No more petrol or diesel cars, buses, or trucks will be sold anywhere in the world within eight years. The entire market for land transport will switch to electrification, leading to a collapse of oil prices and the demise of the petroleum industry as we have known it for a century.
This is the futuristic forecast by Stanford University economist Tony Seba. His report, with the deceptively bland title Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030, has gone viral in green circles and is causing spasms of anxiety in the established industries.
Prof Seba’s premise is that people will stop driving altogether. They will switch en masse to self-drive electric vehicles (EVs) that are 10 times cheaper to run than fossil-based cars, with a near-zero marginal cost of fuel and an expected lifespan of 1m miles.
I’d be surprised if it happens this quickly. I think the future painted is quite likely, but eight years is not that long a time-frame.
Only nostalgics will cling to the old habit of car ownership. The rest will adapt to vehicles on demand. It will become harder to find a petrol station, spares, or anybody to fix the 2000 moving parts that bedevil the internal combustion engine. Dealers will disappear by 2024.
Cities will ban human drivers once the data confirms how dangerous they can be behind a wheel. This will spread to suburbs, and then beyond. There will be a “mass stranding of existing vehicles”. The value of second-hard cars will plunge. You will have to pay to dispose of your old vehicle.
If this is the future, it is a good one. I will quite happily not own a car if I can order a self-driving vehicle within minutes for a reasonable cost.
It is an existential threat to Ford, General Motors, and the German car industry. They will face a choice between manufacturing EVs in a brutal low-profit market, or reinventing themselves as self-drive service companies, variants of Uber and Lyft.
They are in the wrong business. The next generation of cars will be “computers on wheels”. Google, Apple, and Foxconn have the disruptive edge, and are going in for the kill. Silicon Valley is where the auto action is, not Detroit, Wolfsburg, or Toyota City.
The shift, according to Prof Seba, is driven by technology, not climate policies. Market forces are bringing it about with a speed and ferocity that governments could never hope to achieve.
“We are on the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruptions of transportation in history,” Prof Seba said. “Internal combustion engine vehicles will enter a vicious cycle of increasing costs.”
The “tipping point” will arrive over the next two to three years as EV battery ranges surpass 200 miles and electric car prices in the US drop to US$30,000 (NZ$43,651). By 2022 the low-end models will be down to US$20,000 (NZ$29,100). After that, the avalanche will sweep all before it.
Market forces are much more powerful that government policies.
Experts will argue over Prof Seba’s claims. His broad point is that multiple technological trends are combining in a perfect storm. The simplicity of the EV model is breath-taking. The Tesla S has 18 moving parts, one hundred times fewer than a combustion engine car. “Maintenance is essentially zero. That is why Tesla is offering infinite-mile warranties. You can drive it to the moon and back and they will still warranty it,” Prof Seba said.
Self-drive “vehicles on demand” will be running at much higher levels of daily use than today’s cars and will last for 500,000 to 1m miles each.
It has long been known that EVs are four times more efficient than petrol or diesel cars, which lose 80pc of their power in heat. What changes the equation is the advent of EV models with the acceleration and performance of a Lamborghini costing five or 10 times less to buy, and at least 10 times less to run.
“The electric drive-train is so much more powerful. The gasoline and diesel cars cannot possibly compete,” Prof Seba said. The parallel is what happened to film cameras – and to Kodak – once digital rivals hit the market. It was swift and brutal. “You can’t compete with zero marginal costs,” he said.
The future is exciting.