Monday, June 16, 2008

The Micro- and Macro-Ethics of Plug-in Hybrids

The online version of Wired Magazine carried an article recently that took a dim view of the Bush Administration's commitment of $30 million toward plug-in hybrid vehicle research, saying it was grossly inadequate in view of our present oil-price exigencies. A plug-in hybrid car is like a conventional hybrid (e. g. the Toyota Prius) in that it has both batteries to run the electric motor coupled to the wheels, and an internal combustion engine to supplement power from the batteries when necessary. But in addition, a plug-in hybrid can be plugged in to your house current overnight to draw power from the electric grid. If the batteries are large enough, some people claim that plug-in hybrids can travel up to 100 miles per gallon of gasoline consumed, although this doesn't count what it does to your electric bill.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Let's look at the decision to go with a plug-in hybrid from two points of view. First, there's what ethicists call the micro-ethical view: what should you as an individual do about the situation? Then, there is the macro-ethical view: what should large institutions—corporations, professional societies, governments, nations—do about it? As we will see, the answers aren't necessarily the same.

What an individual should do depends on what kind of individual you are. If you're just an average consumer, the choice is simply, "Should I buy a plug-in hybrid or not?" Of course, this assumes that they are out there to buy. And they aren't—not just yet, anyway, although the much-hyped Chevrolet Volt is supposed to make it to showroom floors by 2010. This shows the limitations of microethical reasoning: options are limited to what one person can realistically do.

If you are an engineer, and you think a plug-in hybrid is a good idea, you might try getting a job related to power electronics or automotive R&D. Or you could even start your own company to address one of the many technical problems that lie in the way of plug-in hybrid development. The most promising type of battery, the lithium-ion cell, still has lots of problems with safety and lifetime, although these may be ironed out with time. So one's career choice is fraught with ethical implications that many young people don't even consider to start with, let alone after one has taken the job.

When we turn to the macroethical side of the question, a whole array of sub-questions arise. If a company goes into a market not because it's profitable but because it is the morally right thing to do, that company either has to subsidize its activity by drawing funds from other more profitable lines, or face the prospect of going broke, after which the company will no longer exist to do anything at all, moral or otherwise. There are specialty firms right now that will convert conventional cars to plug-in hybrids, but my impression is they are not growing fast and simply don't have the resources to compete with the major automakers. The automotive industry is a strange mixture of century-old traditions (the way car dealership economics works, for instance) and cutting-edge technology. Any organization that wants to succeed in it has to work within the complex environment of existing companies, regulations, and market forces.

The problem is even more complex when you ask what the U. S. government might best be doing in this area. Obviously, the Wired reporter (as well as several private and public sources he quoted) thought that $30 million was so small an amount as to be an empty gesture. He quoted a source at the Brookings Institution who said that to make a major impact on the auto market, plug-in hybrids would need about $18 billion of government subsidies and funds over the next ten years. That is a lot, but compared to many other things the government does, it's not all that much.

Over against that notion is the sense, supported by many conservative schools of economics, that we will have plug-in hybrids when fuel costs and other economic factors make it profitable to sell them, and any government intervention to hasten that day is liable to be counterproductive. Macroethics in engineering gets tangled up in economics and public policy pretty quickly, as you can see.

My own opinion of the matter is that there are technical solutions out there, but those who have the nominal power to implement them (both in private corporations and in government) lack the courage to go ahead and do something. The "something" might be in a variety of directions, either liberal or conservative. But my sense is that lately, no one has been willing to step up and put their hands on the wheel and steer. And just as with an individual who drifts through life reacting to things without making or implementing specific plans, institutional drift is sooner or later bound to lead to disaster.

As far as buying a plug-in hybrid goes, I plan to hang on to my own two cars for a while yet. One of them has 183,000 miles on it and the other, which already gets about 37 miles a gallon, is about to turn over 100,000 miles. The car I had before that made it to 200,000 before the wheels began to fall off (literally). So I figure by the time I'm in the market for another car, one of my choices is likely to be a plug-in hybrid. But whether I'll be able to afford it is another question.

Sources: The Wired article on plug-in hybrids appeared on June 13, 2008 at

1 comment:

  1. Where are the comments? This is good stuff! How can we draw attention to this blog? Any suggestions?