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Electric Cars: What’s the Rumpus?

SNA (Tokyo) — Technology journalist Tim Hornyak rejoins What’s the Rumpus to discuss electric cars and other vehicles of the future.


Michael Penn: Welcome to a new episode of What’s the Rumpus. This man here that you see is maybe a familiar face to those of you who are loyal audience members because Tim Hornyak is making his third appearance here at What’s the Rumpus. He’s spoken to us in the past about robots, and he’s spoken about drones, and today we’re going speak a little about electric cars. He’s a technology journalist, so while he doesn’t consider himself to be a super, super expert on electric cars, he does follow the subject regularly, certainly a lot more than I do, so expect to hear him talking a lot more this time than I’m going to talk. I’m just going be asking what I hope are not stupid questions.

Tim Hornyak: Well thanks for having me, it’s great to be here again.

Michael Penn: Alright well Tim you were here two times in our first season and now you’re one of our guests in our second season, so you’re like the most familiar guest we’ve had.

Tim Hornyak: I should get a loyalty rewards card or something.

Michael Penn: There you go, maybe cash back payment or something.

Tim Hornyak: Yeah, that’d be great.

Michael Penn: Alright well so, electric cars. Yes, in my very, very layman’s look at it, it seems to me that there does seem to be progress around these lines in these years, more people are buying electric cars now, they’re starting to be integrated into like actual real people’s lives, and I also see that Tesla seems to be, at least from what I can tell, the leader in terms of popularizing these cars.

Tim Hornyak: That’s right, well as you know Elon Musk is a huge figure in US and global manufacturing industries, sending our local Japanese entrepreneur Maezawa-san, of Zozo to the Moon in the near future, and so having a name with his brand power attached to the industry is great for progress. Tesla’s Model 3 has been turning many heads, I think chiefly because it was initially described as an electric vehicle for the masses, with the price tag of around $35,000. Shipments have been higher than expected, but there’s been some controversy because some versions of the Model 3 will be perhaps more than twice that price tag, and Elon Musk has said okay, well, maybe that price tag is something we’ll see in the future, and it depends on all kinds of things including battery costs, etc. But the Model 3 has really galvanized attention on the electric vehicle market.

Michael Penn: From what I can tell from a cursory look at the headlines as they go by, Tesla does seem to be having an increasing amount of trouble producing these cars at the scale and the level which they had earlier promised, so what’s going on there?

Tim Hornyak: Well I think it’s a question of supply and demand, they probably don’t have all the parts in the manufacturing facilities that are necessary to meet brisk demand, and part of that has to do with batteries. As you know Panasonic has been cooperating with Tesla in building its facilities like the Gigafactory in the States, and Tesla has plans to build other gigafactories both in the States and abroad, including Shanghai. So, I think it’s a question of scale. Once you reach that certain plateau of scale, you’ll see a much easier response to brisk demand when a new model is introduced and they’ll be able to respond much better.

Michael Penn: Well, as you know, Tesla gets sort of the lion’s share of the public attention, but to what degree is it actually that far ahead, or is it that far ahead of what the other automakers are doing?

Tim Hornyak: It’s actually behind Nissan in terms of total sales of electric vehicles. The Nissan Leaf which was introduced, correct me if I’m wrong, in 2010, has sold, I believe, more than a hundred thousand more units than Tesla. So, Nissan is a great leader in the field, and there have been reports that Nissan is developing an even more powerful battery for its the electric cars, including a new version of the Leaf. That’s something that EV fans are watching very closely. I think we also need a bit of perspective, historical perspective, on this whole revolution perspective, both in terms of what’s happening in the industry on the whole and history, like I said a moment ago, if you look back EV’s on the market now, they only number about something like four million electric vehicles, whereas internal combustion engine cars total something like one billion so it’s really only a drop in the bucket compared to traditional cars.

Michael Penn: Actually, that’s less impressive than I thought. I thought that a larger proportion nowadays were electric.

