HUMINT: Unconscious Design

Conscious Design: The product of an individual or engineer who formulates mechanisms based on tangible environmental constraints.

Unconscious Design: An individual’s consumer choice made to satisfy real or arbitrary requirements they imagine exist.

In the film, Who Killed the Electric Car there is a conclusive scene near the film’s end, where the vehicular hero of the film, the Impact, is side by side with the vehicular villain, the Hummer. The scene is as dramatic as it possibly can be. The two automobiles are shiny and clean; the size differential overwhelmingly evident. The behemoth Hummer dominates the camera with its sharp edges and bulk, while the Impact’s polite curves announce a superior sophistication. Both are poised to go forth into the future, seemingly born equivalent if not equal at the starting line of consumer choice… When they start to roll toward the camera, in a pseudo race, the Impact pulls ahead, as though it’s the better choice, subtly implying consumers would be fools to continue to favor the Hummer over the Impact or its future electric equivalent. Recall, the major premise of the film is that the Impact was murdered by a vast conspiracy.

Like the Roman Coup that took the life of Gaius Julius Caesar, the Impact was conspired against and eventually murdered. The film’s actors even stage a funeral for the automobile. Who Killed the Electric Car is product anthropomorphism at its best. Without regard to the tears and angst of the committed drivers, the Impact’s business model bled to death from hundreds of tiny cuts inflicted by a multitude of enemies. The guilty provocateurs include Big Government, Big Oil, Ignorant Consumers, Auto Manufacturers and Corrupt Environmental Regulators. No cut was deeper however than the Impact’s father, played by General Motors. GM’s betrayal was epic, even biblical. GM is portrayed in the film as the corporate combination of Caesar’s Brutus and in a biblical context Isaac’s Abraham1. GM was determined to sacrifice its more successful offspring to a viscous, capitalist God. What else could GM be thinking? Nothing good of course… Big business is always bad (right?) therefore GM must be guided by an evil paternalistic impulse to keep its dirty children alive at the expense of its only clean one. Not so fast! While that narrative is possible, it’s not necessarily probable.

In my opinion, the relevance of the Impact/Hummer scene cannot be understated. Setting aside the fact that both vehicles are made by GM, serving as an incestuous corporate competition that GM can’t lose; it says more about transportation and environmental problems than the film’s dominant narrative. The film is an emotional rollercoaster that intends to leave an average viewer in love with the martyred Impact and at odds with everybody else. Unfortunately the dominant narrative basically ignores the unconscious engineering problem as it relates to consumer choice. What the actors and director apparently failed to understand is how most normal people make their decisions. While this essay may not answer that question in its entirety, hopefully it will provide some insight on big commitment decision making as those decisions relate to a family vehicle.

People unconsciously design their lives with the most tangible, best/worst case scenario in their unconscious mind. You might be wondering how I can claim to understand the unconscious mind of average consumers. Am I a mind reader? No, I’m not. I actually don’t understand the unconscious mind of others. What I do have instead is a related insight into energy, efficiency and conscious decision making. To demonstrate the difference between conscious design and unconscious design, let’s consider a problem similar to the one introduced by the film Who Killed the Electric Car. To get a feel for solving big problems, I always start small and work my way up.

So let’s get to work. Design a solar powered street light with me and you’ll see what my analogy means. We’ll keep the design at the conceptual level so you won’t need a calculator. You’re familiar with the inherent variability in our environment, right? Some days are cold. Some days are hot. Some days are sunny. Some days are cloudy. Some days are long and some days are short. Alternatively, some nights are really cold and really long. In every case, we can tame these variables with historical data and competent estimations. At night our solar powered streetlight batteries will have to keep our street light ON for the longest and coldest night of the year. We can’t afford a lawsuit if the light goes out at three AM. Guaranteeing the light stays on during the night is one engineering constraint. During the day, our solar panel will have to charge the battery for that scenario plus some safety factor. A safety factor of two suggests a battery charge that would last twice the duration of the longest, coldest night. The size of the solar panel will be derived from that most tangible, worst case scenario engineering requirement.

