Two Predictions: Self Driving Cars and Solar

The other day I was attempting to find photos and videos of me playing paintball. I played my last pro tournament at the end of 2007 and it's surprisingly difficult to find much evidence of it. I think it's largely because smart phones didn't exist then. Their adoption has been relatively recent and it's difficult to remember a time before them; the first iPhone was release midway through 2007 with the first Android phone, the G1, trailing at the end of 2008. This isn't news to anyone. My point in bringing this up is that two more shifts like this are underfoot, and much like smart phones everyone knew they were coming several years in advance. Once they happen it'll seem as obvious as the arrival of smart phones. The shifts I see are self driving cars and the dominance of solar electric energy sources coupled with a more distributed power grid. This is in opposition to other renewable sources and our current centralized generation system.

First, self driving cars. The current zeitgeist is that this is happening. So much so that writing about it is redundant. The reason I am is that most of the people I've discussed this with don't seem to grasp how this will fundamentally change our world. It's difficult to understate and the incentives for change in this area are absolutely massive considering that transportation is 10% of GDP. Here's some of what will change:

  1. No one will need to own a car. Cars sit idle 90% of the time. The greater the utilization, like any asset, the cheaper its use every time it's used. Related, this is Uber's actual plan. They're not a taxi company. They're a data company and they're building the ride sharing infrastructure for self driving cars. This is why their valuation is many times higher than the entire revenue of the taxi industry.
  2. Self driving cars will almost never crash. Currently about 30,000 people a year die in collisions in the US. Collisions will likely be treated more akin to airline crashes. They rarely occur and when they do they receive lot of media attention and the investigation is thorough. This will be an issue since people tend to have cognitive issues with ceding control and perceived danger.
  3. And no, there won't be a steering wheel. At some point people won't be allowed to drive on public roads because it's unnecessarily dangerous. The right to do so, while legitimate, will prove too costly to continue. Driving a car will be relegated to closed tracks only.
  4. Cars will travel closer together, think inches/centimeters, which means roads will get smaller and traffic will disappear. What will we do with all the excess space? It also means less road maintenance and traffic signals as we know them will go away.
  5. Gas stations, auto body shops, car dealerships, personal car insurance, lawsuits related to car accidents, traditional car companies, the number of mechanics will be reduced, medical personnel responding to crashes, etc.
  6. Cars will travel faster. On the face of it this seems like it'd make outlying suburbs more attractive, but telecommuting was supposed to do the same thing while in fact the reverse happened. Cities became more populated and suburban and rural areas less so. Telecommuting has made it possible to live a more nomadic life and non-privately owned self driving cars will further that.
  7. Cars will be electric. Why? There's a plethora of reasons, but mostly because it's quickly becoming the cheaper option. They'll also use less energy even though they travel faster.
  8.  Parking lots and garages will largely go away. This may not seem like a big deal but they're expensive and take up lots of real estate that can be used for higher value uses. Much as just-in-time-shipping revolutionized logistics by removing warehousing from the equation why would a self driving car company want to idle an asset and pay to do so? Maybe during periods of low usage, but more realistically the cars will charge themselves during non-peak hours. Maybe they'll even flip the equation by acting as storage for conventional power, soaking up cheap excess power generation during off peak hours and flooding the grid during peak hours when it's financially attractive to do so.
  9. Public transportation will become largely defunct. I haven't read anything about this but I don't see how it won't be affected. Trains are massively expensive and public transit in general is a money loser (it's a political issue endemic to public transit). I don't currently see a scenario that makes fiscal sense. It'll be interesting/frustrating to see how entrenched interests fight this, but the coffin is already designed.
  10. Long commutes are proven to reduce life satisfaction. Since self driving cars will travel faster and you won't have to pay attention this should be mitigated to a large degree, so as a whole it'll make people who endure long commutes happier.

Related to all the above is energy production and usage. Solar won the small scale renewable energy contest years ago and few have taken notice because it's happening slowly and there's a stigma attached to solar (PV, photovoltaics) from its early years. It's also been strung along due to backlash from entrenched publicly regulated energy company's outdated pricing models (charging mostly for usage instead of connectivity which is becoming the real product) and the fact that batteries haven't improved fast enough. The competition was and currently is: distributed natural gas, oil, gas digesters (waste to methane), wind power, hydroelectric, and to some extent conventionally distributed electricity but I see that as part of the same system. True geothermal and wave power generation has never been anything beyond niche. All of these systems will remain but solar's growth will eclipse them all by orders of magnitude. Why this is happening is due to a confluence of fundamental physics and cost issues.

On the physics side of things conventional electric power plants have a theoretical maximum efficiency of 42% due to the Rankine cycle and most operate in the low to mid 30s, wind power has a maximum efficiency of 59% due to Betz's Law and current technology is already near that. Distributed natural gas is more viable but poses a myriad of health issues that are becoming less tolerated. Heat pumps are making conventional heating systems obsolete while induction cook tops are doing the same thing to cooking ranges both of which negate the need for running gas lines to buildings. Hydroelectric poses environmental issues which is why they're almost never built anymore in the US. The list goes on, but the point is that solar efficiency is still in its infancy. There are huge gains to be made while contending technologies are already near their theoretical limits.

The real breakthrough in recent years has been the cost of solar. It's plummeted to the extent that the barrier now is the labor to install them and the regulations surrounding attachment to the grid. A real world example of this is Tesla offering its customers free charging by building stations that run on PV. The brilliance of this is two fold. First, a car bought from Tesla includes in its price all the associated energy costs for the life of the car up front. That's not possible with a gasoline car. Second, PV's costs are almost entirely up front since there's almost no maintenance. Energy is a ruthless finance game and PV is a known quantity. Other systems currently have lower costs up front but unknown variable costs during their useful life. This makes them more difficult to finance.

Energy is a much more nuanced discussion than self driving cars, so I'm leaving a lot unsaid since this is already a tome. The time frame for self driving cars is unknown but has already started. They should really start to come online in the next few years. The total dissolution of our current system may take multiple decades. I have no idea. There are a lot of interests that will be made obsolete and they won't go down without a drawn out fight. Solar is harder to predict but that should take far longer. I wouldn't expect anything too noticeable to happen in the next few years. I'll consider this tipped when the majority of conventional homes are being built with PV and net meters as standard. That could take more than a decade but the writing is on the wall.