MAY 2018 IN

An Empty Shell

If you happen to see a chain saw with the chain, bar, and battery removed, it will be understandable if you don’t recognize it as a tool for cutting trees, or even if you don’t recognize it as a tool at all. A chain saw might be a cutting tool, but it is nothing without the chain that does the cutting and the curved bar that presses the chain into a useful shape, and it can only sit idle if it does not have a source of power, which in most chain saws today is supplied by a battery. See the chain saw without these essential components, and if you recognize it for what it is, you still might think of it as an empty shell. Or if you do not recognize it, you could easily imagine that it was little more than a handle to which some other tool would be attached.

A chain saw with the bar and chain taken away has lost its essence. With the battery taken away it has lost its drive. Yet it is meaningful to look at a chain saw in this reduced form. This is, after all, the way a chain saw is manufactured. The bar, chain, and battery are made separately. The bar and chain can be attached and the battery inserted only after the chain saw itself is complete. What is more, the chain, battery, and bar are replaceable parts that are meant to wear out and be replaced several times during the life of the saw. A broken chain or an exhausted battery is no reflection on the state of the saw itself. These parts can be replaced and the work can go on. So much of a chain saw is replaceable that the chain saw might last longer than you would imagine for a tool that is used so roughly.

If this is a difficult mental adjustment to make in the case of a chain saw, it may be still more elusive in the case of a car. Partly this is because we have just been through two lifetimes of cars built around an internal combustion engine. Such an engine is so tightly coupled to the rest of the car that it is almost right to say that the engine is the car. The specialized mechanics who know how to replace the failed engine of a car will not be persuaded of this, but the poor track record of such repairs — a replacement engine rarely lasts longer than two years, compared to the expected 20-year life span of a car — suggest that it is essentially accurate to say that the engine of a car is not a replaceable part.

This point of view is upended when you consider an electric car, though, simply because there is no engine in an electric car. Imagine an electric car with all the replaceable parts removed, and it is not really a car. It is an empty shell in the same way that a chain saw without its replaceable parts is an empty shell. Without all of its wheels and tires, a car cannot go anywhere, and without the battery and motors it has no power to move — yet all of these parts are intended to be replaced in an electric car. The cost of the replacement battery will be considerable, but still much less than buying an entire new car.

How, then, do you wear out an electric car? We haven’t had the current generation of electric cars around long enough to find out. For all we know, it might turn out that they go out of style faster than they wear out.

The main implication of this is the same as with the electric chain saw. The electric car is likely to last longer than you would expect — longer than previous generations of cars. The battery will typically be exhausted in less than 20 years, but then the car will be restored to its original energy capacity and then some with a replacement battery. With so many parts able to be replaced, there is no telling how long electric cars might last.

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