up on their driveways when the local power grid is down) is an add-on allowing the electric motor to keep running (and you to keep driving) IF you drain the battery. It’s an electric-motor vehicle that won’t leave you stranded! The first and only vehicle so far in this category is the Chevrolet Volt (sold as an Opel Ampera in Europe). This is currently the most ingenious bridge to the future and an incredibly elegant and simple use of existing technologies. It led Pulitzer prize-winning automotive journalist, Dan Neil, to say in his review of the Volt: “A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet.” Nobody is saying anything like that about your Ingenuity conference partner: Ford C-Max. Hybrids got it backwards (gas engine platform, with electric add-ons). Pluggable hybrids merely extend this dead-end arrangement. This configuration gets it right (electric motor platform, with petroleum-engine powered electrical generator add-on). With this configuration, as battery storage and re-charge times improve (or as on board hydrogen fuel-cells become more feasible), the use and need for the petroleum-engine back-up generator decreases…and eventually fades completely away leaving us with the all-electric vehicles we are heading for.

In the future, I hope BoingBoing Ingenuity can partner with companies that are actually bringing significant ingenuity to the table, not just a desire to associate their name and products with the concept of “ingenuity.”

[I strongly believe everything I have said here and do not feel that it is motivated or prompted by any of my present affiliations or employments. However, in the interests of disclosure and honesty: I have leased and driven a Chevrolet Volt for nearly a year now. I sought this car out because I am a strong believer in its technology. I am even a stronger believer now. I am also a long-time automotive industry observer and critic who has been very interested in “alternative” propulsion systems for cars. I have worked in advertising, marketing, and research in and around the auto industry for many years. I am currently employed by the ad agency that is tasked with doing Chevrolet’s advertising (which has been using advertising phrases like “American ingenuity to find new roads” in recent months. I do not, however, work on the Volt account. The beliefs I have expressed here are my personal views, views that preceded my current employment (actually they helped me seek it out) and I have expressed many of them in writing previously in other forums. I am a long-time reader and fan of BoingBoing who wants to see the Ingenuity conferences be successful and take off.]


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Okay, now that you’ve had a laugh over that one, please address my arguments and explain to me why you chose to partner with Ford C-Max other than for their money. Tell me where the great ingenuity is in the C-Max, please. I have always admired the high-no-bs-standards of BoingBoing but this partnership with a dead-end smoke-and-mirrors technology undermines your credibility. Could you not have found a better ingenuity product/technology and company than this? How was Ford and the C-Max selected?

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