Moving Away From a Proprietary Fuel System (update)

When it comes to music, and mp3 players, I’ve yet to meet the person to actually give me a good hard sell on iPods.  Why not?

Because iPods are too focused on a proprietary system.

That’s to say, if you have an iPod, you are forced to use iPod’s software to do just about anything with it.  Now, having never actually been forced to use said software, I really don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.  I’m going to assume the software is relatively decent considering that if it was that much of a hassle, the prominence of iPods in the market wouldn’t be as great as they currently are.

But the useability and quality of the proprietary software isn’t what’s at issue here.  It’s the limitations and lack of flexibility.  Case in point; if I wanted to upload music to my iPod, I have to use their program.  If I want to download music from the internet, I have to do so through iPod websites and download stations, or whatever.  Burning a disk, iPod software, playing my songs; has to be an iPod.

By contrast, the actual mp3 player I have provides a lot more freedom.  It too came with its own media management software, but after fiddling with it for about a day, I promptly deleted it, and caused as much physical damage to the cd it came on as I was capable of.

Why?

Because I didn’t need it.  Uploading music was as simple as a file drag and drop you do every day on your PC.  I stop off at a friends house, and he’s got some songs I want?  Plug in my usb cord, and within minutes I’m good to go.  I can throw the same songs on my mp3 player onto a cd using plain old Windows Media Player, and I have a cd that can be played anywhere.  Or, because my car has an MP3 compatible cd player, I can drag and drop the same songs on a CD, and now I have a hundred songs I can play in my car.

Between the iPod and a non Apple based mp3 player the basic final product is the same; a little device that let’s you play music.  But it is the lack of a proprietary system in the non-Apple based mp3 players that gives one more freedom in their listening capabilities.

Thus, while the hard definition of proprietary may be off, this has become how I look at our transportation system that is based almost solely on gasoline and diesel.

The fact of the matter is that our dependence upon fossil based fuels have taken on the characteristics of a negative proprietary system, one that we are forced to buy into because there are no real alternatives.  You either fill up at a gas station with gas (or diesel), or you don’t drive.

Of course, with the gas crunch being what it is, people are even as we speak tinkering away in their garage, messing around with hydrogen kits, or converting their diesel engines to run off of biofuels, but the fact is, there’s simply no underlying infrastructure to support some of the alternatives that people are working away on.

And, what’s more, some solutions would require an expensive and intensive shift in our infrastructure to accomodate, like, for instance, in natural gas which, if memory serves me, there are all of two natural gas stations in the Hampton Roads tidewater area in which I live.

Further, I recently took place in a discussion in which alternative energies were discusses, and in which everyone seemed to champion their own alternative solution.  But what struck me as interesting is that in some way or another, switching from gas to these alternatives required weening ourselves off of one proprietary fuel system, and on to another proprietary fuel system.

Natural gas, hydrogen, and biofuels would all essentially trading up our gas stations for a station of a different kind, and would each bring with them the evils of a single fuel based system, from over dependence upon an energy source that may reveal negative effects later in the future, to simple source depletion.

In the course of this debate, something that has captured my imagination is Chevrolet’s concept car, the Volt.  If your daily driving is under forty miles, the Volt would end up costing you $0 in gas, which, I don’t know about you, works incredibly well for me.

Unlike me, though, not everyone can say that forty miles is all they drive in a day, and especially around here where people live as far away as North Carolina to the south, and halfway to Richmond to the north, the Volt without a support system, just isn’t going to find that big of a market here.

But it gives us an idea as to where we should be heading.

The difference between electric powered cars compared to any other vehicle running off of any other fuel, should be obvious to those who have studied power generation.  This because, unlike other energy sources, electricity can be generated by a plethora of means.

I don’t know every method of generating electricity, but what I do know is that you can generate electricity with movement, and the right set of materials.  In fact, that’s exactly how your alternator works; by creating relative movement between two different materials.

That’s how windmills work, as well.

In fact, the interesting thing about electricity generation is that you can always be more creative about how you generate it.  And should we adapt our personal methods of transportation to be based upon electricity, what we are really doing is creating for ourselves a freedom based upon local available resources regarding how we provide our cars with electricity.

For any idea, there are stumbling blocks.  For instance, sure, battery powered cars sound great, but the Volt only goes forty miles before it needs to be recharged, and doesn’t that take hours?  Even the local parts store needs an hour to charge up your car battery.

But again, it’s a function of how creative one gets.

A friend of mine once mentioned a Popular Science/Popular Mechanics article wherein battery exchange stations could replace, or at least for the time being augment, gas stations as a place to rejuice our rides.  I wasn’t able to find said article, but I did happen upon an interesting little site that provides a movie that shows how these battery exchange stations would work.

Assuming we can get car companies to agree on a universal battery port, or style (and I assume that’s doable, after all, they manage to have gas ports that every gas pump I’ve ever used works with), and that we can find an inexpensive way to cycle batteries in such a way, the convenience provided by your local gas station in refueling, or in this case recharging your vehicle is essentially solved.  No need waiting for an hour or more to recharge your car, you simply get a new battery, and trade in your old battery so that it can be charged at the normal rate and given to someone else.

And then this is where the fun part comes in.  Unlike gas stations, where their product must come from refineries which get oil which is drilled out of the ground and controlled by the few, electrical stations should be capable of being powered by any number of methods, and those methods would obviously be tailor made to meet the local available resources.  A single battery exchange station could be powered by windmills, nuclear, coal, solar, hydroelectric, etc.

You know, I take my kids to the Viriginia Children’s Museum, and they have a couple of exerbikes wired up to a radio, a light bulb, and a weird little air tube with ping pong balls.  Get the peddles moving fast enough, and the radio plays music, the bulb lights up, and the balls start to hover.

Now, taking that concept and shifting it over, you could rewire the local gym’s equipment in such a way that just people doing their daily fitness regiment could help power a local battery exchange station.

And this is based on the science and technology that we have today.  The Volt only gets forty miles before a recharge is needed.  I think it’s safe to say that before long that distance will be vastly improved upon.  Further, as Mythbusters proved last month, with a little time and work, electric cars will lack pretty much nothing compared to their fuel based ancestors.

I recognize that I’m not exactly the most science based guy out there, so I know there are probably a million and one holes and things left unconsidered in my thoughts here, but the mentality here has got to stop being why we can’t do something, and instead start being how do we overcome.

In any case, it’s definitely worth thinking about.

UPDATE: One thing I originally wanted to mention regarding this topic, and kind of forgot is that one of the downfalls of the gasoline/propietary fuel system set up is that, you can all too often fall into a rut of compromise, doing anything to prolong your existing fuel system but not actually addressing the problems at hand.

Case in point, John McCain and his plan to drill drill drill, which even he admits is more for a psychological benefit than anything else, just another gimmick like his gas tax holiday.  Both leaders, and the every day folks in America need to come with a single understanding that potential solutions to our energy crisis must not be reliant upon fossil fuels or else they fail to be solutions but merely attempts at stalling for time.

More at MemeorandumWonk Room, Matthew Yglesias, The Carpetbagger Report and The Jed Report

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