Ugo Bardi on the end of cars…..

25 05 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to “RethinkX”. That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 

Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call “the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation.” There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will save us from the trouble created by technology (the most common mistake people make is not to learn from mistakes).

That doesn’t mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase “fighting tanks with horses” is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra’s Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West in the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkable effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today’s cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global position systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes possible a kind of “transportation on demand” or “transportation as a service” (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasingly seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and move to TAAS. Then, TAAS can also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn’t change the trend.

To have some idea of what a TAAS-based world can be, you might read Hemingway’s “Movable Feast”, a story set in Paris in the 1920s. There, Hemingway describes how the rich Americans in Paris wouldn’t normally even dream of owning a car (**). Why should they have, while when they could simply ride the local taxis at a price that, for them, was a trifle? It was an early form of TAAS. Most of the Frenchmen living in Paris couldn’t afford that kind of easygoing life and that established an effective social barrier between the haves and the have-nots.

As usual, of course, the future is difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won’t need to be of the kind that the present automotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by “RethinkX,” even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of “fighting tanks with horses.”

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the “Seneca Effect.” When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we’ll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomous driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.

(**) Scott Fitzgerald, the author of “The Great Gatsby” is reported to have owned a car while living in France, but that was mainly an eccentricity.




10 responses

25 05 2017
Chris Harries

The thing that puzzles me about the popular lust for the coming autonomous car era is: Exactly how is this technological future so different to the use of taxis?

What the difference between ordering a taxi, sharing it with others, and being driven door-to-door – even if you are too drunk to drive or don’t have a drivers licence or whatever? We can do all that today. We generally don’t because we are married to our own cars, that give members of society an unbridled sense of spontaneous empowerment.

The only difference is the lack of a driver, after all. And maybe expense? But, pray tell, would ordering a call-up driverless car be any less cheap than ordering a driven taxi? I suspect not.

Nor does the argument that ‘there will be fewer cars on the road’ hold water, unless the authorities were to ban peak hour? Some traffic managers have surmised that congestion may even increase as people decide to send their kids off to their various sporting events and amusements at the drop of a hat, where an owned autonomous car is sent back home to avoid parking fees and take away meals are ordered on impulse… and so forth, and so forth.

I think our transport future is not going to be nearly as golden as the romantic vision that people are wetting themselves over.

25 05 2017

Cars tend to wear out by kms driven, so this implies there would have to be just as many cars manufactured, with a sharing system, as before.
Frankly I just can’t see TAAS happening in the foreseeable future.
Private cars just have so many aspects that people will not want to give up.
Besides people are happy to do the job of driving for free, whereas computer type autonomous technology will have a cost.

26 05 2017

Regardless of the trend to self driving cars the personal automobile is already an idea in trouble. So many young people today do not even have a license, the deals car yards are doing would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Cars are a huge expense. in suburbia replace a few trips a week with public transport, or a bicycle then a taxi is quite viable for the rest. Drive to the pub and you are limited to a single drink. Uber and you could replace all your driving cheaper, cars are expensive.

Jeff said that cars wear out by the miles driven, no where near true. That first start in the morning is hugely wearing. I rarely get more than 200,000 km out of a car, taxis often do 500,000 km plus before being sold. Trucks on the road all the time last 20 years or more, there are so many very old trucks on the road that it is a big pollution problem.

The death of the car is already happening.

26 05 2017
Brendon Crook


I always enjoy reading your comments & your right about the auto dealers giving away what they can to make a deal.
I work in one & believe me if you ask for the clothes on their back they’d gladly go home starkers……………….
All this talk of autonomous cars however is I feel rather a pointless conversation, the last gasps of a collapsing culture that has human progress as its foundation stone, human ingenuity as the starlight of its own grandeur.has no future as it wallows in the filth of its own conceitedness.
Humanity is a species, just another species, that is about to find out that nature holds a deep indifference to us & our haughty arrogance………………………………………………………

26 05 2017
Brendon Crook

My comment on autonomous cars is not directed at you rabbidoomsayer except where you mentioned the giveaways in auto dealerships as I have known & respected your comments for a long time but rather in general as to where these conversations generally go.
Once in the realms of driverless cars & EV’s we enter the realms of hovercars & all the other “glorious” human endeavours that are only a “few years” away.

