The EV Black Knight Rides Again: John Petersen on Mortal Enemies

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In commerce, a black knight is someone who makes an unwelcome takeover bid. John Petersen, of Seeking Alpha, has written many articles on electric vehicles from the perspective of commerce and would be familiar with the term. He is not an EV supporter. Rather, his disclosure exudes a contempt for the EV that is pervasive throughout his work, while he admits to a previous commitment to lead-acid batteries and a present ownership in Axion Power. He throws down the gauntlet again in a recent article as he tries to take over the EV conversation with seemingly intelligent arguments based upon private definitions and an air of authority and disdain: The Black Knight rides again.

The Feign+

The EV white knight will have to meet this dark challenger with a lance of clarity and the wisdom of rhetoric. He starts off the article by admitting that he was wrong. EV batteries can make improvements, but continues this to a slur. The improvement seems so minor that resistance to his later arguments is futile. In rhetoric, this is a “straw man” and it essentially sets up a target intended to fail in a fixed match. It is a nice move that sets up momentum for the piece but it’s transparent and just a little punching bag inside a very small box.

As proof of his stand, Petersen relies upon the rhetorical “argument of authority” and brings in Professor Vaclav Smil to support his position that battery technology is not progressing according to Moore’s Law. However, in science, we know that a proper control study should be untainted by our experimental object. If you are testing for X, then X should not be part of the control study. The quoted article talks about the slow transition from fossil fuels. We have to look no further than the Nickel-Metal Hydride story to find the common elephant in the room: fossil fuel interests slowing the pace of innovation and adoption of new technologies. We can find that same elephant slowing the pace of innovation in Congress, disproportionately using a party with similar symbolism.

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We are presently witnessing a lot of this play between slowing progress and then having so-called authorities claiming progress is impossible or blaming a lack of progress on those resisting this beast. But it is a device and a technique, not a reality. John Petersen is a lawyer. Lawyers are quite used to very narrow definitions of terms and then logically connecting those terms to establish a very narrow meaning that may have no relationship to the real world. It is what makes a good lawyer, but not necessarily a good understanding, because it sometimes then takes another who is trained to think as a lawyer to deconstruct this legalese.

The Audience

The audience is an important part of any presentation. Petersen is writing for investors (see 6th paragraph), not those investors of their time or curiosity, but those interested in playing the stock market game. The game suggests some real-world connections like profits and balance sheets, but there are rumors of insider information, article mills, and large purchases that influence prices outside of expected norms. If you are looking at Petersen’s articles because you have an interest outside of the stock market, you are going to have to translate what you read. You are not the intended audience, but you are caught in the same net. Be very careful of your assumptions.

But the author is not careful. He is writing for investors but makes asides to the “EVangelicals,” advocates of electric vehicles who threaten to undermine his authority. He dismisses them as the “Great and powerful Oz,” dismisses the little man behind the black curtain upon whom its power is based.

The Definitions

“Range Anxiety” is a term invented by GM to sell the Volt, a range-extended EV. It was a selling point at a time when we were constantly being told by politicians to “be afraid” of the “enemy.” Promoting a neurotic fear seemed good for business, if not a very nice thing to do. It is a good rhetorical technique as it stirs people’s emotion and even Merlin might enjoy the misdirection it engenders, as the subtext is “Be afraid!” … so you don’t think.

It is such an important technique that it was enshrined in the “Art of War” as the principal of “deception and shaping.” Here, Peterson is saying that because the EV owner is neurotic and wants more range than they can be demonstrated to need, what he calls “EV efficiency” is affected.

The average driver only needs about 40 miles travel a day. Ignoring that this means 50% will travel further, he uses this calculation to suggest that any vehicle that has a battery larger than this wastes that capacity.

“EV Efficiency”

Petersen uses the term “EV efficiency.” It’s a term often associated with electric vehicles that can have an efficiency as high as 98%. Efficiency normally is a measure of useful work derived from a system in a ratio over the energy supplied to a system. This is usually expressed as a percentage less than 100%. He is telling us that the “EV efficiency” is limited, but Peterson is not following any standard definition of efficiency; he is not comparing similar energy values at all.

Rather, he is comparing the amount of material required for a particular sized battery to what is used. It is not a measure of energy but of material. It should properly be called EV conservation, not efficiency. Instead of giving him a gold star, we should send him back to school. His argument goes something like this: “Because you, the consumer, are neurotic and refuse to conserve, I have to give you a less advanced technology.” It is a bit like making the kids sit at the kiddie table in a high chair and cut up their food that they can only eat with a spoon when they are 16. What is wrong with this picture? If you have never trained your kids, this is what you might get. Dependents. A little education is not only part of your responsibility as a parent but can be a social responsibility as well.

It is on this basis that Petersen advocates hybrids and lead-acid batteries. Dependents are good for business. For this less than optimistic lawyer, people will always be wasteful and the investor can cash in on this failure. Education is bad for business.

The Back Door

Peterson has been a prolific writer with many articles published, but he is not educating us. He is telling us that, because we are incorrigible, we don’t deserve electric vehicles. The logic is clear from its premise to its conclusions but like many such arguments it fails in its assumptions. The obvious point, education, is broad enough to take up in a planned separate article. Even more basic is the definition of what is an electric vehicle. There are nuclear ships, submarines, and submersibles that are electric vehicles. The largest land vehicles in the world: earth diggers, movers, and tunnel-boring machines are all electric vehicles. The transmission required by a diesel engine would simply be prohibitive for these vehicles. To supply power for them, a tether is often used to the mains or a diesel generator is used on the vehicle in a series hybrid diesel/electric configuration.

What Is An Electric Vehicle?

Series hybrids, solar cars, and fuel cell electric vehicles are electric vehicles that produce power on the vehicle. Cable cars, trams, and elevators are electric vehicles that are powered by a cable turned by an electric motor. A mag-lev train is an electric vehicle that does not use a conventional rotary motor. Subways and trolleys are electric vehicles that have electricity transmitted to them. Some vehicles will store electricity on the vehicle in batteries and ultra capacitors (or even flywheels). Batteries and electrical storage are not an essential component to an electric vehicle — no, John, not even your lead acid batteries. What makes an electric vehicle is electricity usage, not storage. The battery electric vehicle (BEV) is only a subset of what is possible. It is a little box in a big room.

Perhaps, as John has elsewhere suggested, we have gone too far, too fast in trying to use new battery technology. Perhaps we are presently overextending ourselves with batteries in electric vehicles. But without the battery, Petersen’s argument against the EV vaporizes. Studies have shown that the cheapest method to implement electric vehicles would be to send power to them. New tuned wireless transmission technology may make this possible, unnoticed by the operator.

How To Decide

I enjoy reading John Petersen. He has a clear perspective, knowledge, and although he might not admit it, some good instincts. I also might enjoy reading the horoscope and driving bumper cars. Perspectives, knowledge, and instincts can also play a part with these, but my daily decisions are not going to be based upon someone writing what they think I want to hear and my daily ride will hopefully not be “fun” like bumper cars. It is a mistake and perhaps dangerous to consider such extremes “normal.”

I resent being told I make poor choices and can’t learn. To an EV advocate, the investor’s perspective on the BEV is extremely narrow and fails to take in the scope of what is possible with these marvels. It fails in its definitions and it fails on a test of thinking outside the box. The dark knights, like our fears and preconceptions, have no more power than we give them.

Photo Credit: George Shuklin/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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