Monthly Archives: June 2016

On the sublime cleverness of an electric car with swappable batteries

biro electric car

Behold the Biro — an extraordinarily cute little urban electric car, which has a nifty feature: You can yank the battery out and swap in a new one when it’s dead. Each battery lasts about 25 miles, so you could bring along a spare if you need to drive for long; or when you get home from work, you bring the battery inside and charge it overnight.

You can get a sense of how it works in this video:

Caution: This is a super twee video, so you kind of have to look past the eurohipsters-in-paradise imagery here. (What is that weird space-age recliner the dude settles into during the final shot of the video? Is that what he does when he’s waiting for the battery to recharge? Just … lie there?)

Anyway, this idea — swapping out batteries in your car — is incredibly clever. It completely upends how we think electric cars ought to work.

When we think of an electric car, we think of the battery as the tank, and the electricity that goes in as the gas. But what if we’ve got all that wrong? Maybe the analogy is more like any other battery-powered object — a camera, a remote-control, a flashlight. In those situations, the tank is the empty space where the battery goes. The battery itself isn’t a permanent part of the tool. It’s disposable. When it’s dead, you yank it out and put in a new one (then set the old one aside to recharge).

This idea — whip the battery out of your electric car and swap in a new one — would solve many, many problems that are preventing the mainstream spread of electric cars. One big problem where I live is that it’s a densely packed city, and I park on the sidewalk, usually pretty far from my house. I’d love to buy an electric car, but there’s nowhere to charge it. I can’t run a cord from my house to the random curbside spot I find for my car two blocks away. And even if I owned, say, a Tesla, I’m not gonna want to spent 40 minutes at one of Tesla’s proprietary charging stations getting a full refill. But if I could swap the batteries out? Have the whole car full charged in about two minutes? Damn, sold.

Now, this idea — a car with swappable batteries — has been tried! The Israeli company Better Place convinced Renault to build experimental cars that had removable batteries, and Better Place created a network of battery-swapping stations in Israel. The concept was that they’d work like a regular gas station, except by robot: You’ll pull in, a robot arm would reach beneath your car, then yank out the old battery and swap in a new one. It promised to be even faster to refuel an electric car than a gasoline-powered one. All it took was a metaphoric shift: You had to stop thinking of the battery as a permanent part of the car. It’s not.

Back in 2009, I visited Better Place for a New York Times Magazine story on the CEO Shai Agassi. I saw their robot mechanism at work:

On the day of the presentation, a group of investors and employees milled around, peering down with interest at the mechanism. The robot — a squat platform that moves on four dinner-plate-size white wheels — scuttled back and forth along a 20-foot-long set of metal rails. At one end of the rails, a huge blue battery, the size of a large suitcase, sat suspended in a frame. As we watched, the robot zipped up to the battery, made a nearly inaudible click, and pulled the battery downward. It ferried the battery over to the other end of the rails, dropped it off, picked up a new battery, hissed back over to the frame and, in one deft movement, snapped the new battery in the place of the old one. The total time: 45 seconds.

Agassi — a 41-year-old Israeli-American with a piercing stare — beamed. “Check this out,” he said, dragging me over and pointing at a set of thick two-inch metal hooks on the frame. The latches use the same technology as those used “to hold 500-pound bombs in place on bombers,” he explained. Designed to release bombs with millisecond precision, the technology is also perfectly suited to keeping batteries safely inside the cars, yet allowing them to be extracted in a blink. Agassi obviously enjoyed the swords-to-ploughshares imagery too.

A cool idea!

Alas, it went up in smoke. Agassi, it transpires, was a terrible manager of Better Place’s finances, and made all sorts of unrealistic sales promises; meanwhile, it wasn’t easy (read: impossible) to get car companies to agree to redesign their cars to include swappable batteries. There’s a good and brutal postmortem here in Fast Company.

Still, the basic idea — swapping out a vehicle’s batteries — is still radiantly sensible. It won’t go away; indeed, it’s already percolating up from below. In many major cities in the US, takeout-food restaurants all have electric bicycles for their delivery guys, because it makes for fast (and very cheap, fuel-wise) deliveries; and if the battery on a bike gets low you can whip it out and replace it with a new one, then take the dead one inside to charge. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more odd little cars like the Biro. Battery-swapping makes sense for apartment-dwelling, curbside-parking urbanites. And there’s yet another area ripe for swappable batteries: Electric golf carts, the sales of which are exploding in retiree communities.

Sure, the big car companies aren’t going to lead the way on this one. Like most genuinely new shifts in engineering, it always bubbles up in the weird, small niches.

