Argument

The Revolution Will Be Minimized

The men and women who sparked the protests that toppled the Mubarak regime face a painful choice in the upcoming presidential election. But they still can make the best of a bad situation.

On June 16 and 17, revolutionary Egyptians will face an unimaginably painful choice in the run-off to the presidential election, an event that was supposed to be a cause for celebration rather than a somber moment.

On one side stands Mohammed Morsi, the "backup" candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood after its first choice, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified. The Brotherhood has increasingly earned the distrust of revolutionary and "civil" (the word Egyptians use to describe political liberals) forces by working in the time since the fall of Mubarak to aggressively consolidate its hegemony over Egyptian political life. On the other side is Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's final prime minister, close confidante, rumored preferred choice for heir, and a powerful representative of the very regime Egyptians lost their lives fighting to bring down.

In retrospect, the road to this moment seems regrettably logical. It is the result of missteps by revolutionary forces, a growing disconnect between many of the activists and a significant percentage of Egyptian society, and the maneuverings of an Egyptian "deep state" that proved more powerful than previously calculated.

First, revolutionaries themselves admit that it was wrong to leave Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, 2011, after Mubarak had officially stepped down, without installing a suitable government or a setting a detailed roadmap for the democratic transition. What's more, it is argued that they miscalculated the breadth, depth, and reasons of the support for the revolution among the Egyptian people.

From the very beginning, there was a considerable difference in priorities among the groups that took to the streets and squares. For many of Egypt's upper and middle class revolutionaries, the main call to arms was the political oppression and human rights abuses by the Mubarak regime. But for Egypt's underprivileged, it was the dire living conditions, gross disparities in the concentration of wealth, and extreme economic corruption that served as a rallying cry. The oppressive conduct of Mubarak's security apparatus before the revolution, and the unprecedentedly violent conduct during, also played a key role in shocking the nation into rebellion.

When Mubarak was eventually toppled, this rift broke out into the open. Many Egyptians felt the revolution had largely achieved its goals -- 61 percent according to a May 2011 poll -- and that it was time for stability, security and reconstruction in the country. However, activists believed that Mubarak's fall was only the beginning of the road, and that the situation called for continued protest and action for the advancement of the revolution's goals, particularly against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). With successive rounds of clashes with security forces, the most recent coming in May when protesters and security forces faced off outside the Ministry of Defense, protesters received the brunt of blame for fomenting instability.

But the revolutionaries' challenges went beyond tactics to the very vision of Egypt's future. Activist groups, in part due to the grassroots nature of the movement, were late in generating detailed proposals to achieve their goals. For example, while everyone was united in demands to "purge the judiciary" or "restructure the Interior Ministry," there were few concrete plans to achieve these goals, and fewer still that were effectively marketed to public opinion. As a result, activist groups lost many chances to pressure the current military regime and state institutions at the height of the revolution's popularity.

The revolutionaries' work was made even more difficult by the rise of new political forces and rifts within revolutionary ranks, which made it easier for SCAF to divide and conquer. The political ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood is part of this story, but the meteoric rise of the ultra-traditionalist Salafist movement also dumbfounded everyone's calculations. The Salafists' growing presence on the political scene proved worrisome for Egypt's more moderate and liberal segments of society, furthering for many their tolerance of SCAF's tight grip on power.

The Brotherhood also increasingly abandoned a more centrist path and earlier promises to widely share power, including breaking a pledge that it would not field a presidential candidate. Rather, they embarked on a grasp for power, and increasingly employed conservative rhetoric in an effort to solidify the support of its traditional base as the Salafists rose in prominence. Several disagreements arose between the Brothers and other forces, ranging from the March 2011 constitutional amendments referendum to the Brotherhood's recent efforts to dominate the constitutional assembly. These controversies, in addition to a deep ideological divide, laid the foundation of the revolutionaries' growing distrust of the Brotherhood and its candidate.

