Batteries and the BBC

Who would have thought that a very common technology could cause anyone to actually have an opinion. I’m talking batteries of course. This morning on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ program, a popular morning news show with something around 4 million regular listeners, the presenter, I believe it was James Naughtie, did the ‘end of the hour amusing news titbit’ just before 7 am. It was about the worlds biggest model aircraft, a model of an America B17 bomber with a 20 foot wingspan. He then informed the mildly bemused listeners that this thing was electric, it was powered by batteries, and, (slight chuckle under his breath) they only last 18 minutes! ‘What happens when they run out?’ He asked, and you could hear his head shaking with incredulity.

Later, after time and reflection on this seemingly innocuous comment, I did a quick google on model aircraft, I made a model Spitfire out of balsa wood when I was 11 years old, powered by a rubber band, “what happens when it runs out?’ Anyway, it wasn’t hard to find that the average run time of a tiny petrol engine found in most model aircraft is between 5 and 10 minutes.

Oh wait, that means this huge, heavy 20 foot wingspan model plane with 4 engines flies longer and further because it is fitted with battery powered electric motors than it would if it was fitted with 4 separate petrol fuelled motors each of which would have to be started separately thus wasting more fuel and causing possible danger to the operator. Oh wait, he didn’t mention that part, or indeed what would happen to a fossil fuelled plane when it ran out of gas.

I feel eager to point out that I really don’t take any of this very seriously, I’m not going to write a stern letter of complaint to the BBC, it’s trivia of the lightest kind, however, it does expose a rigidly entrenched mind set. Something we are all party to and something that is encouraged all the time by journalists, pundits, opinion formers and gag miesters.

“What happens when the batteries run out?’ It’s an insidious bit of pro oil propaganda which we all buy into. The answer is of course, very simple, exactly the same thing as happens when a petrol tank runs dry. The thing, whatever it is, stops working.

I tried some counter propaganda the other day when talking to a charming old man in a supermarket car park who was asking about the electric car I was driving. Before he could ask about the range, always the first or second question I get asked, I looked at his VW Polo and said, ‘they’re very nice, but what worries me is, what happens when they run out of petrol, you know, if you’re not near a petrol station?’

‘You ring the AA.’ he said with a smile.

‘Oh right,’ I said, mocking relief, ‘Just the same as me.’

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