Even if TransCanada does build Keystone XL, Colorado tech consultant Seth Miller predicts it will run dry by 2025, thanks to the adoption of self-driving electric cars.
(Ah, maybe that’s why Republican Senator John Thune wants more government regulation of autonomous vehicles.)
Miller says oil won’t disappear—we’ll still need asphalt, heating oil, and plastics—but drilling and refining built on automotive consumption will collapse as the internal combustion engine follows film cameras, Nokia phones, and coal-burning power plants toward marginality or extinction.
Miller bases this prediction first on the superior simplicity of the electric vehicle drivetrain:
Cars are complicated.
Behind the hum of a running engine lies a carefully balanced dance between sheathed steel pistons, intermeshed gears, and spinning rods — a choreography that lasts for millions of revolutions. But millions is not enough, and as we all have experienced, these parts eventually wear, and fail. Oil caps leak. Belts fray. Transmissions seize.
To get a sense of what problems may occur, here is a list of the most common vehicle repairs from 2015:
- Replacing an oxygen sensor — $249
- Replacing a catalytic converter — $1,153
- Replacing ignition coil(s) and spark plug(s) — $390
- Tightening or replacing a fuel cap — $15
- Thermostat replacement — $210
- Replacing ignition coil(s) — $236
- Mass air flow sensor replacement — $382
- Replacing spark plug wire(s) and spark plug(s) — $331
- Replacing evaporative emissions (EVAP) purge control valve — $168
- Replacing evaporative emissions (EVAP) purging solenoid — $184
And this list raises an interesting observation: None of these failures exist in an electric vehicle.
The point has been most often driven home by Tony Seba, a Stanford professor and guru of “disruption”, who revels in pointing out that an internal combustion engine drivetrain contains about 2,000 parts, while an electric vehicle drivetrain contains about 20. All other things being equal, a system with fewer moving parts will be more reliable than a system with more moving parts [Seth Miller, “This Is How Big Oil Will Die,” NewCo Shift, 2017.05.25].
That durability boosts the business case for fleets of autonomous taxis replacing individually owned vehicles, at which point it becomes cheaper for darn near everyone to take a taxi than maintain a personal vehicle.
Darn near everyone. Miller lives in Longmont, Colorado, a town of more than 90,000 on the north side of the Denver metroplex. Miller’s essay does not mention rural drivers. Electric cars offer the same mechanical and cost advantages in Aberdeen and Ipswich as they do in Albuquerque and Indianapolis. Self-driving cars could be just as appealing to rural long-distance drivers as to in-town errand-runners and could entice more current urbanites to move to rural areas and commute to work. But fully autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing may not work to the same extent here on the open prairie:
Of course, there are limitations. Low population densities and long median travel distances mean ridesharing and carsharing are unlikely to ever take hold as they have in urban areas, meaning personal vehicle ownership (and lower asset utilization) are likely to persist. And the vision of some pioneering companies of a vehicle that can only operate in fully autonomous mode—with no steering wheel or pedals, for instance—could meet resistance from country dwellers who often use their vehicles as a tool as much as a conveyance. For those who, say, use their pickup truck to haul firewood from one part of a property to another, as I have in recent months, the ability to revert to human-controlled operation is likely to be essential [Derek Pankratz, “Rethinking Self-Driving Cars in Rural Areas,” Deloitte: Innovation in Manufacturing, 2017.05.23].
But don’t forget: a lot of rural folks are also older folks, and Liberty Mobility Now is testing out its ability to serve that market in Yankton, as it is in Nebraska, Ohio, and elsewhere away from the bright city lights.
My Volkswagen Beetle has a good ten years left on it. I’ll be curious to see if I need to buy a replacement for it in 2027, or if I’ll find it cheaper to catch a robot lift to Sioux Falls or Rapid City.