A New Economic & Social “Perfect Storm” Is Heading Right For Us

Individual Transportation Is Going To Change Big Time

By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

Historical Major American Technological Disruptions

The United States has experienced several major technology-based waves of economic and social disruption:

  • The first mass-transportation revolution caused by the creation of a nationwide railroad network.
  • The electrification of America.
  • The invention of the assembly-line manufacturing system
  • The second mass-transportation revolution caused by the internal combustion engine
  • The creation of the nationwide radio mass-media networks

Three Major Tech Disruptions In The Last Forty Years

We’ve had three huge technology-based social and economic upheavals in the last forty years:

  • Mass adoption of the personal computer
  • Mass access to the Internet
  • Mass access to mobile communication and computing

Effects Of Major Tech Changes Are Too Fundamental To Be Accurately Predicted

The crucial aspect of these last three changes is that they were so fundamental that the bulk of their effects could not be accurately foreseen in advance.

If in 1975 you had told a group of very smart of people that in fifteen years at least fifty percent of the adult American population and virtually every business would own a personal computer, they would not have been able to accurately predict how that would change American business, education, and recreation. They would not have been able to imagine how different America would be in 1990 because of the personal computer.

If in 1990 you told a group of very smart people that by 2010 90% of the country would have fast, mobile, personal communication and constant access to the Internet, they would not have been able to predict Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, iTunes, leastwise how they and hundreds of other side-effects of the new technology would have changed the country.

The hallmark of these fundamental tech-based changes is that they are so far reaching that their effects cannot be understood in advance.

It’s Not One Invention — It’s Several Acting Together

These three changes in American society weren’t caused by one invention. They were caused by a “perfect storm” of several technologies that complemented each other. They occurred when major pieces of a new technological puzzle all came together in a relatively short period of time.

For example, here are a few of the crucial technologies that combined to create the mass-market personal computer:

  • 1974 Intel released the 8080 microprocessor
  • 1976 CP/M 1.3 8080 operating system was released
  • 1977 IBM announced the first 64K dynamic RAM chip
  • 1980 Shugart introduced the first small-format 5 MB Hard drive
  • 1981 MSDOS for the 8086 microprocessor was released

You could construct a similar group of complementary technologies that spawned the high-speed Internet and the smart phone.

When you reach a critical mass of technologies that together allow people to perform old tasks in a much more efficient way and/or perform new tasks that have never been possible before, you’re going to get a major social and economic upheaval.

The Next Big Change

Here is a list of the technologies that I see coalescing into another major social and economic change:

  • Drone “swarm” control software
  • Autonomous vehicle control software/hardware
  • High efficiency electric motors
  • High efficiency fuel cells
  • Electric flying devices (drones)
  • Point-To-Point third-party transportation-matching software (Uber & Lyft software systems)
  • Accurate, on-demand, electronic maps

No Flying Cars

As much as it is a staple of pulp science fiction, there isn’t going to be a flying car in every garage. There are enough crashes on two-dimensional roads without putting drunks, idiots and narcoleptics in control of flying cars. The key here is the “in control” part of the equation.

On-Call Big Drones

Instead, we’ll scale up a drone to a machine big enough to hold four people and we’ll park a hundred of them in a big, flat area like a mall parking lot. Let’s call them BDs or Big Drones.

How They’ll Work

You live in Sunnyvale and you work in San Francisco.

When you get up in the morning your phone will have already summoned an autonomous Lyft/Uber to be at your front door at 7:30 and specified the BD parking lot is your destination. It takes you fifteen minutes to get to the BD lot where you’ve similarly pre-programmed your phone to reserve a drone for your trip to one of the several BD landing areas in San Francisco.

The drone’s speed is 150 MPH so that’s about a 20 minute flight. Since a computer was driving the Uber/Lyft and another one is driving the drone you catch up on your calls and emails during the 35–40 minute commute.

You get off in SF and take another autonomous car to your office. The BD swaps in a new hydrogen bottle and picks up its next passenger.

Why This Isn’t An SF Fantasy

Before you dismiss this as wild science fiction, let’s look at some numbers. The 1,200 pound, 85 KW Tesla Model S battery drives electric motors rated at 315 horsepower.

The new GM/Honda fuel cell that will be manufactured at a factory already under construction in Brownstown, Michigan weighs 200 pounds and delivers 97 KW. This is more than enough energy to power a four-person drone whose electric motors are expected to require and output of only about 200 horsepower.

Range is dictated by the size of the hydrogen tank. Thirty-seven gallons of hydrogen give the Honda Clarity an estimated 366 mile range. At a constant 50 MPH that would be about seven hours of continuous operation.

Only one hour of BD operation at its cruising speed of 150 MPH yields a range of 150 miles.

The Big Drone Hardware Components Already Exist

  • The mathematics and aerodynamics of electric, flying drones are well-known.
  • Ultra-high efficiency electric motors are available in quantity today.
  • The high-output fuel cell technology is already entering the manufacturing phase.
  • Designing and building a BD is certainly a major, non-trivial, engineering challenge but it is not a technological nor an R&D challenge.

