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On Insurmountable Technical Obstacles

February 7, 2021

John Carmack gave a great talk in which he explains why, before spending time working on an idea, he spends time trying to poke holes into it. Sometimes, it’s easy to get overly excited about an idea and get carried away. However, it could turn out that this idea has some fatal flaw, and if that’s the case, it’s probably be best if we can find that fatal flaw early, before spending hours, days or even weeks and months trying to implement a solution that was ultimately doomed to fail. There is wisdom in examining your ideas with an adversarial lens.

On the flip side, sometimes you have a problem that you need to solve, and you know it should be possible to solve it, because there’s no fundamental reason why the problem can’t be solved. I would say it’s been my experience that many people are often too quick to say that something can’t be done and dismiss all possible solutions you might suggest without doing due diligence. There’s often someone who will give you 100 reasons why your idea can’t work, and often, these people just lack imagination.

One example that has been on my mind recently is that of electric cars. Multiple jurisdictions have set the ambitious goal of completely ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Many Electric Vehicles (EV) advocates including myself believe that electric vehicles make up be the majority of new cars sold by 2030. Yet if you read discussions online, some vocal individuals will tell you that this is impossible. They will give you many reasons why electric vehicles can’t succeed, including range, a higher price tag, and that people living in apartments have nowhere to charge their vehicles. I would say that these people clearly lack imagination, and they’re failing to understand that reality is not static, it evolves over time as we adapt the world to our needs.

As technology progresses, the range and charging speed of electric vehicles keeps improving. As adoption increases, the price tag keeps coming down, and the amount of investment into EVs increases as well. I don’t live in a house, so I don’t have a garage, but at the last meeting of my condo association, the issue of installing EV chargers was brought up. This year, it should be possible for everyone who wants a charger installed to pay to add one at their parking spot. What about people who have to park their car on the street, you ask? You couldn’t possibly put a charger at every parking spot? Well, what if you could? Siemens is working on converting lamp posts into EV chargers. If you thought that charging on the street was an insurmountable technical obstacle, I say you lack imagination.

In 2020, Norway became the first country in which EVs took the majority of the new car market, with 54% of new vehicles sold being electric. You can argue that it’s easy for them, because they are wealthier than the rest of the world, but the reality is that electric vehicles are already coming down in price. There’s now a lot of competition, and Tesla has reiterated plans to produce a 25,000$ EV within a few years, with mass production inevitably bringing down costs.

The bottom line is, if there’s a problem that is really worth solving, trying to poke holes into potential solutions so you can dismiss them as quickly as possible isn’t always the right approach. You should do due diligence and give each potential solution a fair assessment, because you could also be shooting down ideas that would actually work. You should also ask yourself how you might actually go about overcoming the difficult obstacles that seem stand in the way, because some seemingly difficult obstacles might not turn out to be real issues in practice. The challenge to bring that idea into reality then becomes how to find a feasible path to your goal, and how to optimize and shorten that path as much as possible. Envisioning that path takes patience and some measure of imagination.

4 Comments
  1. William H. Mitchell permalink

    I’ve observed that people who claim something is impossible should be brief with their rationale, lest they be interrupted by someone with a solution. :)

    But wrt. EVs, I do wonder about the total increase in electrical power production that might be required. Can the need be met with green technologies or would we end up burning more coal and natural gas to charge those cars?

    That article on Siemens’ lamp posts is pretty interesting, but I didn’t see a mention of who’s paying for the electricity. Could somebody use that free power for Bitcoin mining?

    • A Tesla Model 3 gets about 4.1 miles per kWh, and the average commute in the USA is 16 miles per day, so that’s about 4kWh per day of charging. The average household consumes about 29 kWH per day, so that would be an increase of 14% per car.

      If you added solar to every house (which California is mandating for every new construction), that would more than cover it. However, that might not even be necessary, because there is already a lot of spare electrical capacity at night. The key is just to schedule cars to charge outside of peak hours. Demand-based pricing can help make that happen.

      I don’t think Siemens wants to give people free electricity. I think your car would have an account associated with it (like Tesla’s do), and as soon as you plug in, you’d get billed for the electricity you use. If you want free power for bitcoin mining, I’d recommend going solar, or maybe we could all move towards a proof-of-stake cryptocurrency rather than proof-of-work like bitcoin.

  2. Bryan E permalink

    Right now, e-vehicles are artificially cheap to run because of the false equivalence of using “gas tax” instead of a “usage tax” for public roads, so I’m curious if anyone has factored that cost into e-vehicles. Not saying “can’t happen”, but rather “what if…”

    • On the flip side, gasoline cars are artificially cheap because we expect future generations to pay for the environmental damage we’re creating. IMO, even if you added an equivalent tax to the electricity used to charge EVs (tax at the same cost per mile), they would still come out cheaper in the long run, because they are more energy-efficient, and require much less maintenance. In the mean time it’s in our interest to offer incentives so that we can really get the ball rolling, though I really believe we are on the right path, and the transition is kind of inevitable at this point, but sooner is better than later.

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