Tim Hornyak: That’s right, but the good thing is that probably by 2030 some analysts say all vehicles entering the market will have some electric capacity. It’ll be a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, fully electric, and perhaps even the next phase which is hydrogen-powered. I spoke of history a second ago. I saw actually in a presentation this morning at a conference two interesting slides. One slide was New York City, Fifth Avenue, Easter morning 1900. Plenty of horse-drawn carriages going along the street and among them a single automobile. Same scene, New York City, Fifth avenue, Easter morning 1913, thirteen years later. Every vehicle is an automobile, and there’s only one horse-drawn carriage.

Michael Penn: The Model T, came out in 1908, I believe.

Tim Hornyak: That’s right, so thanks to the power of the Model T there was a sweeping change in the industry, and it shows you how quickly it can happen, I think with vehicles that we see today on the roads it’s going to happen a lot slower, but we’re seeing encouraging signs of change because it’s cheaper. I was listening to a podcast in which two analysts were describing the taxi industry in London, and the older models of taxi there are polluting diesel vehicles that cost something thirty pounds of petrol to fill up, whereas the new version of these taxis are electric they were designed and built by Volvo and they cost only three pounds to charge, so there’s a great economic argument to be made for those, and so there’s some concerns about how much range do they have. Will taxi drivers have to recharge them at lunchtime and then keep on operating in the afternoon?That’s something that younger drivers, it seems, are willing to accept, but older ones are slower to change and they’re still sticking with their older cars. Perhaps they still have a lease arrangement to work through. That’s one of many many examples of how the industry is changing.

Michael Penn: One thing that I often think about, back in the 1980s, the early 80s, when you and I were kids and we looked at the science fiction…

Tim Hornyak: Back to the Future.

Michael Penn: That’s right, by 2012 there were already flying cars, and Blade Runner, 2019, had a very similar kind of flying car arrangement. It seems to me, here we are actually in 2018, in that period of time which they thought they were representing, and we’re way behind what it seemed that we would have by this time. Do you have a sense that the innovation in the industry was delayed in some way? Or is it simply that the science fiction had it wrong completely?

Tim Hornyak: That’s a good question. You can look back on the history of electric vehicles and see that actually something like a hundred years ago give or take some of the early innovators like Ferdinand Porsche did design electric vehicles, and they were an early prototype of how we can empower these automobiles. Finally, they settled on gasoline as a cheap fuel, but then electric vehicles were developed again in the latter half of the 20th century and there was a movement. If you believe documentaries like Who Killed the Electric Car, which is a very interesting viewing experience, to quash that because that would mean taking market share from existing players. So why aren’t we in the future? Well, that’s a good question because the future happens slowly, and with what I call “future creep.” Future creep means that we don’t notice when the future is upon us, but it is actually upon us. And I’ll just give you a quick example: at the Panasonic event that I was at yesterday, there were people chatting around these new exhibits related to future technology, and right next to them was large robot, sort of wandering around with a viewing screen on its front, but no one was paying attention to that robot. It’s just like the situation with Pepper, the SoftBank Robotics robot that you see in stores throughout Japan. It was a novelty when it was launched, but now people tend to ignore it. My point is that now we’re in an age where people are ignoring these sophisticated human robots just like they would do in movies like Star Wars, where this was commonplace technology and, “Oh, it’s just another useless R2 unit droid? Yeah, whatever, I’m not interested in it.” So this is like a future creep that’s happening. We’re seeing this amazing futuristic technology that’s right next to us, but we’re not so interested in it because it’s become commonplace. So when it comes back down to your question about vehicles, we are seeing futuristic vehicles that are being produced, including prototypes of flying cars that are taking the form of drones for the time being. We’re seeing prototypes of one- or two-person drones that could become commonplace over the next ten, twenty years. Now we don’t have the regulatory framework to accommodate these vehicles yet, but they are in existence, and if we came back to this spot twenty years from now we could be saying “oh, that’s just another flying car. What’s the big deal?”

Michael Penn: I see so, these are not the flying cars that you’re looking for.

Tim Hornyak: Exactly.

