Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The fossil fuel-powered car is dead.

Last Tuesday I was in Katowice discussing Industry 4.0 with representatives of manufacturers - and indeed factory builders. The premise of 4.0 is that the first industrial revolution was about coal and steam, the second saw the advent of electricity and production lines in factories, the third saw robots starting to replace workers - and the fourth is about the seamless integration of physical objects and data, vertically and horizontally across the supply chain. Industry 4.0 will see machine talking to machine, ordering parts from suppliers, signalling down-time by re-routing production to another machine and allowing for mass-customisation from the buyer's device.

Present in Katowice were car-makers, for whom another challenge looms - peak car (which I wrote about three years ago, herehere and here) is now a fact across much of the developed world. Since then, the driverless car is becoming ever closer to reality. The notion of spending a large chunk of your income buying a car which spends 95% of its time not doing what it was built for is increasingly perceived as dumb.

Imagine a future where a driverless car appears in front of your door to drive your children to school; it then gets summoned by a woman whom it drives to work, then it takes a couple of pensioners shopping. The driverless car is in use day and night, owned by a mobility firm, not by the people driven in it, who need never spend tens of thousands of euros, pounds or dollars to actually own it.

I stopped driving to work eight years ago and have not owned a car for seven years. Living in a big city, a car is not actually needed. I hire a car whenever I need one. My children are not interested in car ownership - when I was in my early 20s, I was car-crazy. We have passed peak car.

In Katowice, there was a sense that the future would be radically different to the past 100 years when it comes to the motor car.

But just how different?

Think about how the digital revolution has changed photography. 2015 was the first year in which more photos were taken than in every single year before that combined. When I bought my last film camera, a used Leica M6 in 1997, little did I think that just ten years later I'd buy a digital Nikon D80, transforming my photography. Back in 1997, I wanted the best 35mm camera there was, and it was to last me decades. It's sat unused for over a decade as digital progress has rendered film redundant, used today by a handful of enthusiasts who love the ritual of the old medium.

The same will happen with the fossil fuel-powered car, says a new report by Stanford University's Tony Seba. He claims that within eight years, not a single petrol or diesel car, bus or truck will be made or sold anywhere in the world! The end will come as quickly, as it did to film photography.

Or will it? It took seven decades for steam locomotives to be displaced by electric and diesel engines on the railways. Why does Prof Seba believe that the fossil fuel-powered car will disappear by 2025?

The tipping point will come some two-three years from now as electric vehicles' batteries hit that magic spot where range exceeds 200 miles, while price drops allowing for low-end models to sell for $20,000 or less. When that moment comes, it will be an avalanche, says Prof Seba.

At the same time, Alphabet (Google's parent company), Amazon and Uber will have completed trials of self-driving cars, which use lidar (laser rangefinding), GPS and IoT (Internet of Things) technologies coupled with self-teaching algorithms to ensure perfect safety.

These two trends taken together will lead to a mass stranding of petrol and diesel cars - second-hand values will plummet. Oil prices will plummet too - Prof Seba predicts a long-term price of oil around $25. Petrol stations and garages will close. The internal combustion engine, with its 2,000 moving parts, is way too complex to compete.

I guess that classic cars and motorbikes will continue to be sought after; enthusiasts will cherish the legends of automotive history - they will be driven on sunny weekends for the nostalgia, powered by fuel sold at extremely high prices by specialist dealers to wealthy connoisseurs. A bit like the enthusiasts who take snaps on film cameras, finding the occasional outlet that still sells and processes film.

Prof Seba's vision is one I entirely subscribe to - I hope it comes true within that eight-year timeframe. Business, consumers and regulators will need to get ready for it.

Go! And do not come back until you have redeemed yourselves!

This time two years ago:
With Blood and Scars by B.E. Andre - book review

This time three years ago:
We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can't we?

This time four years ago:
Ethereal and transient

This time five years ago:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time six years ago:
By tram to Boernerowo

This time eight years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop, rural USA or Poland

This time ten years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

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