Electric Vehicle Adoption

What Do You Know About Electric Vehicle Adoption?

Written by Alex Reid
Posted August 8, 2011

The talk I gave at the Electric Vehicle Summit last week is linked here, including the PowerPoint as well as the audio track.  I concluded it with a reminder that, in terms of the EV adoption curve, we don’t really know as much as we think we do. 

“Let’s put this in perspective,” I told the audience near the end of my 45-minute presentation.  “You folks are listening to me, and, I’d like to think, trusting what I’m telling you.  But I got my information from various sources, that, in turn, got their information from other sources.  At the end of the day, it’s possible that, pardon the pun, we’re all just breathing one another’s exhaust.  When there are so many variables, and so much of our world changes month to month, I look askance at  projections that go out 40 years.  I think you should too.” 

I read a poem (Please Mrs. Butler) that, in a round-about way, makes this point, i.e., maybe I’ve raised more questions than I’ve provided answers.  I acknowledged the chuckles I received, took a few questions, and sat down.  

But the idea that we think we know more than we do is an extremely important one; it certainly applies far more broadly than the EV adoption curve.  This subject, called “epistemic arrogance” lies at the root of so much of human folly.  I’m reminded of an eminent business leader I’ve met a few times who takes every opportunity to offer his position on global warming.  “It’s a hoax.  Mankind positively does not possess the power to alter the incredible power of nature.  The concept is absolutely idiotic,” he re-asserted at a recent meeting. 

“Are you sure?” I asked the first time I heard this, my jaw on the floor.  “I mean no offense — and I know there are ‘climate change deniers’ out there — but you seem quite certain about a proposition that flies in the teeth of the peer-reviewed findings that the vast majority of climate scientists have published over the last 30 years.”  But couldn’t get him to back off even a micron.

I’m wondering where we’re going to see the most dramatic and lethal evidence of our epistemic arrogance.  It certainly could be global warming, though there’s no reason to rule out nutrition.  The last hundred years has seen agricultural science develop hundreds of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, as well as farming methods that many say have ruined the soil.  Others believe that our GMOs represent a terrible biohazard.  Almost no one thinks that commercially raised tomatoes have any flavor, but, more importantly, anyone who’s studied the subject knows that the nutritional value of the food in our grocery stores is a small fraction of what it was a century ago.  

We also have skyrocketing rates of diseases that simply didn’t exist in the early 1900s. Is there a connection? 

And what’s the solution?  Should we feel comfortable with the approach that ADM, Monsanto, and the other agri-giants are taking, i.e., more unnatural processes and higher doses of more powerful chemicals — aimed at undoing the damage caused by the last round?

While it doesn’t seem likely to me that this will this fix the problem, and it’s certainly not the direction I’d be taking if I were directing this effort, I have to say what I wish other people would admit: “I don’t know.”

I’m reminded of an important idea in law called the Precautionary Principle, that requires the developer of an action or policy to prove that what he is advocating will cause no harm to the public or the environment.  I.e., if a concept could potentially contain a risk to public health and safety, the burden is placed on the concept’s proponents to prove that such risk does not exist, rather than on the public to prove that it does.  

But in cases like the food supply as discussed here, it’s obvious that we as a civilization are light-years away from any meaningful implementation of this principle.  Agribusiness makes decisions that affect the health of everyone living on this planet.  We eat what they feed us, and we suffer the consequences.

Occasionally it would be nice to hear, “Look, we clearly have no idea of the unintended consequences of what we’re doing here, so let’s err on the side of caution.”   Wouldn’t that be refreshing? 

But I’m not holding my breath.  What about you?