Perhaps most crucially, revolutionary and political forces underestimated the size, depth, and power of the remnants of Egypt's former regime. It became clear over the past year that the country's military and security institutions were determined to remain independent powerhouses on the Egyptian political scene and would fight efforts towards greater civilian control. With a climate of rising fear regarding religious conservatism and national instability, a divided revolutionary movement, as well as significant dissatisfaction with parliament's performance, the "deep state" began to regain some of its power, and few were surprised with Shafiq's eventual catapulting into the second round of the elections.

The more mainstream "revolutionary candidates," most prominently neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, were woefully disorganized to fend off this threat. The candidates severely underestimated Shafiq's chances, and ran independently in the elections rather than uniting behind one candidate or a single ballot. Together, Sabbahi and Aboul Fotouh captured 8.8 million votes in last month's first round of voting -- far and away the largest single bloc in the election. However, because neither of these individual candidates were among the top two vote-getters, their voices were eliminated before the run-off election. A historic opportunity for the movement to lead was squandered.

After the slew of setbacks, the centrist heart of the Tahrir movement finds itself at a crossroads. Activists could pursue a "boycott-the-vote" campaign, or even spoil their ballots in an attempt to discredit both candidates and the election itself. Also, they could intensify efforts to prove allegations of electoral fraud, which include voter bribery and the blocking of campaign representatives from observing the vote. Moreover, they could -- and have already taken some steps to -- finally create some formal leadership to address both short-and-long-term goals of the revolutionary and civil movements. Another option would be to mount public pressure against the legality of Shafiq's candidacy in the hopes that an Egyptian court, which is set to rule on June 14, will uphold the constitutionality of a law that excludes top Mubarak-era officials from holding office.

There is another way. In return for their support in defeating Shafiq, the revolutionary and civil forces could demand reassurances from the Brotherhood that they would be ensured one or more powerful vice presidents to represent them, a coalition government headed by a non-Brotherhood prime minister, a constitutional assembly that includes their voices, and reassurances on the future of human rights in Egypt. While some will argue Morsi is capable of winning the elections on his own -- relying solely on the support of the Brotherhood and the Salafists -- broadening his popular support base carries undeniable benefits. It would confer an undeniable national and revolutionary legitimacy as well as a more definite mandate as president, which the Brotherhood immensely needs at this point.

The Brotherhood, on its part, has expressed willingness to consider some of these proposals, but have yet to give the concrete guarantees that could decidedly calm fears, particularly given its continuing political feud with liberal group over the composition of the body that will draft Egypt's new constitution. It would be a dramatic risk to take for Egypt's "civil" revolutionary forces, given their dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood's recent track record, but it could be the only option to save the revolution from a potentially fatal blow. The revolutionaries may not become king in this round, but they might have a chance to become kingmakers.

MOHAMMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

How the Electric, Self-Driving Miracle Car Will Change Your Life

And save the world.

For more images of green cars, click here.

Electric cars have been competing with the internal combustion engine for more than a century, and they have never won. Batteries are more expensive, have less range, and require more time to recharge than it takes to fill a gas tank. In late 2010, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu himself articulated the challenge, stating that battery companies have to develop units that last 15 years, improve energy storage capacity by a factor of five to seven, and cut costs by about a factor of three in order for electric cars to be comparable to cars that run on gasoline and diesel.

U.S. energy policy has tried to address these challenges. The Energy Department and other agencies have supported the development of battery and recharging technology. In addition, the U.S. government has provided financial support to Nissan, General Motors, Tesla, and Fisker to develop and manufacture commercial electric vehicles (EVs). The government hopes such investment can spur economies of scale, thereby reducing unit costs and making new technologies viable.

So far, though, these efforts have failed to produce any game-changing breakthroughs. Battery range remains strictly limited, and electric vehicles remain disproportionately expensive, with batteries alone costing as much as $15,000. The plug-in, hybrid electric Chevy Volt retails for $40,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit, and the all-electric Nissan Leaf starts at $27,700 after the tax credit. These vehicles are also less capable than their gasoline-powered counterparts, prompting Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America, to observe in 2011, "No one is going to pay a $15,000 premium for a car that competes with a [Toyota] Corolla." 

He has been proved right. In 2011, the Leaf sold only 9,700 units in the United States, and Chevy sold only 7,700 Volts. There were 13 million vehicles sold in the United States last year, meaning that electric vehicles comprised a meager 0.1 percent of the market.

