Energy

"Escape From Berkeley" in the New York Times

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The alt-energy road race I just got back from judging, "Escape from Berkeley," got a good, detailed write-up in the Sunday New York Times.

The closing prediction from race majordomo Jim Mason (read more about his adventures in my May reason feature on his struggles with self-generated energy and the city government of Berkeley) was on the money: only two entrants legitimately finished.

The NY Times follow-up from this morning reveals the ending. I'll be writing more about it here in time, but very quickly, it was a) a great deal of fun; b) gave me, and I think the entrants, a new respect for some of the reasons we've developed and embraced the petroleum economy for our transportation needs; and c) showed that experimenting with ways around it is exasperating, difficult, and yet still a heck of a lot of fun–with the right mindset, setting, and teammates. Even two of the teams that utterly failed at the race itself made sure they got themselves to Vegas for the closing banquet, or in one case, for the next morning's send-off of the two vehicles that did finish.

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  1. From the NYT article:

    Beyond the requirement to use no petroleum products for fuel was the added twist that the participants would have to scavenge along the way for raw materials. They weren’t allowed to buy any, but Mr. McCornack and Ms. Westcott were delighted by donations of oil from local people who would ask questions about the odd-looking vehicle as they stopped outside of grocery stores. For the favor, the duo gave out bright yellow T-shirts commemorating the race.

    1) I’m no chemist, but isn’t oil a petroleum product?

    2) Even if they’re talking about vegtable oil, exchanging t-shirts for ‘donations’ of oil is bartering, not scavenging, right? Maybe I and others read too much into the first post on this subject, but I thought that was not allowed

  2. What?? You mean we can’t just GO GREEN NOW?? They said it was actually easy if people were just only willing.

    I submit that every entrant to this race was in the pay of the evil oil companies. Evil, I say. And to prove it, we should impose the biggest, most draconian carbon tax on the face of the globe.

  3. Even if they’re talking about vegtable oil,

    Alright, reading both articles, that is indeed the case. But I still say beggin’ ain’t scavangin’, but the rules should have said the teams could beg, borrow, or steal trade.

  4. To be fair, I recall early autonomous vehicle competitions often ending with most of the competing vehicles knocked out of the running or failing to complete the course at all.

    Failure, and learning therefrom, is kind of the point, especially in the early days.

    “What?? You mean we can’t just GO GREEN NOW?? They said it was actually easy if people were just only willing.”

    What?? You mean technology won’t magically make us green NOW? They said it was actually easy if you just wait and someone will invent it like magic.

  5. I believe I predicted the Lotus 7 clone/locost the winner in Brian’s original post.One of the greatest car designs ever.Power to weight is the key to performance.Congratulations to the victors.

  6. One other thing. Planning to traverse the middle of the Sierra Nevada between Labor Day and Memorial day ‘naturally’ is poor planning to begin with. (Donner, party of 87, your table is ready)

    But even then, in a post-apocalyptic scenario, it makes much more sense to travel down the San Joaquin Valley with more natural and human resources, then making the dash across the Mojave vice crossing the Sierra, struglling with the terrain around mamoth lakes, then going through even worse desert around the Nevada Test Range and ‘the kingdom of Nye’

  7. but the rules should have said the teams could beg, borrow, or trade.

    That would kind of defeat the purpose (although your point is well taken about bartering), but then I’d just trade money for what I needed.

  8. Hmm, I wonder how many entrants would have been able to finish if they had been permitted to buy fuel enroute instead of having to beg for it.

    Oh well, fortunately nobody had to sully their hands with dirty commerce. 😉

  9. Oh wait, one of the teams that finished did engage in commerce… Funny how that works.

  10. The Nevada portion of the trip offers unique possibilities for commerce.

    If only they had an engine that ran on spooge.

    1. I get 10 feet per ounce of spooge.

  11. but then I’d just trade money for what I needed.

    I think arranging the contest so that you can’t use federal reserve notes (or Visa, or most other modern credit/debit instruments) is worthwhile.

  12. “I think arranging the contest so that you can’t use federal reserve notes (or Visa, or most other modern credit/debit instruments) is worthwhile.”

    I dunno. If they can run on burning paper they should be allowed to trade pocket lint for credit default swaps.

