Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, August 21, 2006

Real Men Don't Go Vroom!

It is seldom that I find myself in the company of men, but looking at the roomful of 200 or so who had arrived at HP for this presentation, I was definitely one of only a handful of women. Nor did I feel out of place. This was the home of the Electric Auto Association and, as the owner of one of the more esoteric electric vehicles still on the road, my membership card was stamped and valid.

The EAA, now a national organization with numerous chapters all over the country, was founded by a group of owners in 1967 here in Silicon Valley. One of their members worked at Hewlett Packard, thus securing this beautiful presentation room for meetings. Seldom had I seen it filled to standing room only. It was as packed as a church on Christmas Eve. And in a sense this was Christmas for the EV world. We were here to see the Tesla, the stuff that EV dreams are made of.

The Tesla would show the world that electric cars were definitely not dead yet. In fact the Tesla might well be the death knell of the combustion engine itself, way ahead of the fuel cell car. And how would this come to pass? The key was in the lithium battery pack, which allowed the car a range of 250 miles. Range had long been the limiting factor of electric cars. Because standard cars can go 300 miles or so between fill ups, this had become the range to beat. Even though most Americans don't travel nearly that far in a day, the idea that they could has become part of our birthright. As a nation we had invested, not in high-speed trains or local municipal transit, but in an interstate highway. This was a land shaped by the automobile.

Nor could the automobile be a mere utilitarian object. Where once Henry Ford had decreed that buyers of his Model T could have any color they wanted as long as it was black, cars had to now represent what an owner believed in and aspired to, who his friends were, the power and status he had, his physical domination, even what political party he voted under. For at every stoplight the measure of the man would be up for review as his neighbor took in the car he drove.

Mid-life crisis? Get a sports car. Got a little dick, get a really big truck. Penis envy? Not me. I had a combustion engine between my legs. For the five years that I rode a motorcycle during my twenties, the roar and the vibrations against my thighs, the rush of speed and throbbing noise with every pull of the throttle was undeniably sexual (though low cost had been my aim). Add to that a full set of black leathers and I was strutting my stuff in the broadest representation of tough, kick ass, potency.

So it did not surprise me that the quiet of the electric car is considered effete or gay. Even mailmen objected when they were asked to drive electric mail vans, treating them badly and calling the vehicle a piece of junk. No, it takes a real man to drive an electric car. One that appreciates the beauty of its clean propulsion and the unobtrusive civilized quiet; one who is more than a little aware of the detrimental impact of the combustion engine on the planet.

EV owners I had met through the auto club were indeed sincerely nice, with a high level of concern for the planet. They were invested, not only in clean transportation, but often had solar power for their homes and were politically educated about policies that impacted energy use. They even packed their trash out of the movie theatre, when they came to see Who Killed The Electric Car, so reported my friend Tim who works at the Aquarius Theatre where the movie opened last month.

They were so nice, that when the Santana Row theatre asked them not to hand out fliers about the electric car, outside the theatre, when the the movie played at that venue, they packed up and left. It took the Raging Grannies to come back the following weekend with protest signs and songs to give the theatre and mall owners an earful about the right to free speech. I was triumphant when I saw they had made the 10 o'clock news for their ruckus. It was I who had told the Grannies the story of the theatre refusing to allow us to hand out fliers in a public venue.

Judging by the audience assembled at Hewlett Packard to hear about the Tesla Roadster, the electric car was also a geeks' car. I sat next to a man wearing a phone in his ear. Its periodic blinking made me turn to look at it. Our chapter president opened the meeting and quickly reviewed chapter business so we could welcome to the podium the young man who was Chief Technical Officer of Tesla. JB Straubel was articulate without the arrogance of a salesman, as he told the story of the Tesla with his PowerPoint presentation.

It had the body of the Lotus Elite, an English sports car, which though small, had enormous sex appeal. The car was built light, on an aluminum chassis with a full carbon body. The bodies are shipped from England to the Tesla company in San Carlos to be assembled (right in my own backyard; it did make me proud). The motor for the car was made in Taiwan and the battery pack assembled in Thailand. (So far the car had covered my country of birth, my current home and now Thailand - a factory in Chunburi, not far from my Bangkok home.)

The audience was enjoying the story, but it wasn't until the slide showing the battery technology came up that the excitement was palpable. People leaned forward, took pictures of the screen and were standing up in the back. Geeks know about batteries. It had been 15 years since a new battery technology had been put in a car, JB told us, far behind laptop and cell phone technology.

The batteries with the most energy density are lithium ion cells used in laptops, so why not string a bunch of them together to power a car? It meant hundreds of connections between battery cells had to be made, thus the cheap labor of the factory in Thailand. The resulting battery pack is water-cooled and is good for 500 charge and discharge cycles, which works out to 125,000 miles. And then it's recyclable.