It is hard not to be pessimistic about the future of electric cars, especially given that government funding is unlikely to increase. Not only has austerity become an economic reality, but electric vehicle funding has become something of a political liability. With the best of intentions, the government is subsidizing second cars for the very richest members of society. Both the Tesla (which has the body of a Lotus) and the gorgeous Fisker Karma sports car (created by BMW-designer Henrik Fiskar and assembled in Finland) retail for more than $100,000. These are not products for the top 1 percent; these are products for the top 0.1 percent.

The demographics for the Volt and the Leaf are only marginally better. According to Nissan, Leaf buyers are college-educated and have household incomes of $140,000 per year. According to General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson, the average Volt purchaser earns $170,000 annually. In short, electric car policy is helping precisely those who should not be subsidized by the government, and as a result, sustaining and increasing such funding will prove challenging.

Is the electric car then history? Will the Leaf and the Volt go the way of the ill-fated EV1, General Motors' electric car from the 1990s? If the status quo persists, they very well might. There are, however, reasons to believe that electric cars might find a viable niche after all -- if we use them in the right way.

For the last several years, Google has been testing self-driving cars, primarily in California and Nevada. Its vehicles use lasers, radars, and other sensors to establish their position and identify objects around them. This data is interpreted by artificial intelligence software that enables the vehicle to drive itself. Google's vehicles have now proved themselves in hundreds of thousands of miles on the road. And Google's not the only game in town. Bosch is also developing the technology, and Cadillac has promised to have a car capable of driving autonomously on the highway by 2015. Self-driving technology is gradually moving to commercialization, and when it does, it will liberate the car from its driver, enabling a vehicle to serve more users.

According to the Transportation Department, the average U.S. vehicle is used less than one hour per day -- a utilization rate of about 5 percent. Many Americans only drive their cars to work, park, and leave them until they drive home at night, making them essentially unavailable for use by others for most of the day. But if the car could drive itself, it could return home to take the children to school, members of the family shopping, and seniors to visit friends or keep appointments. If the vehicle served even one additional passenger, its utilization rate would double, and its capital cost per user would fall by half.

This is exactly the solution needed to remedy the poor economics that currently stymie electric vehicles. Even if better or cheaper batteries are not developed, electric cars could still be economically viable if their utilization rates were double those of today's gasoline-powered vehicles.

The viability of electric vehicles would be further enhanced if they were used as a service, rather than purchased as assets. For example, electric cars could be employed as driverless taxis. In some places, like New York City, taxis are ubiquitous because keeping a private vehicle is prohibitively expensive and inconvenient to park. In other parts of the country, taxis are scarce and expensive. In the town of Princeton, New Jersey, for example, taxis are found only at the train station, and the brief round trip from there to downtown Princeton costs approximately $40. Of this, only $5 represents vehicle-related costs; the remainder is attributable to the driver. At usage rates rivaling that of taxis -- perhaps 100 miles per day -- electric cars are quite competitive because of their lower operating costs. Thus a self-driving electric car could also make the same round trip at a cost of only $5. For a twice-daily, off-peak user, the monthly cost of vehicle access could be less than $300 -- much less than the cost of car ownership.

Consuming transportation as a service would also help compensate for three noneconomic weaknesses of electric vehicles: limited size and capacity, limited range, and extended recharging time. Most regular cars can seat four or five, be driven 300 miles, and carry a trunk full of goods. On most days, however, the typical driver uses only a fraction of these capabilities. As most households can only afford one car per driver, the consumer buys more vehicle than is strictly required for daily commuting in order to preserve the option of traveling greater distances with a large load and several people. General Motors has attempted to sell the Volt on just this limited-use basis, that most people drive less than 40 miles per day. True enough, but most consumers will buy a vehicle that they can use for all their activities, not just those on a typical day.

If transportation could be purchased as a service, however, this constraint would be lifted. Localities could have a fleet of electric vehicles on call for local trips, allowing EVs to operate within short distances only -- just as the typical taxi does. This would permit electric vehicles to find a successful niche without fundamental improvements in range or load. As such, an EV would not replace every car for every driver, but it could fulfill a key role in local transportation and reduce the number of vehicles per household or allow marginal users, like senior citizens, to maintain a high level of local mobility without having to own a car.

