Wednesday, July 2, 2008

GM at $10 per share

The media makes a big deal about the value of GM stock being back where it was in 1954, but its not clear to me if they are correcting for inflation as well as stock splits. But that is not what I am writing about.

While posting this observation

Where is the alliance between GM and the U of M and Michigan State physics and engineering departments on cost-effective Lithium-Ion battery production methods? When will those Pointy-Haired Bosses at GM realize that they could build a Chevy Volt with NiMH technology and develop it on the highway with bleeding edge techno types like those of us who bought a Honda Insight in 2000 at a price well below cost? Its not like they couldn't upgrade it later, but they don't think like that even at $10 a share.

at the end of a followup comment on the Quantum Pontiff's blog, I remembered what really pisses me off about the absurdly slow development of products like the Chevy Volt.

The bombing of Hiroshima.

Not the fact that Mazda made my car in that city, despite its having been leveled by an atomic bomb, while it took GM more than a decade to try to make something even comparable to it. No, the fact that NOTHING used to carry out that mission EXISTED just three years earlier. I don't think history books get across the magnitude of what the US managed to accomplish in a few short years during WW II.

In August 1942 there was no atomic bomb, just 20 pages or so of general notes that constitute the Los Alamos Primer. There were no factories to separate uranium and no reactors to produce plutonium. There was a log building at Los Alamos. There were no B-29 Superfortresses, which were being prototyped and designed at about the same time that summer, for a September test flight. Its engines were a joke. Airborne radar in the cm range had been developed just a year or so earlier, but using it to trigger a bomb at a specific altitude had not been tried (or maybe even thought of).

Nothing except a lot of vaporware.

Yet three years later, the sky was blackened with 400 or more B-29s over a single Japanese city, and we were on track to produce an atomic bomb with a radar trigger every few months. The comparison to the MRAP program for Iraq is not a very favorable one. And just as "shade tree mechanics" produced the first up-armored Humvees out in the field in less time than it took to think we needed to draw one, garage operations have produced working plug-in hybrids while GM looks to market something in another couple of years (current goal is the end of 2010). We built an atom bomb in less time than that! Sell it to me for 20 grand or so and I will test the batteries for you for free! And guess what: since there are probably thousands of people who would do the same thing, that is 50 million dollars GM could have that they don't have today.

It can be done.


CarlBrannen said...

I don't know what the battery industry is like, but in biofuels, the biggest reason for an increase in development time between WW2 and now is the time required to meet government requirements.

The requirements range from ensuring that the damage to the environment is minimal, to making sure that new construction meets local building codes, and for things like batteries, making sure that they are sufficiently safe.

I've gone through this process and am well familiar with how it is done. The easy way to get an okay for a new plant is to find another plant with a similar design (which is acceptable in terms of pollution), and show that your plant will be similar. This process takes about a year or so. If your plant is a truly revolutionary design, then the easy way is not available and getting permits to build it will require many years.

When you're in a war, you don't have citizens organized to prevent you from building new stuff, at all costs, in their backyard. Government destroyed the nuclear industry which has thrived in many other countries. Consequently we burn coal for electricity.

I am in favor of pretty much all generic government regulation associated with safety and environmental protection, other than those areas where it has been abused in order to completely halt industries such as nuclear power. But I don't think it's fair to bring up the environment of WW2 by comparison (the development of the P-51 Mustang aircraft from design to production in 117 days is the most amazing to me, but of course this would be illegal now).

By the way, I would guess that some of the experimentalists who build the big colliders are aware of the time required for these things. But chemical factories are much more difficult because their inputs and outputs are far larger than even the largest physics experiments. Even our tiny $60 million dollar ethanol plant design moves 720,000 tons of stuff in and out per year.

Doctor Pion said...

That is certainly part of it, but most of the safety issues for automobiles concern crash safety - and we already have plants making NiMH and Li-Ion batteries.

The problem, AFAICT, is the cost of the Li-Ion batteries and the huge lead times for all projects at GM rather than any environmental regulations. Instead of building a shorter-range (or heavier) vehicle with NiMH batteries to get a presence in the market (like Honda and Toyota did), GM chooses to try to develop a cheaper way to mass produce Li-Ion batteries.

Are they seeking the perfect car?

Doctor Pion said...

I should also have observed that we ARE at war. We're just not acting like we are, either in the urgency of developing the MRAP or in our tax bills, although it is showing up in the price of oil as all that borrowed money drives down the value of the dollar.