Tuesday, 16 December 2014

I've already built the charger for my electric car

Thanks, Sam, for sending this article about the impending and inevitable replacement of fossil fuels with solar based on the ideas of business lecturer and entrepreneur Tony Seba. The argument in a nutshell is that fossil fuel extraction is becoming more difficult and so more expensive, while technologies in solar panels and batteries are getting cheaper. These trends will continue and at some point the current situation where petrol driven cars perform better than electric cars will flip, so electric cars will be cheaper.

At first there will be a few early adopters, paying higher prices for the new technology - like now in fact! Then prices will approach parity. Soon a critical mass will be reached, and economies of scale will further lower costs of the new technology. Since the price falls are exponential, the old technology will very soon be confined to small groups of wealthy fanatics.

So when will this happen? "By his forecast, between 2017 and 2018, a mass migration from gasoline or diesel cars will begin, rapidly picking up steam and culminating in a market entirely dominated by electric vehicles (EV) by 2030."

Note the expression "picking up steam" in this quote. I read straight through it the first time, but on the second reading it raised a smile, as it is using a metaphor from one obsolete mode of transportation to describe the transition between another two. It also somehow reinforces what Seba says about the speed with which technologies change.

Swift technological change is certainly possible, and I remember our electrician saying that LEDs were a waste of money when we were starting to build our house, but everyone nodding when the architect was boasting about "his" decision to put them in as he was showing people around just before we moved in.

The example of digital cameras is given in the article, and here there are similarities with electric vehicles. Traditional cameras need to be constantly fed with film, just like conventional cars need to drink petrol. Early digital cameras had low resolution and short battery life, but the technology rapidly improved and today they totally dominate. Kodak went from photographic giant to bankruptcy in about ten years.

Of course not everyone believes in this inevitability, but they are probably wrong. I remember a story recently about the problems Nissan was having with batteries for its electric vehicles, told with a strong editorial line that electric vehicles are a doomed fad. We have to be careful with new technologies though, and not mistake the signs. Just like Kodak, dominant powers of previous technology regimes may not survive and when they make mistakes it does not mean the technology is wrong. Polaroid were early pioneers in digital cameras, but it did not save them, and although Apple are now suppliers of many de-facto digital cameras, their early attempts at the technology failed. Even among start ups there will be losers as different parts of the technological jigsaw puzzle  jostle for their place in the big picture.

So the future trinity is likely to be solar panels on the roof, and batteries for the electric car. I'll let you charge your EV from my solar panels if you let me charge mine from yours!