Michael Penn: Well you mentioned the hydrogen vehicles, and actually coincidentally we had two articles about hydrogen vehicles published in print on the SNA recently. One was written by someone who looked at how Japan was a leader in hydrogen vehicles and developing them, and the other one was essentially somebody who said Japan had better stop making hydrogen vehicles because it’s a dead end: that even if the vehicles themselves don’t have a lot of emissions, the infrastructure that is necessary to create the hydrogen fuel and have all the stations and such mean that, in the end, it’s not actually a very ecologically and economically efficient technology in any case. So, what is your opinion on this debate?

Tim Hornyak: That’s a good question. I don’t really understand the antagonism towards hydrogen vehicles. Elon Musk has been one of the critics as well. First of all, for any type of technology, or for example an energy source, you can find critics. If you look at a relatively benign form of producing energy like hydroelectric dams, there have been studies that show, “Well, actually, hydroelectric dams are not very clean because when the trees that are involved that are growing around the reservoirs created by dams… They rot. They release methane and carbon into the atmosphere so they pollute.” Well that’s true, so if you follow that line of thinking, however, there’s almost no form of energy that’s completely zero impact on the environment. Perhaps one day we can build giant solar energy collectors in space and beam the energy to the Earth, but that’s far off in the future. So as for hydrogen vehicles, I think it’s a fascinating and very exciting technology because hydrogen is one of the most abundant, or the most abundant element in the universe. So, we have this free source of energy all over the place so we don’t have the infrastructure so far… Well, let’s build it. I drove a hydrogen-powered vehicle in Japan as far back as 2005, more than ten years ago, thirteen years ago now, and still they’re quite rare. However, I just saw one the other day on the streets of Tokyo, so you know they’re making some headway, but Japan, it’s true, is a leader in building the fueling stations, and I think it needs to explore hydrogen as one of the possible venues for mass transportation that will be sustainable and non-polluting. When it comes to adopting future technology I think that it’s a mistake to believe that there’s only one path, there’s going to be multiple paths. So some percentage of zero emissions vehicles will be hydrogen, some percentage will be electric, so it’s this kind of dynamic mix that even analysts can’t predict exactly how it’s going to play out. We have to look at all venues, and maybe once we achieve economies of scale in terms of building hydrogen fueling infrastructure, it’ll become much easier more popular and costs will go down, so I think we should not turn our backs on hydrogen vehicles.

Michael Penn: So what you seem to be suggesting is that, going forward into the future, what will fuel our cars and what will give them their power is going to have a lot more diversity. It’s not going to be like in the last century where one form of fuel just completely dominated all other types, gasoline-fueled vehicles, but now we’re going to have multiple options for different purposes and different consumers.

Tim Hornyak: That’s what I would imagine, yeah. I don’t think it’s going to be a single commodity industry like it was in the past. I think that now that technology is cheaper, much more available to the average engineering company and user, it isn’t like the 1930s where it was relatively difficult to, if you wanted to, put together your own car. Now companies have access to this technology, because they explore different avenues toward building sustainable mobility. I think that even if you look at electric vehicles there is a question to be asked, like, “Okay, where is the energy coming from? Is it being produced sustainably? Is it coming from solar, wind, or other means, or is it coming from coal-fired fuel plants?” No one wants to power their electric vehicle with factories that are burning coal to make electrons that go through the system. So think that, yeah, we should have a diversity of solutions, and if hydrogen turns out to be the Betamax of the industry, that’s no big tragedy. Betamax was a great format a lot of people loved it, including yours truly, so we have to do a bit of trial-and-error as we progress.

Michael Penn: Alright, well I think I know I’ve learned a lot in this episode of What’s the Rumpus, as I always do when Tim joins us. So Tim, thank you very much. In our new studio here there is no dinner that follows, and no burrito, but we still send you our appreciation for joining us.

Tim Hornyak: My pleasure, thanks very much for having me.

Michael Penn: So thank you, and thank you. Please join us again. We have to other guests already in the pipeline, so we’re looking forward to more episodes of What’s the Rumpus, coming your way.

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