Anything to keep the old carrot dangling in front of the craving & bewildered donkeys…………………..

27 05 2017
Chris Harries

Agree with your thoughts there Brendon, but there’s a bit more than carrot dangling. Driverless cars are in that league of technologies – along with 3D printers and drones – that a certain type of male personality hones in on and can’t let go. Once the idea is implanted it doesn’t need any selling, it gets a life of its own.

The lust for driverless cars is pushed along not mainly by corporations but by excited individuals who see a science fiction future emerging, whereby technology solves everything, including human foibles.

I find the most fascinating aspect of this is how people are prepared to overlook what’s staring us in the face. Wow, with the press of a button a car will magically turn up and take us to where we want to go, and we can share that magic car with others and life will be wonderful! Well that future is here, we can do it with taxis already and we generally don’t share them and western humans tend not to like sharing with strangers. The idea doesn’t match the reality of our society.

There are similar dreams that imagine lines of driverless trucks taking freight between Melbourne and Sydney. Magic future? Freight trains do that job right now, 50 large rail cars pulled by a one-driver engine, and even that is mostly in cruise control. The only difference in the new future is fewer employees and a lot more resources gobbled up

26 05 2017

A sharing system certainly does have a lot of advantages.
I guess it could very well catch on, if they could make driverless car that were prompt and reliable for booking.
One possible good point is infrequent, low distance drivers should not have to pay the high registration costs, that unfairly are currently the same as regular high distance drivers.
And a lot of car garage storage space would be freed up if you only needed say 1/4 (per capitata) of the current cars in service.
But there are just so many people that use cars as an expression of their personality, or a status symbol, or a badge of success, or like to customize their cars for specific uses, like camping or work.

26 05 2017
Chris Harries

Jeff, the accepted meme is that autonomous cars will massively reduce the numbers of cars that are manufactured. There’s little empirical evidence to support this. Most people currently don’t share their cars and I can’e see much change in that behaviour just because the taxi is driverless. Then there is the issue of peak hours – when most cars are in use. Exactly how will the use of cars be quartered if those cars don’t have drivers? The sums don’t add up to for me.

More so, I simply don’t believe the motor manufacturing industry is gleefully designing a future for itself whereupon they reduce car production down to a quarter. Unless they’ve decided to quadruple the price of them to make up for it.

28 05 2017
Brendon Crook

“that a certain type of male personality hones in on and can’t let go”

100% agree with you Chris. Look at the effect Elon Musk has on people. He’s treated as a god by certain sections of society. They crave his every word.

Many years ago I fell for the new age garbage, that we were on the cusp of a new age where children being born were going to look with new spiritual eyes on the world & everything would get better. I really believed it.
But slowly I could see this was just nonsense, however it shows how one can be locked into such thinking. These days of course as you can tell from my comments (& my blog) that this is no longer the case.

Most people i know in everyday life don’t really think about these sorts of things, just believe what the MSM news tells them because they always have & live everyday without much thought.
I like to poke them into thinking but it’s a rather pointless exercise & I get little from looking into blank eyes.

26 05 2017

Chris I am certainly skeptical about the imminent widespread adoption of sharing.
To me the major component of the total cost of motoring is proportional to the total distance driven.
And this includes road infrastructure, energy used, maintenance and repair, and vehicle replacement (to a degree).
Sharing cars does not really change the distance driven, so the motoring cost will not reduce much.
If anything the total cost will be more, with all the expensive technology.
Also some people like to service and clean their own car, to keep costs down.

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