A Good Illustration of How Tiny Efficiencies Add Up To Big Environmental Gains

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The GMC Hummer EV is a great example of numbers getting in the way of thinking. In theory, it ticks a lot of important boxes by having the right numbers. It’s a truck, and Americans like trucks. It’s an EV, and we need more EVs on the road ASAP. It’s got over 300 miles of range, and that’s important. But when you take all this in context, and consider that the vehicle weighs 9000 pounds and has a giant battery to get that OK range, you’ve got a problem. Instead of seeing tiny efficiencies add up to big gains, there’s just a whole lot of inefficiency.

Sure, an EV is almost always better than a gas vehicle, so using a huge battery isn’t a big deal, right? Not so much, unfortunately. The thing is, there is only so much battery production going on in the world. There’s a lot of raw materials to go around, but you need mines to get them out of the ground, refineries, and many other steps between the ground and a complete battery cell that’s ready to go in a car. Given the limited supply, if every vehicle had a battery the size of the Hummer EV, it would only be possible to build half as many vehicles.

Even if there was ample battery supply for these giant battery packs, the environmental impact must be considered. If you need twice as much battery, twice as much mining, twice as much refining, twice as much materials transport, and twice as much production, you end up with twice as much contribution to climate change and twice as much environmental devastation from mining. This is no good.

I’ve discussed this a number of times before, including introducing the possibility that plug-in hybrids with smaller batteries might be a good stop-gap until battery production and infrastructure grows to support EVs.

What About Small Devices?

Lepow Global got in touch with me after seeing how much I focus on efficiency in my articles. It is a manufacturer of consumer devices, and the company had a cool little set of headphones they wanted me to try out. We normally don’t review headphones, but they explained that they have among the lowest energy use of consumer headphones. Instead of having a little speaker that sits close to or even in your ears like most headphones, these ones produce vibrations that can travel through your bones to get into your ear.

By not having little speakers, they’ve managed to make them very, very compact. Instead of something big that goes over your ears and has a relatively big battery, they’ve got a tiny battery that fits within the headstrap part of the unit.

My daughter and I tested them out. My daughter took a little while to figure out how to best wear them, but once she did, she said they were surprisingly clear and crisp. And then she took them from me for several weeks and refused to give them up. When I finally got a chance to test them, I mostly agreed. Depending on how you wear them, the bass could be a little on the weak side for EDM, but once you experiment a bit and find the sweet spot, the sound was surprisingly good.

Obviously, earbuds like the Apple Earpods have even smaller batteries, and wired headphones have no batteries at all, but if there was just one headphone design that was superior to all others, it would be the only thing made. However, it’s important that any industry move forward and try new things that take a smaller battery instead of just throwing a few 18650s at it and calling it a day.

When you consider that over 400 million headphones are sold annually worldwide, it becomes anything but a laughing matter. Like electric cars, if their battery needs are double, that adds up 400 million-plus times to a sizeable chunk of battery, which adds up to a lot of mining, transportation, refining, and battery building. No tiny efficiencies is no good.

Including These Tiny Efficiencies All Comes Down To Lifecycles

Whether it’s little headphones or big trucks, efficiency isn’t just about how much energy the device uses per song or per mile. Yeah, efficiency is important to that, as less energy means less immediate environmental impact. But getting there is an uphill battle against all of the other tiny efficiencies. Efficiency’s importance starts with design and ends at recycling, but must compete with other things at every step.

Long before a new design draws a single electron’s worth of power, many decisions are made. While we’d love to think that every design decision keeps efficiency near the top of the list of things to consider, the ugly truth is that money is always #1. We can say that we want something to be efficient, but if we don’t buy efficient designs, nobody wants to waste time on them.

Designs must also factor in manufacturing. An elegant design that is difficult or impossible to make in great numbers just won’t go anywhere. That’s why we commonly see manufacturers just use common battery sizes and call it a day. Standardization, easy assembly, cheaper parts, economies of scale, and compatibility with existing tools and processes are all important.

Then, the item must be shipped. Anybody who has ever shipped anything knows that the size of the box and the weight are the key factors in what you pay to get them there. Other things like tariffs, parts content and origin, place of assembly, and destination are just as important.

The next mess is that the general public just doesn’t value tiny efficiencies that much. The continued dominance of gas-powered cars (particularly inefficient crossover designs) is a great example of this. For a few of us, energy consumption is a big deal, but most people would rather consume a bit more to get some other thing they want. Volumes could be written on this.

Recyclability is another issue that falls through the cracks. In theory, everybody likes recycling. In practice, it’s something that most people only consider on trash day. Paying an extra few bucks for a product that is easier to recycle just isn’t something people consider that much.

I’m not trying to depress readers with all of this, but it’s important for us to consider what an uphill battle this is. This is why we must not only demand better efficiency from manufacturers, but also remind our friends why this is important (but please, don’t be insufferable to the point where people want to put you out of their misery). Only when demand for efficiency becomes more important will it be able to climb past some of the other considerations and happen. When more of these tiny efficiencies add up, great things happen.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1956 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba