Burned

Interesting read1 in The Economist about the “the death of the internal combustion engine“.

The technology for combustion engines is a remarkable engineering feat. It took more than a century of constant iteration to get to the currently existing state-of-the-art in power-train technology. I wonder how long it will take until, once it became obsolete by the wide-spread adoption of electric cars, the knowledge2 to build a combustion engine on the current technological level gets lost forever.

Compared with existing vehicles, electric cars are much simpler and have fewer parts; they are more like computers on wheels. That means they need fewer people to assemble them and fewer subsidiary systems from specialist suppliers

This is the key observation and herein lies one of the main challenges in the transformation to electric power-trains on a broad basis. The article paints a dark picture for the industry in general:

While today’s carmakers grapple with their costly legacy of old factories and swollen workforces, new entrants will be unencumbered. Premium brands may be able to stand out through styling and handling, but low-margin, mass-market carmakers will have to compete chiefly on cost.

You could argue that premium brands are already distinguishing themselves in terms of styling and handling and that low-margin OEMs already chiefly compete on cost. But still:

On the most extreme estimates, that could shrink the industry by as much as 90%.

This sparks a comparison to other industrial disruptions on a similar level, for example the closing of coal mines in the Ruhr Area that started several decades ago: the painful implications still haven’t been overcome to this day.

On the other hand, parts will still have to be made on an industrial scale and especially the software branch may find plenty of opportunities. For example, the creation and maintenance of a reliable charging infrastructure with high availability will take a lot of resources and this should mean business for existing companies that are willing and able to take the challenge.

Therefore, I sincerely hope that the consequences for workers and engineers will not become as terrible as painted by the article.

I don’t know whether central power stations – as the article suggests – will really play a central (sorry) role in that future as they do today. My hope is that decentralized power generation from renewable sources will eventually become the dominant supplier of the power grid.

Electric cars will come and Otto- and Diesel-cars will shrink in market share over the next decades. This development will be driven by two factors, the fact that fossil oil deposit is limited in quantity and the fact that the technological improvements (once starting to gain pace) will make electric cars more compelling and eventually even more economically appealing than traditional fuel burners.

Driverless electric cars in the 21st century are likely to improve the world in profound and unexpected ways, just as vehicles powered by internal combustion engines did in the 20th. But it will be a bumpy road.

Indeed.


  1. Via Instapaper
  2. And the industrial processes, these are admittedly equally crucial. 

Leave a Reply