The infinite monkeys of spam poetry

pixelated shakespeare

Every once in a while a spambot posts a comment on my blog that is inadvertently poetic. They’re just crawling online text, cutting it up and posting in a word-slurry, but hey — the infinite monkeys of the spambot universe occasionally kick up a pretty lovely post.

Today I was cleaning out the comment-spam on this blog and found this beaut:

Gooseneck trailer hitches are important to haul irregularly
shaped cargo trailers that stick out from the front.
Multiple Paladins will have the capacity
to have Beacon of Light active around the same target, at well.
Best first nerf gun To add insult to injury, Icebound
Fortitude which can be a Death Knight tank’s main “oh crap” ability is
it’s cooldown doubled – from one or two minutes.

I remember one manager I met using a consulting assignment who expressed frustration attempting to deal
with her Gen Y employees. Scenarios (like Nordenwatch) provided fun, instant action and were even superior to Wo
– W battlegrounds.

Sing, bard!

How Ursula Franklin made me a technology journalist

Ursula Franklin

Ursula Franklin is a Canadian scientist, philosopher, feminist, and a thoroughly remarkable person. As Robinson Meyer described her over at the Atlantic web site …

The 92-year-old metallurgist pioneered the field of archeometry, the science of dating archaeologically discovered bronzes, metals, and ceramics. Her research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. She delivered the Massey Lectures—an important, annual series of talks delivered by Canadian public intellectuals—in 1989, and she was the first woman to be named University Professor at the University of Toronto, the university’s highest position.

She was also born in Munich in 1921, and was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.

As it turns out, Franklin also completely changed the arc of my writing career. She’s why I write the journalism that I do.

I recently talked about this with Suw Charman-Anderson on the debut episode of her new Ada Lovelace Day podcast! It’s here if you want to hear it — I’m on at the 25:00 point:

But if you prefer scannable text, here’s the short version of how Franklin changed my life:

I decided in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. Though I’d been a nerd child who tinkered with computers, I didn’t think I’d ever write about that stuff. A real journalist wrote about serious things … which meant, well, politics, right?

So I went to the University of Toronto and did a major in English with a minor in Political Science, the latter at which I was pretty dreadful. Which ought to have been some sort of warning sign, yes? But on I persisted. I learned journalism by getting deeply involved in the campus newspapers, writing and editing a bazillion stories, and training myself to be — my top aspiration at the time — a city hall reporter for the Toronto Star. (A job I never actually got, since my proffered resumes and clips were met with the sound of crickets.) But anyway, that was the goal: To write about politics — municipal, provincial, federal, international, what have you. I kept all the nerd stuff in check. Nobody, I thought, gave a toss about that stuff.

Then in August of 1990 I picked up a copy of Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology. It was a print-up of her “Massey Lectures,” an annual series broadcast by a notable Canadian thinker on the CBC.

In brief, the book pointed out how technology was increasingly affecting the warp and woof of everyday life. She lays it out crisply on her opening, comparing technology to a house in which we all live …

A page from Ursula Franklin's "The Real World of Technology"

As the book goes on, Franklin elegantly used then-contemporary examples to show how technology was tweaking the ways we related to each other — and particularly how digital tools were being used to centralize power. One lovely example is her discussion of credit-card-style keycards to unlock doors. Back around 1990 they were a hot new tech, but as Franklin pointed out, they weren’t just a “better” key. They were a different key, with new abilities. A regular metal key can let you in a room. But a credit-card key can gather information on how often you access that room, reporting back to the building-owner on your comings and goings. Or the owner can, on the fly, reprogram the lock from afar to suddenly lock you out. High-tech keys conferred new powers on those who owned the locks.

When you read the book today, it’s astonishing how forward-looking it is. That discussion of locks feel like she’s writing about Facebook or GPS chips in phones.

The point is, as a 22-year-old kid in 1990, I had never thought about technology in this way. I was completely ignorant of the tradition of philosophers who scrutinized the social, political and cultural effects of technology — from Harold Innis to Lewis Mumford to Jacques Ellul and many others, all of whom with Franklin herself was deeply familiar. But once she’d opened the door, I could see everything that lay within that room. I could see how my interest in politics and culture overlapped with my interest in computers.

And I decided, pretty much upon putting down the book, what I was going to do with the rest of my life: To report on technology’s impact on everyday life. How weird new tools were changing the way we talk to each other, learn new things, waste time, work, and play.

So that’s what I’ve done, for 25 years. It’s all due to Franklin.