The Big Drone Software Already Exists

  • The software matching travelers, BDs and destinations already exists at Lyft and Uber.
  • The GPS location, electronic mapping, and navigation software already exists in Google Maps.
  • The autonomous vehicle control software already exists at Google/Waymo for the far more challenging highway environment.

At five-hundred feet above ground there are no intersections, no pedestrians, no stop lights, no potholes, no left-turn signals, etc. The autonomous control software for a vehicle operating 500 feet above the ground is at least one order of magnitude less complicated than the already existing autonomous automobile control software.

  • The vehicle-to-vehicle collision avoidance “swarm” software for the safe operation of hundreds or thousands of BDs already exists.

In January, 2017 the Air Force launched a swarm of 103 Perdix drones at its China Lake test facility. These drones were not pre-programmed, synchronized individuals. They were a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms of birds in nature.

Every one of these 103 drones communicated and collaborated with every other drone in the swarm which had no leader and each gracefully adapted to drones entering or exiting the swarm.

How BDs Will Be Used

You won’t use a BD to grab a coffee at the Starbucks. BDs will be used for trips of ten miles and up. But what does that mean for how people are going to run their lives?

Why should you spend an hour driving to the beach or three or four hours driving to the mountains? Is there a golf course you would like to play that’s fifty miles away? That’s only twenty minutes by a BD.

Outlying recreational areas will be more attractive. New recreational areas will become economically viable.

If you live in the SF Bay Area and you want to go to L.A. will you still drive to San Jose or SFO, go through security, board the plane, wait for it to take off and, finally, fly to L.A.? That one-hour flight today will take you a total of about three hours in cattle-car conditions. Wouldn’t you rather take a 2 ½ hour BD flight that will drop you off at some location fifteen minutes or less from your hotel in L.A.?

Short-flight commercial airline trips will be drastically reduced. Hello Southwest. Travel to destinations less than 500 miles away will greatly increase.

BDs Remove One Of Main Reasons For Owning A Car

BDs won’t just be a change in how you commute to work. They will change the dynamics of whether or not you own a car at all.

Right now people own cars which they have to insure, service, repair and park. One of the main reasons that you own a car is because you know that a few times a year you will need it for longer trips. You know that you may want to go to the beach or skiing or to drive to some recreation area or travel a few hundred miles to visit relatives.

But what if you didn’t have to own a car to do any of that? What if you could take an autonomous BD whenever you wanted to do any of those things?

That would remove a large part of the incentive to own a car at all. What if you could simply call up an autonomous Uber or Lyft for all your short trips and use a BD for longer trips?

Sure, if you’re willing to spend the money to have a car always in your garage as a kind of a safety net that’s fine. There will be people who’ll do that. But how many? 20%? 30% of the number of people who own a car today?

On average, it costs about 61 cents per mile to own and operate a car. If you drive 12,000 miles a year that’s about $7,300 per year or about $140/week. How many Uber trips could you take for $140/week?

If you took Uber everywhere — work, shopping, movies, visiting friends — how much would that cost you? At what point will using Uber/Lyft be cheaper than owning a car?

One of the reasons people own a car is because the cost is hidden. They make an annual insurance payment, a monthly lease or loan payment and fill up the tank once a week and they forget about it. It’s less painful to shove your credit card into the gas pump once a week, write a $250 loan payment check once a month, an $800 insurance payment once a year and not think about that $520 monthly total expense than to give the Uber guy $17 a day every day of the week.

But Uber and Lyft are smart enough to let people establish an account with them and just swipe a card or flash their phone or press their thumb on a panel so that Uber can bill one total amount to their VISA card at the end of the month. When that happens, Uber/Lyft bills become as painless as the car loan.

Some Effects Of Reducing Car Ownership

Let’s say that only half the people who have cars today abandon car ownership. Imagine how that will affect our society. What would SF or L.A. or any other city look like if half the parked cars disappeared?

Assume that most of the vehicles that remain are electric. What’s that going to mean for road maintenance? Highway maintenance will no longer be financed by a gas tax. Highways will still be needed for the Ubers and trucks and police and fire vehicles so we’ll still have to maintain them but how will that be financed?

Business has historically located along travel routes. What’s going to happen to all those restaurants and hotels and other businesses located along major highways when people stop driving long distances?

There are over 168,000 gas stations in the U.S. What’s going to happen to them when people stop driving long distances and use hybrids or all-electric vehicles for short-distance trips and BDs for the longer ones?

Electric cars require a fraction of the maintenance of internal-combustion-engine cars and they have a far longer life. There are 740,000 auto mechanics in the U.S. What’s going to happen to them when the internal combustion vehicle is essentially replaced by a smaller number of electric vehicles?

What’s this country going to look like when we have 400,000 unemployed auto mechanics, two million unemployed truck drivers, half a million unemployed people who used to own or work in restaurants, gas stations, hotels and stores that lined the previously heavily-traveled highways?

What Else?

How many dozens of other second order and third order effects will flow from people abandoning their private cars? How many can you think of?

Please give it some thought because around ten years from now that’s going to be us.

–David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

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David Grace

David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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