Monday, February 1, 2016

A Bolt (with a B not a V) from the Blue

From time to time, I have been known to get all excited trying to explain to my 3-year old that he is living in an amazing time.  Self-driving cars, hoverboards, home automation, robot assistants… the list of amazing changes goes on and on.  He, in turn, has been known to give me the “leave me the @$%#$ alone” look while he gets back to being amazed at the number of ABCD songs on YouTube. 

Apparently, both my son and I are wrong to be amazed. Atleast this is what I learnt when I read reviews of a new book titled “The rise and fall of American growth” by Robert Gordon.  His TED talk argues that the pace of technological innovation in the last 50 years is far lower than the period in the first half of the 20th century.  Unlimited ABCD is all nice, but from an economic growth perspective, apparently not as big a deal as indoor plumbing (my 3-year old just asked me to use said indoor plumbing to evict myself from the house when I pointed out to him that he is doing nothing of economic value to society).

I am no economist.  But I do know a little something about batteries.  And I have been known to say stuff like “there is nothing new in batteries” every time a paper comes out claiming a breakthrough.  I was mostly right for a decade.  Over the last 2 years, I have stopped saying that and have gotten to be amazed at the changes in the battery world.

No. No.  I’m not talking about the press releases claiming breakthrough.  Those are still not worth the bytes they are written on.  I’m talking about real changes, like the dropping prices for Li-ion batteries. 

Or the fact that I have stopped counting the number of EVs I see in my (rather long) daily commute.  From Nissan’s to BMW’s to Merc’s to Tesla’s, they are pretty much part of the landscape.  Granted, I do live in a bubble (the Northern CA area is not exactly representative of the world-at-large), but it is fascinating to see the penetration of these cars.

But as a low-paid National Lab scientist with a long commute, I have been unable to make the jump.  Either these cars had very little range (Berkeley, for all its greenness, does not excel at providing charging) or cost too much.  And gushing over a car at the dealership does not lead to a price reduction.  Quite the opposite!

But prepare to be amazed even more. 

Chevy recently announced the 200 mile Chevy Bolt (not the same as the Volt.  They really should start calling the car “Chevy Bolt: with a B not a V”).   Available sometime next year, it will be a small to mid -sized 5 passenger crossover with reasonable trunk space.  And Tesla is said to be ready to announce the Model 3, another 200 mile “less frills” car for the rest of us.

Both the Bolt and the Model 3 are going to be in the mid to high $30k range.  With the tax rebates, we are talking under $30k.  Even I may be able to afford that!  And 200 miles may be enough to remove range anxiety for most of us. 

And, with all the auto companies starting to agree on putting the battery at the bottom, space for passengers and for the Costco runs appears to be in the offing. 

Now, 200 miles is no 350 or 400 miles (typical gasoline car range).  Nor is the price comparable to gas cars (I suspect that a gas equivalent of Bolt is probably a $20k car), and tax incentives are probably not to be depended on in the long run, but these $35k/200 mile EVs are going to be a game changer. 

And more automakers are promising to go after the 200-mile target.  There is a feeling that this is the sweet spot for the next push for electrification.   With falling Li-ion prices, these cars are going to get cheaper year after year.  I do think leasing is probably a better idea considering the rapid pace of changes, not just in batteries, but also in the level of sophistication in the cars.

Granted that there is probably little economic growth in going EV (I suppose you are substituting from one production type to the other. And some of the battery cost reduction is coming from automation), but you have to admit that from a pure technological standpoint it will be good to have something new for a change on the roads after a century of the same kind of drivetrain. 

Combine the EV revolution with ubiquitous connectivity and self-driving technology, we are going to have a LOT of time on our hands to think about doing something of economic value in the silent cone that is our battery-powered Uber.  And nothing like boredom to invent something new to keep ourselves from getting bored.  After all, isn’t necessity the mother of all inventions?  Hopefully what we invent will be of economic value so that we can prove Robert Gordon wrong.

In the meantime, continue to be amazed at the changes you see on the roads.  When my 3 year old went through a (mandatory?) car identification phase he has been known to say stuff like “Too many Toyota’s”.  Before long, if the trend continues, I think he will be saying “Too many Tesla’s”.