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Thursday, April 02, 2009

The modern age and the fear of change.



Parked outside the house I rent are two very different cars. One is a 1955 Mercury Monterey. The second is a 2002 Toyota Prius. The Mercury I've owned for around 7 years. The Prius was inherited from my Wife's Father who passed away a year ago. It became our primary commuter car because we have an insane 45 mile each way commute. We carpool together and since the car gets somewhere around 50MPG freeway, it does actually save us a considerable amount of money.

That said, after having driven it for a year, I've become acutely aware of the amount of outright ridicule these cars seem to get bombarded with. That California was the first state to get the prius where it soon became adopted as the car of choice for more liberal, environmentally sensitive consumers meant that it soon garnered the badge of basically becoming yet another hippy car, along with VW Bugs and Microbuses.

Americans have used cars as a further means to express themselves and their idealology. That's a given. But what's rather troubling to me is that the prius seems to also be the poster child of an epidemic sweeping the country, and that would be the fear of change and the demonizing of new technology.

The typical response from those who hate the Prius are in order of frequency:

A: "Well... they'll be fine until the batteries wear out. Then they'll cost a fortune to replace.
B: " The batteries are full of dangerous chemicals and metals that will get put into landfills.
C: " The mining of materials to make these batteries means there will be a runup on battery cost"

There are other responses as well. But the reason for making these claims is seldom to do with their premise. The message from such statements boils down to one simple attitude which is that the cars are different, and hence not approved. But breaking that down one step further, the underlying reason is getting to the point I was making above: New and misunderstood technology.

I work on all three of our cars. The 55' Mercury is the epitome of mechancial simplicity. But more is required to be serviced from the zillions of grease points versus a modern car's sealed bearings. The carburetor has to be constantly cleaned and adjusted. The points have to be set, and so on. None of these tasks are difficult but requires more time in order to ensure the engine performs well. I also have a 96 Toyota Tacoma. With the addition of a computer, a sophisticated emissions system, and various electronically controlled mechanisms, the truck for the most part runs for years at a time with no meaningful service other than oil changes and occasional throttle body cleaning. But it shares a lot in common with the Mercury in that both have the same basic engine design principles . The Prius on the other hand has a 200 pound battery that sits under the back seat, a 500 volt inverter that feeds current to a large electric motor intergrated into a large transaxle which drives the front wheels. A small 4 cylinder engine is bolted the the transaxle. The engine is the same as you'd find in any small car but the major difference between this drivetrain and that of the other two vehicles is a secondary electric drivetrain that more or less "piggybacks" off the engine. When we first got the car, I had to read lots of service information about how to do even the most rudimentary procedures. The car has two cooling systems- one for the inverter and one for the engine. The transaxle is pressurized and has to be changed every 30,000 miles or so. I recently replaced a faulty PCV valve which unlike most cars, was buried deep within the engine bay, requiring the removal of the entire windshield wiper system.

But after a year of driving it, I have learned how to work on the prius just as easily as the other cars. The point being that despite being different and requiring myself to learn how to work on it, the car is just like any other mechanical object and built to be serviced and understood. In addition, I've learned the true answers to these suspicious concerns of those who dislike them.

A: The battery uses efficient charge/discharge cycle: 40-60% both ways. The result is that the battery lasts for a very long time. Even if one were to fail, their replacement is not difficult ( lifting up the back seat) . Their rate of failure is severely less than the engine failure on a typical car. Plus Toyota has a 150,000 mile warranty on the batteries.

B:The batteries have a sticker on them. Toyota has a buyback program for the batteries. Plus they are not full of lead as many have suggested, which itself is ridiculous since all conventional cars have lead acid batteries, which almost always get recycled anyway. So why would Prius batteries be different if they were to say- be made of lead?

C: The metals used in prius batteries ( Nickel metal hydride) are also used in just about every other electronic device. Economies of scale are already in action.

The attitude in the US today seems to be one of growing suspicion and ridicule when it comes to advances in technology and science. Sometimes this attitude comes from the increasing desire amoungst some chunks of the population to see that religious doctrine trumps science. Perfect example: Stem cell research. A generic wand is waved over all stem cell research as being unethical simply because those against it often don't understand that there are many types of stem cells that come from many places- like skin. It is assumed that ALL stem cell research involves embryonic stem cells. Thus all stem cell research must be a great evil.

This goes back to something I touched on earlier. This fear comes from not knowing the full details or simply from misinformation and the lack of knowledge and education. This lack of information is what makes people mistrust what they do not know either because they percieve it as a threat, or they don't fully understand the meaning and potential impact a given breakthrough could provide.

Perhaps this is ironic, coming from a country that still to this day prides itself in claiming to be the leader in innovation and creativity. Using the 55 Mercury as yet another example is its styling. The whole car is meant to suggest the grace and speed of a modern jet plane. With its large rear "fins", its jet engine like trunk emblem, and even the hood ornament molded into the shape of a plane itself all points to a time when science and advances in technology were heralded as modern miracles. Right after WW2, after having endured a depression along with a war to boot, Americans suddenly found themselves in an era that reaped the benefits of modern technology: TV sets, Stereo Hi-Fi's, High speed transatlantic jet planes, modern paved freeways, nuclear energy, and so on. Phrases like: " The home of tommorow", or " By the year 2010, we will be... ( fill in the blank)", and so on were common. There was this celebration of man and his scientific advances.

But if you look at the 1950's compared to today, much has changed in the way that Americans live. The 50's saw the most stable era in US history. With the GI Bill and college fund, Most families could easily afford a modest family home. Most could afford college. Social programs still worked and many workers kept the same jobs for decades, working in unions that kept those jobs secure. America was a humming, manufacturing, inventing machine. 1957 is noted especially because according to the US Census, was the year in which the level of contentment in the country was at its highest. In an environment like that where stability was king, modern technology was only more frosting on the cake.

Enter the world of today where quite the opposite has occured. Most urban areas have become prohibitively expensive places. Buying a house often means financial risk. College has skyrocketed. Social programs are broke, and in fact, the whole economy is in shambles. The middle class in general has shrunk and whatever level of security it once had is long gone as the companies and unions that employed them distentegrates.

For many in this era, perhaps new technology has become a threat. Since at the same time the very term "Social" has become an evil word along the lines of Communism, the idea of developing science and technology for the greater good- like developing fuel efficient cars- is deemed distasteful as it doesn't mesh well with the overall more conservative belief that any and all socially beneficial advances are deemed wasteful since we must all be responsible for ourselves and the idea of communal cooperation for the benefit of all is once again- against idealology.

In the end, science is mankind's greatest achievement for mainly humanitarian reasons. It is up to us to decide whether we support the idea of developing science for our benefit or to continue letting ignorance and misunderstanding get in the way.

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