The motor has a 2-speed gearbox with electronic shift. There is no revving up with an electric car. The full power of the high torque motor is available as soon as you step on the pedal. At 0 to 60 in 4 seconds, it is fast; shift into second and it's over 130 mph fast. The car has already beaten the Porsche and Ferrari in a face-to-face showdown at a track.

So far we have sex appeal, tremendous speed and comparable range. What more could we ask? Okay at $100,000 to own one, it is a tad expensive. A few audience members voiced this objection, but most understood that the high price would only make it more desirable to rich people. And when the rich must have something, then everyone else will lust after it until there are enough customers to bring the price down. As of this writing, the first one hundred of the signature model is already sold out with not a single car delivered.

Meanwhile Detroit and the Japanese are invested in the fuel cell car which has yet to pack enough hydrogen on board to go more than 100 miles and will set you back a million dollars. Not to mention that there are few hydrogen filling stations. The Tesla could plug in at home and be charged in 3 to 4 hours.

At the end of the presentation, the crowd hurried out to see the car. There it was sleek and black. We crowded around it, taking pictures. We were not being offered test drives, but we could touch it. In the hot sun we milled around and stuck our heads into the driver's side to see the view from behind the wheel.

Stepping back to watch the crowd go ape shit for this car, the man next to me mentioned the high price. "Well," I felt compelled to say, "A bicycle is still a very elegant and efficient way to get around." He surprised me by agreeing with me. Yes, there was something about the Tesla Roadster that was a little too rich for our blood. No longer was the electric car just about fuel conservation and ecological awareness, most popularly embodied by Prius owners. (Catherine has just joined the ranks, having scored a used silver Prius '05. The owner is returning to Manhattan where he won't need a car).

In appealing to the materialism of style and speed, the Tesla had thrown a curve ball into the eco crowd. So did that make being an eco-enlightened driver about speed? Wasn't that a little too much a desire to dominate the planet, not save it? The quiet whoosh with which the Tesla took off might well become the machismo of the future. Where would that lead us?

Would Tesla stoop to marketing the roadster with buxom babes draped all over the car? asked members on our yahoo group.

The Tesla Motors master plan is ultimately altruistic. For with the first 500 hundred sold, the money will be poured back into the company to make more cars and the next model will sell for 89K until the price comes down enough to make a family sedan model affordable. With a viable electric car on the road, the shift to a solar electric economy could then be ushered in. Tesla would even arrange for panels to be installed on your home. It was all we had hoped for. That our sensibilities were being challenged might just portend a new, totally stylin', eco-cool.

You, too, can see the Tesla at the upcoming EV Rally which will be at Palo Alto High School on September 30th from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. We'll all be there and the Raging Grannies, too.

Published concurrently at energy bulletin

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Nothing Space

Some colleagues and I were chatting about what radio stations we listened to in the car. We drive quite a bit as traveling consultants so this was a major part of our lives. When it came to my turn I told them I didn't listen to anything. They looked at me blankly.

"I just get in the car and drive," I explained. No one asked why and the conversation ended abruptly just when it was getting interesting. Listening to nothing is one of my secret weapons.

At first, I didn't turn on my radio for the first few miles because I was listening to the car. I had read, in a book on car care, that this was the way to keep tabs on the health of the car, to hear any new rattle or grinding that might indicate something in need of repair. Then my thoughts would take over and I would forget to turn on the radio for longer and longer periods of time. Eventually I got to appreciate the spaciousness of having my mind to myself, uninterrupted by urgent radio announcers.

I'd had a similar conversation with another colleague who had come to help me with a construction project in my mother's garage. She asked if I listened to the radio while I worked on this project. Again when I said no, it was a conversation stopper.

I began to wonder why this was so unusual not to listen to anything. After all, people have unplugged their TVs or refused to have one; why was it so unusual to do without an audio form of entertainment? I was already reading 13 magazine subscriptions, 9 newsletters, 7 Yahoo groups and a daily paper, while my partner surfs the TV news every night and sends me online CNN bulletins of items of interest.

We now have the technology for multiple levels of input everywhere at any time. We are expected to access so many forms of information that listening to the radio or an iPod is one of the more pleasant, relaxing ones. Not to listen while doing something mundane like cleaning or driving seems odd. And in this era of multi-tasking you would be guilty of wasting your time.

What available space we have left is being consumed to feed the need to stay connected and informed. A client working at Cisco told me how it is now customary for employees to answer their e-mail, on their laptop, while they attend meetings. They end up agreeing to do things without fully realizing what it is they have committed to. We now know, from a recent survey, that multi-tasking makes us dumber. The few seconds it takes to switch from one task to another diminishes our IQ and fragments the brain.

