The Perfect Car, Enemy of the Good Car

Jon Faiz Kayyem, Managing Partner of Efficacy Capital Ltd, 27 dicembre 2006

Jon Faiz Kayyem, PhD, is a Managing Partner of Efficacy Capital, which manages a biotech public equities fund. He previously founded Clinical Micro Sensors, now an operating subsidiary of U.K.-based Osmetech. The firm uses advanced electronics and biochemistry to create electronic detectors of specific DNA sequences. Since 1997, Dr. Kayyem has been awarded 31 U.S. patents in nucleic acid detection technology. He serves on the board of several privately-held startup businesses and has produced two documentary films. Dr. Kayyem reserved one of the first 100 Tesla Roadsters and in this week's blog explains why he will never buy another gasoline-powered vehicle.

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." Voltaire said something like that, and I think about it often when making "think" versus "act" decisions. For example, should I buy a 60-inch plasma screen or wait and see what comes next?

But how about the bigger question that has bugged me for a while: Should I switch to alternatively-fueled vehicles or wait and see what comes next? I was definitely in waiting mode until one day in 2004 when I saw Al Gore give his Inconvenient Truth slide show. I left the presentation vowing not to buy another gasoline-powered car, a vow that now has me owning a biodiesel Volkswagen and on the list to receive one of the first 100 Tesla Roadsters.

I know it would sound better if I claimed to be driving green before I heard Gore speak, but that just wouldn’t be true. The reality is that I was procrastinating regarding sustainability and global climate change, rationalizing my inaction with theories about energy balance and the trivial impact of one person converting to renewable fuels. I might have kept waiting for the perfect sustainable transportation solution, but Gore snapped me out of my procrastination with his line about this being the first man-made crisis that could end civilization.

So now that I’m going with "good" and not waiting around for "perfect," I'm actually having a lot of fun. First of all, driving on renewable fuel feels good in a way that no amount of fretting about the big questions can alter. I love driving my VW Touareg TDI on biodiesel. It's not a smug feeling of superiority, because I'm anything but. After all, the thing weighs more than 5,000 pounds, and I definitely drive too fast for maximum fuel efficiency. I'm talking about a different kind of good feeling, a much less intellectual one. It’s a more simple-minded, exuberant, Homer Simpson kind of joy… like, "Woo-hoo, I’m driving fast on French fry grease!"

I'm excited about driving the Tesla Roadster because I'm guessing the Homer Simpson smile will be even bigger, especially if I can add some solar panels to my garage roof and make my vehicle solar electric. Even then, it won’t be perfect from an environmental, practicality, or cost perspective, but I can live with "good enough" if it means 0-60 mph in around 4 seconds… can't wait!

Second, I’d like to share a perspective from biology and medicine, since I really don't know much about cars. Scientists and clinicians have been trying to beat cancer forever, and Nixon's war on cancer launched a noble effort to find a magic bullet that would save us all from an untimely death. We have since learned that there really is no single magic bullet. Still, most of the bullets in our magazine—as un-magical and unsophisticated as they are—happen to be more or less useful in our battle against cancer. Sure, there are some exciting new drugs coming that will likely be better than the drugs we have today, but if you have cancer now—and we as a planet have something akin to cancer—then you would definitely want to take advantage of all the pharmaceutical, surgical, and radiological tools at your disposal.

Likewise, I think it's important that those of us who recognize that the planet is in trouble encourage the development and use of ALL possible fixes to this problem. Ethanol may make no sense to you and me, but I say, "Go Huskers!" Who knows? Maybe there will be a time and place for ethanol, but we'll never find out if we decide to focus now on just one approach to sustainable mobility. Sure the "hydrogen economy" hype seems like a ploy, but it might also lead to some amazing, planet-saving solutions. So spread the love. And please, please, please, you "greasies" need to stop your sibling bickering. We're all on the same team, and straight vegetable oil (SVO), waste vegetable oil (WVO), and biodiesel will each have their days.

The future of cancer therapy will likely involve solutions derived from all the current effective and not-so-effective approaches and, similarly, my guess is that we'll solve our global climate crisis with a combination of all sorts of conservation, alternative energy, and carbon sequestering approaches—even the ones that seem off to us today. In other words, don’t be a hater—except that I think it’s still ok to hate gasoline and the internal combustion engine.

One last motivational thought from Voltaire and then I'm out: "Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do."