  13. Sigh. None of the failures had anything to do with the “can’t use money to get fuel” rule. That rule made it a lot more interesting and fun. And the rule was, in the language on the race page I linked to, “your acquisition of “it” does not require money,” so the bartering the winning team engaged in (about every hour or so the day I followed them…) was perfectly within the rules, and who would know better than me, one of the official judges? I get suspicion of the deliberate avoidance of markets….I’ve written on the topic many a time. This was a game rule, to make a rally more challenging and interesting. As such, it worked just fine.

  14. And the rule was, in the language on the race page I linked to, “your acquisition of “it” does not require money,” so the bartering the winning team engaged in (about every hour or so the day I followed them…) was perfectly within the rules, and who would know better than me, one of the official judges?

    Ok, this didn’t seem so clear in your weekend post, and a few commenters in that thread (including myself) thought bartering wasn’t allowed.

    Esp when the previous paragraph of the race page says:
    cause their “vehicles” show up in Las Vegas three days later using only fuels/power/motive force scavenged “for free” along the route.

    I guess the “liberal” use of “scare quotes” in that paragraph reduced their “value” causing me to make a “mistake” by reading too “literally” “”for free””:)

  15. Brian,

    I should explain why I harp on this: I lived in Berkley for a few months. A significant portion of the population hate commerce with a passion. If I give someone a back rub, it’s fine. If that person gives me a sandwich, it’s OK. But if the person pays me for a backrub, then it’s exploitation, and if I pay the guy for a sandwhich it’s exploitation.

    The guy is quoted ranting about Las Vegas representing overconsumption, and I can tell he’s yet another member of that group.

    I mock those idiots because the moment people start taking them seriously civilization is doomed. Barter based economies can support only a fraction of the people we need to make civilized life possible. It’s nothing personal. I get little pleasure from it.

    Incidentally, I wonder how confidently you can claim the no buying rule had no impact on who finished… Surely the rules impacted who entered and what designs they used. We cannot ignore that which is not seen. 😉

  16. The carbonmonxidemobile has to put out about as much air pollution per mile as a Metrolink.

  17. “The guy is quoted ranting about Las Vegas representing overconsumption, and I can tell he’s yet another member of that group.”

    Dude, you don’t have to be a commune-residing, hemp-wearing hippy to believe this. Vegas is *all* about overconsumption.

  18. if you just wait and someone will invent it like magic.

    Yeah. And how long are we supposed to wait for this magic?

    The race is interesting anyway, and there’s no harm in trying for alternatives. Just don’t expect to be replacing fossil fuels in the next few days.

    Some technologies can be developed fairly quickly, others cannot (I’m allowed to say that btw because yes I am an R&D engineer). I see a widespread public misconception about this, there are many who clearly do not understand that basic energy technology is in the latter group.

    Of course, as motor vehicles continue to trend upward toward the size of aircraft carriers, the day may come that we can all drive around with our own little nuke plants on board.

    Perhaps the real problem is that our vehicles are not yet large enough.

  19. Brain, were there any rules limiting the size of the vehicles in this race? Just curious.

  20. Ebeneezer—Nope.
    Tarran, attempting to sum up Mr. Mason’s attitudes toward modernity from one quote in the NY Times is misleading. Reading my Reason feature about him from May, linked in every piece I wrote about this, would educate you more, if you cared, which there’s no particular reason you should I suppose, except for accuracy’s sake when you chime in on comment threads.

  21. Brian, that’s good news.

    I’ll remind the rest of you that if you want to go warp speed, you need something the size of the starship Enterprise.

  22. Brian,

    You are right. I apologize. It is quite possible that Mr Mason is merely pandering to commerce-haters with that rule. Certainly it seems that everyone had fun – which is great. And, of course, the brightly colored, unusual vehicles probably made Vegas look less ostentatious. So it was a win on aesthetic grounds too. 🙂

  23. Call me Snake.

  24. Ebeneezer—Nope.

    Without reading the rest of the rules, with no size limitations on vehicles, I would have entered the Earth.

  25. Brian – did you get an honorarium for being a judge? Are you in the pocket of Big AlterniFuels?

  26. Hippie: Right now we’re proving we don’t need corporations. We don’t need money. This can become a commune where everyone just helps each other.

    Hippie: Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like, who like, makes bread. A-and one guy who like, looks out for other people’s safety.

    Stan: You mean like a baker and a cop?

    Hippie: No no, can’t you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?

    Kyle: Yeah, it’s called a town.

    Hippie: Just wait till you go to college, then you’ll understand.

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