Purchasing transportation as a service would also reduce recharging requirements. Recharging technology is improving, but it remains to be seen whether EVs will ever be able to recharge as quickly as a gasoline tank can be filled. If transportation can be purchased as a service, then not every EV must be fully recharged at the same time, nor must each vehicle be fully recharged prior to use -- something that would present risk to an owner entirely dependent on a single EV. Thus, while faster charging is better, self-driving EVs -- used as a fleet -- would be able to function effectively even in the absence of superfast recharging.

In short, self-drive technology offers the promise of electric vehicles with economic and functional viability even in the absence of major technological improvements.

The market for self-driving technology is large -- my firm estimates it at $25 billion per year. The key customers would be senior citizens who do not wish to drive or are looking for more economical transportation; soccer moms, who often spend hours per day chauffeuring children back and forth from school and activities; and executives lured by the ability of the vehicle to drop them off and go park itself. Indeed, once the idea of sending the car to park itself takes hold, it is almost irresistible. Self-driving cars would be the biggest time-saving breakthrough since the washing machine.

Moreover, they offer an economical alternative to mass transit. Traveling by train is often touted as the wave of the future. In truth, Amtrak's prices don't compete with the cost of automobiles today, and they are horribly uncompetitive vis-à-vis intercity buses. Would hugely expensive bullet train infrastructure reduce the cost of a train ticket? It seems unlikely.

Nor are buses a realistic alternative for daily commuting for most people. A recent USA Today article recounts the story of a university employee in Arizona who lost her car to an accident and decided to take the bus instead. Her daily commute increased from 20 minutes to one hour each way. Do the math, and her monthly commuting time increased by the equivalent of three working days. Increasing the working month by three days is not social progress -- it is a social and economic catastrophe. By contrast, self-driving electric vehicles offer a more flexible and lower-cost solution that combines the custom experience of a car with the environmental and economic benefits of public transport. Think of self-driving EVs as customized public transportation.

Self-driving electric vehicles will also help compensate for a lack of oil. The oil supply has not increased materially for the past seven years, even as Chinese demand has soared. As a result, the Chinese are bidding away U.S. oil consumption, which has dropped 16 percent per capita since 2005. If we want to maintain our physical mobility, we will have to turn to other sources of energy. Self-driving electric cars will not dominate the future -- given a choice, consumers have time and again shown a preference for gasoline- and diesel-powered cars -- but they should find a viable niche in local transport, which constitutes the bulk of daily driving in the United States. By 2025, they could comprise 15 to 20 percent of vehicle sales. Thus, the road transportation system, which has been entirely dependent on oil-based fuels, will become more diversified. Road transport will come to look more like the power system, with oil, natural gas, and battery power all playing a role and filling different niches in different ownership structures. Relatively few people may own self-driving electric cars, but many people may rely on them for daily transportation.

Interestingly, neither the Republican Party nor Democratic Party has embraced self-driving technology. Either of them could. For Democrats, self-driving technology promises to be the enabler of electric vehicles, in which the party has vested so much emotion and prestige. On the other hand, Democrats seem viscerally incapable of proposing alternatives to oil that are economically viable or increase individual consumption. Will gee-whiz automobile technology find a home with the left?

For Republicans, anything to do with green technology carries a stigma. On the right, batteries and green technologies are the stuff of rent-seeking, bureaucratic-meddling, dead-end wastes of money. And self-driving technology could vindicate the left's investment in electric vehicles. On the other hand, self-driving technology could be good business and requires only a proper legislative framework, not an endless stream of subsidies.

Thus, both the left and the right have reasons to embrace or reject self-driving technology. But the technology will continue to develop and, bit by bit, be deployed commercially. It promises a brighter future, where technology once again helps improve lives and make the world a better place. For a country beset by economic stress and uncertainty, self-driving technology offers a vision of a better tomorrow, a more optimistic world. We should embrace it.

CESAR MANSO/AFP/Getty Images