Phi Beta Kappa looks at Technology forecasting

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Phi Beta Kappa looks at Technology forecasting

Prediction is very hard, especially about the future.
-Yoga Berra, of course.

'The Key Reporter' came today, with an article beginning with that quote on the subject of technology forecasts being far too optimistic. The technology so often doesn't live up to expectations. One example given was the prediction in England that the locomotive was going to all but eliminate the presence of the horse, but maybe 50 years later the British Isles had an all time high number of them at work. Some were busy pulling the empty cars around in the rail yards, while others were still providing the "First mile transportation" of getting people from home to the station. Another great realization was that communication did not eliminate travel to the extent expected.

The author, Andrew Odlyzko, has some interesting points to make that can easily be seen to relate to electric transportation:

1) The idea will be slave to the simple human reaction - Thousands expressed interest in that EV1, until Saturn spoke frankly to them about what they were getting into. Suddenly less than 500 would take the car. Gm had no reason to keep the assembly line goine BEFORE the CARB reversal. After 'WHo Killed the Electric Car?' there's a whole new generation that was dying to get their hands on the EV1 but couldn't get it. Much like the way some 250,000 people have claimed to have packed them into a space that would only fit a few thousand to be present when John F. Kennedy was shot.

2) The logistics differential - He says the common penetration of new technology is to start slow then gain momentum, only to peter out at much the same pace that it accelerated. The theory of the 'Logistics Function' does describe an even 'S' curve. The cars weren't even for sale at the time, but you sure could track the popularity of the electtric vehicle through the time of rising gas prices. In 2007 there was this dawn of interest, followed by an intense demand to be given the cars in 2008. When gas prices fell, it took the same year for enthusiasm to die as it took for it to grow. You can look at it as simple as that. (Hey, would you like me to use terms like 'Sigmoid function' and 'Gompertz curve' even though he didn't?)

3) New Technology succeeds when it does NOT replace old technology - Remember those horses gaining popularity around trains? You could build a whistle stop in the middle of nowhere and a town would grow up, reqiring a lot of horses to get people around in town. Today, what sells better? The fully electric car/scooter/etc., or the gas/electric hybrid? If the new technology can support and/or be supported by old technology, it has the best chance of succeeding. He refers to what is "Sustaining" and not "Disruptive." Remember how T. Boone Pickens wanted people to drive natural gas cars? That would have been the toughest stsrtup of all. You can operate the hybrid exactly as you operated your old car, even fueling in the same places. You can charge the scooter in sny home, office, etc., with the potential for disruption being more social than technologyical. (Remember the recent thread on the politics of where to charge?) The electric car still faces enormous upheaval in getting the charging logistics worked out; you about HAVE to have a special charging staton installed in your home if you hope to drive one.

I guess we've sort of talked about these things that way, referring to the public as not being ready, to electric cars as not quite "Partying," even discussing the extent to which people are willing to adapt in a short period of time. However this does bring some clarity to concepts we sort of beat around the bush on, not seeing them in those specific terms.

When I stop and look at it just that way, I think it doesn't bode well for the all electric car. The infrastructure will work far better for things like electric busses which would need a small number of charging stations the operators can conrol than for stations that would have to pop up for the public like gas stations. The Alsskan highway and Route 66 both opened out in the middle of nowhere with strings of popup gas stations selling trucked in fuel. But are we really ready to string enough wire to carry so much electricity for quick charging, even in the city? Suddenly the grid doesn't seem quite so ready to sustain them as I'd been thinking, me being the one who'd be thrilled with just a million cars in the next decade. There probably isn't enough existing capacity in so many of these neighborhoods. They'd all be charging in the same industrial/commercial neighborhoods during the day, (Already facing huge demands) then the same residential neighborhoods at night. (Which probably never carry the current draw necessary without the cars there.)

Now, the same doom and gloom was spoken of higher speed internet connections in the late 90's before the backbone stepped up to meet the demand, but that's a smaller advance. They even figured out how to carry more data on the same lines that were so limited before.

Digital Subsriber Electricity. Hmmmmmm. . . .

I wish I had an answer to that because I'm tired of answering that question.
-Yogi Berra


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