Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Obama to McCain: Screw Your X-Prize for Car Batteries!

I knew there was something amiss about McCain's $300 million free-market incentive to the individual (or monolithic corporation) who could invent a better electric car battery. Yes, such an achievement deserves reward. But I imagine many engineers and scientists already want to do this, and for nobler reasons. Dean Kamen could make tons of money cranking out cheap gee-whiz gadgets; instead, he's invented a device to bring cheap drinking water to impoverished nations.

That Wired comment thread brings up an excellent point vis a vis commercialization of necessary technologies. One commenter urged Kamen to turn his machine over to "greedy capitalists" to drive its production costs down to the $1,000-$2,000 target range needed to make Kamen's Slingshot viable for worldwide distribution. Another reader astutely noted that this is exactly what Kamen attempted with the Segway, an expensive toy whose real purpose was to drive down the costs of parts needed to make the iBot, Kamen's wheelchair that traverses stairs and puts disabled people at the same height as the abled. Markets aren't omnipotent; they're often short-sighted and blind to our higher motives.

Barack Obama, to his immense credit, recognizes this, and has called McCain out:
When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn't put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win -- he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people.
Other Gristmill readers take Obama to tack, however, for not going further than the traditional, free-market-oriented approaches. Still, after a horrid week in which Obama backtracked on both NAFTA and FISA, this was nice to see.