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Macro changes ahead – I

A car powered by an ICE (Internal Combusting Engine) has some 2,000 moving parts (see image) versus 20 (or less) of an EV (Electric Vehicle). Image courtesy: Tony Seba

I have been asked to provide a really (really!) short presentation, 1 to 2 minutes, to the IEEE Board providing technology evolution forecast for this decade. I started the (recorded) presentation by saying that it was impossible to provide a foresight on tech evolution by looking just at … tech evolution!

Once upon a time technology (at least a good part of it) could be seen as a world apart and it could have made sense to look just at technology and consider its evolution. It was not that long time ago: the Moore’s law is an example (and a successful one) of predicting the evolution of electronics by focussing on tech alone.

It is no longer the case today. Technology influences AND its evolution is influenced by the context, namely the economics, the societal values (culture, fads…), regulatory framework, market evolution …

If you want to understand tech evolution and attempt a sensible foresight then you need to take all those factors into consideration. They form a complex system (it is also a complicated one, but that is not the point) meaning that any change in some of its components is bound to affect all the others and -crucially important- will create a change in the context (the reaction to the change by other components) that will affect the original changing element, accelerating the change or dampening it. Notice. and this may seem peculiar, that even if the reaction to a change will eventually result in the change originator to go back to the previous state, the overall system might not go back to the original status since other components have changed as reaction to that first change. In other words: it is a tangled world.

Hence, rather than talking about expected evolution of tech I preferred to list a few macro changes that I feel will change the landscape by the end of this decade. Given that the time available was 1 to 2 minutes I didn’t do much more than a list. Here I would like to articulate that list a bit more.

  1. Electric Vehicles

I guess it is a no brainer to predict that by the end of this decade the EV will take the upper hand. Sure, there will be plenty of ICE (the majority actually) but the demise of the ICE will be just a matter of “when”, not if.

There are several reasons why the market (and the market leads!) will shift towards EV:

  • lower cost of operation (fewer components, proactive maintenance, no oil, filters…)
  • perceived as a greener choice (not necessarily true…, it depends on the source of electricity)
  • quieter and service “rich”
  • government incentives (in the early stages, then lower cost as we move toward the end of the decade)

This shift, however, will impact several areas:

  • need for a revamped grid: smarter and able to deliver electrical power equivalent to the one provided today by gasoline/diesel
  • need for new electrical power generators (more than double electrical capacity, in some areas quadruple it)
  • dramatically increase battery production (100 folds) and manage battery re-cycling
  • complete change in the supply chain and in the vehicle maintenance value chain; lots of companies will have to change their services/products, a good portion probably will go out of business. The amount of component of an EV is orders of magnitude lower that the one of an ICE. The latter (see figure) has some 2,000 moving parts, an EV 20 or less!
  • most of the distribution chain of fuels (gasoline/diesel) will be decommissioned over the next 2 decades (petrol stations, trucks…)
  • the demand for lubricant oil will drop by 70% (estimated), from the 23 million barrels per day in 2019 (US data) to 7 million b/d in 2050 (watch the clip).

Considering all of the above, and there is more, we can expect tech advances in:

  • lithium extraction from sea water at decreasing cost (plenty of lithium in the oceans, today’s its extraction is more expensive than mining, but mining is also more polluting)
  • battery recycling and reuse (this latter will impact several other areas from home to energy storage for industrial plants)
  • smart(er) grid
  • controllers, inverters, …

It should be noted that in parallel with the electrification we are going to have the automation, i.e. self-driving. However, self-driving cars, as a mass market product, will come a few years after the EVs, their uptake will, most likely, be slower, than EVs and there might be a significant share of vehicles that will remain manual or semi-manual (before seeing vehicles without pedals and steering wheels we will have to wait 2040 and 2050 before they might take a significant share of the market).

Autonomous vehicles will become “normal” (lose the wow factor) in areas like trucking (long distance first) , delivery, public transport and taxis probably by the end of this decade (they won’t replace the present fleets but will start to make a dent with impact on jobs). They will help in shaping regulation and insurance setting the scene for a more general adoption. We will also gauge the impact of self-driving cars on the mass market in terms of value perception and willingness to forfeit the steering wheel.

Technology will support the automation of vehicles and in turn the growing automation will push technology evolution in areas like:

  1. image recognition
  2. LIDAR
  3. artificial intelligence
  4. local networks
  5. 5G and beyond

In turns, some of these technologies will become embedded in EVs providing various shades of grey between a car with a driver and a driver-less one.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.