Now let’s use what we’ve learned about conscious design to understand unconscious design. An automobile is a big commitment. To make that commitment, the vehicle should perform under the worst case scenarios. In the mind of a consumer, however, the worst case from an engineering perspective translates into the best case scenario for the consumer. This I know from personal experience. I want to drive where I want when I want, with my whole family and everything I own. Any vehicle that cannot accommodate my best case scenario, by default, is a luxury item. Let’s go back to the analogy for a minute. A long sunny day for a solar powered street light represents an incredible amount of wasted energy, as does a luxury car to a family on a budget. Every day that isn’t the worst day for a solar powered street light is a luxury. The actual usage of the vehicle may never approach the unrealistic expectations a consumer takes with them to the dealership, but that doesn’t matter.

The electric car must be reinvented if it is going to compete with consumers who aren’t actors. To baptize an electric vehicle anew in the competitive fires of the free market, an electric car will have to be able to go wherever drivers want it to go, whenever drivers want to go there. There can be no mistakes, like forgetting to plug in the car at night. Let’s be honest. Forgetting to charge the battery would be more costly in terms of time than running out of gas on the highway in a Hummer.

To the other issues raised by the film… The reduced impact (not the car name) on the environment is of intangible value, if there is any at all. An individual vehicle has negligible influence over smoggy days, unless the power plants that generate the power to charge the batteries have scrubbers installed on the exhaust stacks. The Impact’s business model does not eliminate tons of carbon dioxide that will still enter the atmosphere, regardless of a vehicle’s fossil fuel power source. A shift in fuel source from oil to coal has geopolitical benefits, but again, those are of intangible value to a consumer, that is unless you’ve ever seen a strip mine. Strip coal mines are extreme environmental hazards. What about the H2 economy? Hydrogen embrittlement is a serious problem left unmentioned. Standard pipes don’t work for H2. The molecules are too small for effective containment. They slip through the gaps in pipe walls making them brittle and dangerous. Alternative pipes capable of safely moving H2 around the globe are very expensive. I am not optimistic about the future of H2 as a fuel. Plug-in hybrid vehicles sound very interesting in terms of diversifying America’s energy portfolio. Half coal, half gasoline --- sounds like an emotionally stable balance even if it doesn’t help the atmosphere very much. In terms of the historical accuracy of the film was stretching the truth if not intentionally disingenuous, steam powered cars nearly beat out the internal combustion engine. In 1906, Fred Marriott drove a steam powered vehicle built by the Stanley Brothers to a speed of 127 MPH.

In conclusion, there are no easy answers to the energy problem as it relates to automobile fuel. Right now, electric cars are a luxury item that lack comprehensive usability. As for alternatives, Cellulosic Ethanol looks very promising. It was a source of fuel conspicuously absent from the film. Maybe Cellulosic Ethanol will kill the need for an electric car. We’ll see. I’ll be exploring the manufacturing process for Cellulosic Ethanol in a follow up post to free fuel. If we are going to indulge luxurious fantasies, the best case scenario would be to have access to equipment capable of making fuel in an average consumer’s garage. Think about why consumers want to stop at a gas station anyway. They don’t! Consumers want an easy to use gas pump in their garage. Developing do-it-yourself fuel making equipment would reduce the need for an expensive Ethanol upgrade to gas stations around the country. Actually the opposite could happen to investing in gas station upgrades. So called “Big Oil” would probably be forced to close most of the existing gas stations as well as their existing oil refineries. To stay afloat they would probably need to raise the price of fossil gas; $20 per gallon of gasoline, anyone?

No thanks… More to come on the future of fuel.

1: The image is of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is related to the piece Unconscious Design by analogy. The film Who Killed the Electric Car portrays GM as a parental corporation sacrificing its good vehicular invention the Impact in favor of its black sheep son, the Hummer.

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