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.


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

This is Brilliant

Ben Brooks about a new policy for using the overhead bins in United’s fleet:

United has a new ticket fare, where no luggage is included in the price (except what fits at your feet). If you want overhead bin space, or to check, you pay. I actually love this, though I would much rather checked luggage be free and overhead charged for everyone.

If you have been on a flight recently (say last 3-4 years) then you likely know how big of a shit show it is when you board a plane. There’s so many people with bags that are clearly too large to carry on, or people with clearly too many bags. Tons of gate checking — in all I think people not following rules, add tremendously to the overall boarding time.

This is a brilliant idea, if you want my opinion. Here’s why: until recently, I used to wait in line to board the aircraft as early as possible in order to catch a space in the overhead bins for my stuff.

No longer. I’ve stopped putting my moderately sized Synapse 25 into the overhead bin after flight attendants (I kid you not) started to yank it out again to make space for the luggage of people who obviously don’t care about rules1.

And, yes, Ben is right: it usually takes an unnecessary amount of time for people to walk around the aircraft, desperately seeking for a vacant spot overhead.

I’ve witnessed (extreme) cases where this dance was going on for at least ten minutes until everyone got a place for their stuff2. Sure, ten minutes are not that much but ten minutes can make you miss your connection flight for no other reason than the selfishness of other people.

Personally, I’d be curious to see how the luggage situation develops if (more) airlines started to charge for carry-on luggage that is too big for putting it under the seat in front of you.

On the bright side, not even wanting a spot in the overhead bin makes a big difference for me: boarding is suddenly so much more relaxed.

  1. Come on! For at least the last five years, the carriers that I usually fly leave totally no room for interpretation regarding the number and size of allowed carry-on luggage. 
  2. After all, there are only so many bins and luggage must be stowed for departure.