E-mail has taken up so much of our available time that organizer and time management coach, Julie Morgenstern, counsels her clients not to read e-mail first thing in the morning, but to do the most important thing on their to-do list first. I told this to a client recently and an astonished look crossed her face. Not answer e-mail, but that's the most exciting part of my day. (It's true it does keep one from feeling isolated especially when working from home. And sometimes I do advise depressed clients to read their e-mail as an incentive to start the day.)

We are so pressed to take in and respond to data and messages that it is as if we are continually trying to breath in more air, without exhaling. Or perhaps we are hyperventilating in the effort to take in information and send it out again.

We already know about the stress of information overload. The prescribed treatment? Anti-depressants or tranquilizers. Another syndrome to keep the pharmaceuticals going. Why not just stop already? We may just be constipated - our system clogged with input. And then to relax, we layer on more input, packing it down tight.

I have to keep reminding clients that they can't possibly read everything they have put in their to-read piles. I have joked that I was going to start an adjunct business reading other peoples' to-read pile and telling them if there was anything they needed to know.

Recently, I learned that the average time people take to think about anything is three minutes. It makes me wonder what, then, are they doing with all that input?

Three minutes is just about right for a consumer society. It's enough time to decide to make a purchase, froogle it and buy it, without thinking about the long-term impact of owning the object, maintaining it, then disposing of it. Not to mention, the external costs to the environment and to the people making the item. The volume of transactions in well-to-do households have created a niche for organizers specializing in Quicken and Quick Books. (I still record my transactions by hand, the better to take in the full impact of my purchasing decisions.) I've often thought that volume is a large part of what keeps organizers in business. Too much input of stuff on top of all the information to keep up with.

When I first heard the term "information age" I feared that I was simply not up to it. I hadn't mastered channel surfing. Just the words "information age" made me feel inadequate. The phrase signaled that information was now a commodity. If you had it you were marketable, you were on top of things. Savvy consultants became vendors of specialized knowledge, selling exactly the information people needed to cut through the overwhelm. Common sense itself was marketable in this glut of information.

For we had entered the age of fast food information. And we were supersizing it. It was time to read the ingredients on the side of the package: hype, sensationalism, fear based propaganda, PR packaged as news, eye candy, urban legends, consumer brainwashing, product information, celebrity drama, revisionist history, disinformation and just plain old misinformation. Much of the reading I was doing was an attempt to get to the bottom of it. To make sense of things.

Listening to nothing while driving is a good time to digest. It's a chance for me to allow my thoughts to flow continuously, clear out junk information, dispel fears, narrate stories and settle into calm and clarity. My thoughts are the connecting fluid of my mind, the river that runs through it. If I didn't have this nothing space, my mind would start skipping, forgetting more than I do already or fall apart altogether. Nothing space is a chance for my mind to exhale.

Some might call this taking time to reflect, but that is too goal oriented for me. Reflect on what? I prefer to think of nothing space as an informal version of meditation; the mudroom of the mind where one takes off one's shoes to leave behind the dirt picked up from outdoors. The mudroom as a place of transition.

Driving alone lends itself to these thought journeys. So does refinishing furniture, cleaning, ironing or folding laundry. I would let my thoughts run unleashed like a pet running around the house, the task at hand serving as a grounding rod, bringing me back to mindfulness. An hour or two of this flow and my mind is far calmer than when I began. I am better at listening, not only to people, but to my surroundings. Inanimate objects would offer up their secrets.

In letting loose my thoughts, I was aspiring to journey to a new landscape and the possibility of transformation. The journey might take years. As when I would ask myself questions left over from my schooling. Was it true, for instance, that if we do not study history we are bound to repeat it? Or was the problem more that we keep telling ourselves the same violent, war-loving tales of conquest and triumph? Is the collapse of civilization inevitable given ecological limits and the propensity of humans for unsustainable growth? If so, maybe the Old Testament was a human centric (patriarchal) telling of a previous collapse and the need to rebuild. "May your descendants number in the ten thousands."

I could follow lengthy trails of thought journeys, then pause to gather information in order to answer the questions that came up. Information of my own choosing, not the bombardment of information from every portal. Silence (or rather listening to ambient noise) while doing, happens to be my refuge. Others might find their nothing space in an uncluttered room or outdoors in nature (which happens infrequently. Americans spend 90% of their day indoors and choose to extend that artificial environment to their cars by turning on the radio.)

When I listen to the radio, be it music, Terry Gross or news reports, the input reverberates in my mind long after I hear it, interrupting my interior space. Allowing my own thoughts to be the dominant voice in my head allows me to be the sole commentator, the narrator of my life. My mind feels less fragmented and the activities of my day become a more cohesive whole.

Nothing happening may be the invisible un-glue, the space that keeps everything from becoming one big overwhelming ball of everything.

Earthworm. Get yours at