Friday, July 21, 2006

What an Electric Vehicle Costs

In an earlier post I mentioned the controversy over GM's EV1 sparked by a new film, with some people arguing that the all electric vehicle was a viable design scrapped by GM for vague but sinister reasons. In my view, the best evidence against that comes not from GM's experience—the facts about the EV1's performance are disputed and it's hard for an outsider to distinguish between startup costs and production costs in order to figure out what a commercial version of the car would have cost—but from the behavior of other auto firms. If a commercially viable electric car could have been produced, it is hard to see why some auto firm wouldn't have produced it—and none did.

We now have a little more evidence. Tesla Motors, a Bay Area startup, has announced that they will be bringing a fully electric vehicle to market in about a year. The relevant facts:

1. Range: 250 miles per charge.
2. Recharge time: 3 1/2 hours with a 240 volt/70 ampere source, longer with ordinary house current.
3. Configuration: Sports car.
4. Price: $85,000-$100,000.
5. Operating cost: 2.6 cents/mile if electricity is 13 cents/kwh.

If gas costs $3/gallon, the per mile cost for a vehicle averaging 25 mpg is 12 cents, so the electric vehicle saves less than ten cents per mile. If we assume a 100,000 mile lifetime, that's less than ten thousand dollars, which doesn't make up for much of the cost difference between the electric car and a conventional vehicle.

The range is sufficient for many people's needs, although not all. But a sports car does not have to carry many passengers or much luggage, leaving more space for batteries. That suggests that a sedan would either be much heavier and more expensive or have a substantially shorter range.

So the evidence suggests that the electric car is not yet viable as a mass market vehicle, although it may be competitive in the expensive sports car niche.

Readers interested in the EV1 controversy may want to revisit the thread I linked to earlier, with particular attention to the posts by Phil Karn, who joined the discussion after my original post. Phil—known to some of us as a party in an important encryption lawsuit—actually owned an EV1, and so was able to provide some first hand evidence from his own experience. He also has an interesting web page on the subject.

Friday, July 14, 2006

What Matters and Why?

Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, offers an interesting hypothetical; I don't have a copy of the book ready to hand so will give you my version:

Someone invents an experience machine; get into it and you will have a fully convincing illusion of experience. Somehow, the inventor figures out about what your life is going to be like and makes you the following offer:

Get into my experience machine, spend the rest of your life there, and I will give you the illusion of a life slightly better than the one you would otherwise live. Your average income in the illusion will be a few thousand dollars higher than it would have been in reality, your wife a little prettier, your children slightly better behaved, your promotions just a little prompter. Your illusory summers won't be quite as hot, or winters quite as cold.

Assume you believe his offer. Do you accept it? If not, why not?

The answer, it seems to me, depends on what things you value. It's tempting to think that what ultimately matters to you about the world is only how it impinges on you, what effect it has on your sensations—and if that were true, you would accept the offer.

But it is not true, at least for me and I suspect for many other people. I don't merely want the illusion of having written an interesting, enjoyable and original book, I want to have actually done it. I don't just want to think people read my books and are affected by the ideas in them, I want them to actually read and be affected. I don't want just the illusion of wonderful children, I want my wonderful children to actually exist. I wouldn't touch that machine with a ten foot pole.

Having said that, it is worth seeing how far the argument applies to things more realistic than Nozick's hypothetical. Consider recreational drugs. A lot of us have a gut level feeling that the pleasure from being high on a drug is somehow less valid, less real, than the pleasure from accomplishing something—even if it is only winning a game of tennis or climbing a mountain. Feeling that you are a wonderful person because you are drunk is somehow less valid than feeling you are a wonderful person because you have just saved someone's life at risk of your own or solved an important problem.

Or consider virtual reality, which gets us closer to Nozick's experience machine—and to one reason I have been thinking of these issues of late. Why do I feel better about making a bunch of germanic lyres in my basement than about making a bunch of Whitesoul Helms online in World of Warcraft? Why do I feel less comfortable about consuming many hours online fighting computer generated monsters than about consuming a similar amount of time, also online, arguing with people about subjects of interest to me?

The problem is older than World of Warcraft. I know some very smart people who put substantial amounts of time and effort into playing games--chess, bridge, poker. As long as one views it as recreation, there is no problem. But what about a really able person who treats the game as his real life and whatever he does to earn money for food and rent as merely an annoying distraction? Something about that feels wrong—feels as though he would in some sense be leading a better life if he put the same talent and passion into building better houses or writing better computer programs. Why?

The other reason I have been thinking about this is that it looks as though I will be revising my Future Imperfect manuscript for publication, assuming my agents' negotiations with a publisher finally produce a contract. The puzzle of what matters and why shows up repeatedly there. If improved understanding of how the mind works results in a really good recreational drug and most people spend most of their waking hours enjoying it, is that a problem? Would it be better if the drug was never invented? If we end up with full sense VR and people spend most of their lives in a delightful illusion while their bodies occupy tiny cubicles and consume yeast paste—tasting, of course, through the marvels of VR, like sushi and sirloin—is that a consummation devoutly to be feared, or hoped for?

I expect to continue this in another post, and in particular to distinguish between what things in VR ought to count as real and what not and in what ways World of Warcraft might be seen as a useful part of real life, but this post is, I think, long enough.

Why Do We Tip?

A while back, I got into an interesting online discussion of tipping, in particular restaurant tipping, a practice that some people approve of and others don't. I offered what I think of as the standard economic explanation--that it was a way of rewarding waiters for good service (with high tips) and penalizing bad service (with low tips). It depends on social norms or repeat custom to work, but takes advantage of the fact that the customer has information about the quality of the service that the employer does not have.

The problem with that explanation, as a number of people argued, is that it depends on customers substantially varying the amount of their tip—and many, perhaps most, don't. If you almost always tip 15% and occasionally raise it to 20% for good service or lower to 10% for poor, that isn't much of an incentive to the waiter.

It occurred to me that there was another possible explanation, having to do with the customer rather than the waiter. People like to feel generous. Giving a tip when you know you don't have to makes you feel better than paying the same amount on the bill. People like to feel honest and honorable. Abiding by the implied contract to tip if you get reasonable service, when you know you could have stiffed the waiter and saved the money (provided you don't plan to come back to that restaurant), gives you a chance to prove to yourself and your table companions that you are an honest and honorable sort.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Talk Radio Ads

I often listen to political talk shows on my car's satellite radio. When I get fed up with a right wing show I switch to a left wing show, when I get fed up with that I look for another right show, or give up. One thing I notice is the sort of ads that go with the shows. While some are probably for worthwhile products, a lot are get rich quick schemes, instructions on how to get credit by incorporating in Nevada, and the like.

What is interesting is that, so far as I can tell, the same ads run on left wing and right wing shows. That suggests that many of the people who listen to such shows, left and right, have something in common.

Perhaps credulity.