Moon shots and electric vehicles

Thomas Friedman on "moon shots":
China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports; another is building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience…; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry...

Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.
I'm not the biggest Friedman fan - he too often glances over important nuances - but he has a gift for stating core ideas in powerful ways, like the above. He devolves into simplicity here too:
The country that replaces gasoline-powered vehicles with electric-powered vehicles — in an age of steadily rising oil prices and steadily falling battery prices — will have a huge cost advantage and independence from imported oil.
If the economics were such a home run, it wouldn't take so much publicly funded start-up R&D to get this going - in fact, while I agree the prices of oil and batteries are moving in different directions, they're starting from such divergent places that they may well not cross any time soon. Batteries currently cost ~3x what they'd need to to be competitive, and Exxon - not the world's likeliest electric car revolutionary - has the world's best technology for the thin-film plastic separators that are the main components.

Especially given China's latest rare earths antics, we should also be worried about trading strategic energy dependency on one commodity (oil) for dependency on others.

That said, I believe Friedman's overall point on moon shots is spot on. My father (a scientist) and I disagree over the extent to which publicly funded basic science research enabled the technological boom of recent decades (think computers, the Internet, cell phones, biotechnology, etc.), but it certainly played some part, and skimping on this type of investment is a short-term decision with unpleasant long-term implications.

Hat tip Chris Blattman.

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