Jeep Versus Tesla, Which Car is Best for the Future?
Today's post is an excerpt from Dmitry Orlov's book, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency and Freedom. The author poses a thought exercise that demonstrates how to apply his harm/benefit assessment to existing technology.
Let us try working through a specific example: choosing a passenger car to be used as part of a community fleet. (We will assume that in this community private cars are considered above the cutoff in the harm/benefit hierarchy.) For the sake of the argument, let’s consider two rather extreme choices: a 1976 Jeep Cherokee and a 2016 Tesla S electric vehicle.
• The Jeep, and most of the parts needed to keep it running, come from the local junkyard. They don’t need to be manufactured, causing no damage. The Tesla comes from a modern, high-tech factory with a huge environmental footprint, and the process of manufacturing it depletes nonrenewable natural resources (lithium especially) and causes environmental damage.
• If the Jeep needs “new” parts, these can be remanufactured by any number of local machine shops using parts obtained from any number of local junkyards. The parts for the Tesla can be sourced from just one or two giant factories. Most of the components come from overseas. A single tsunami, earthquake or flood can disrupt the supply for months.
• The Jeep is practically free; the Tesla sets the community back at least $70,000.
• The Jeep probably arrives pre-broken in a variety of ways, and if it can be fixed, then some member of the community knows how to keep fixing it. But if anything goes wrong with the Tesla, only the Tesla dealership can fix it, using proprietary tools.
(Editor's note: Tesla is reviewing it's policies regarding repair and proprietary tools. You can read more here.)
• Driving the Jeep causes environmental damage because it emits pollutants and greenhouse gases, while the Tesla is supposedly zero-emission—but this advantage is negated once we take into account the harm caused by connecting it to the electrical grid. Even if the electricity comes from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, the solar panels and wind turbines have to be manufactured too, and that manufacturing process is certainly not zero-emission.
• Should the electric grid fail, the Tesla becomes useless while the Jeep keeps running and can even be used to charge batteries for other uses. Even if gasoline becomes unavailable, the Jeep can be converted to run on methane from a digester because it is old enough to have an old-fashioned carburetor rather than the more “efficient” fuel injectors used in newer engines.
• The Tesla uses lithium batteries which wear out; lithium is a nonrenewable natural resource that is forecast to become scarce within a decade or so. This will render the Tesla useless because no replacement batteries will be available for it. The Jeep uses a lead-acid battery, which can be brought back to life once or twice by draining it, flushing it out with baking soda and water and then filling it with fresh acid (which is a cheap chemical waste product). Even after the lead plates wear out, it can be remanufactured by making new lead plates by hand.
• The Tesla has just one use—transporting passengers over roads— while the Jeep can also haul loads and tow trailers over many kinds of terrain.
• Finally, there is also the following consideration, which makes the choice of Tesla seem altogether ridiculous. The Tesla is supposedly better in some way because it doesn’t burn oil. But it is designed to drive on a sea of oil in the form of asphalt and doesn’t do well on dirt roads. Asphalt is a waste product generated by refineries in the process of making gasoline, diesel fuel and other petrochemicals. Thus, the fact that the Tesla does not directly burn petrochemicals is entirely beside the point. Nobody will ever run a petroleum refinery unless there is demand for gasoline and diesel. Unless the refineries are operating, no asphalt will be produced, the roads won’t get paved, and the Tesla would, once again, become useless. The Jeep is specifically designed to do well on rutted, potholed dirt roads.
A similar analysis can be applied to just about any piece of technology that causes some amount of harm and provides some benefits, and it will produce comparable results: something that is simple, reused, is easy to maintain and is useful to the community in multiple ways will always end up lower on the harm/benefit scale than something that is complex, newly manufactured, requires expert maintenance and is only useful to an individual.