Self-driving cars: promises and some problems

Self-driving cars will be an incremental but disruptive step into science fiction in that we will be abandoning a major part of the economy and replacing it with something different. Science fiction will become a reality. Do we really want to go there? Probably we have no choice but to drive down this road.

A recent special report in The Economist discusses some of the technology and outlines the promises of autonomous vehicles. There are also some economic problems of which we should be aware – the resource base, marginal cost and potential disruption in the money supply.

driving-clipart-45The promises are mostly based on a continuation of the North American growth economy. We will be continuing to use machines to move individuals or small groups mostly to places of employment. Probably self-driving vehicles will be used in combination with mass transit, especially if vehicle sharing comes into its own. Great benefits will accrue to a lot of people in the form of greater inexpensive mobility which will also allow us to contradict Facebook with more direct social activity.

Self-driving vehicles may add to the over population problem if there are fewer accidents and fewer fatalities.

One of the problems will be the availability of resources. This blogger figures the economy is currently on a down trend because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources. Sure, there are lots left in the crust of this planet but the amount of energy required to retrieve them makes them mostly useless.

The exception is solar energy, the cost of which has been dropping and will probably continue to drop. This could mean a major change in economic power as it appears solar will become cheap enough for individuals to make their own decisions about using it. No longer will bankers and governments be deciding which power provision projects go ahead and by whom.

The replacement of the current fleet of internal combustion vehicles with electric and driverless vehicles will probably mean a lot of the current infrastructure will need to be replaced. This will require large quantities of mineral resources which may be very expensive. Henry Ford realized that in order to sell automobiles they had to be inexpensive enough for working people to buy them. Since then we have extracted a lot of the most easily accessible mineral resources. It is not clear we will able to retrieve or recycle enough resources for the transition.

The economic concept of marginal cost creates a couple of problems for the introduction of self-driving vehicles. This states the price of an item is equal to the marginal cost of producing the last item. As the cost of solar energy is falling and is likely to continue falling at some point solar will determine the price of electricity. When that happens all those firms currently producing electricity from hydro, gas or oil will find their facilities and investments worthless. Not good news for bankers or for the rest of us when all that debt has to be written off.

Recycling may be another source of problems. Most of us accept that recycling is a civil responsibility and believe that doing so will help to save the environment and the economy. However we may find marginal cost interferes with some things. Suppose a pound of copper can be recycled for half the cost mining new stuff. Does this mean manufacturers will be able to purchase recycled copper for half the cost and their customers will benefit from the cheaper prices? Not likely. Copper prices will be set by the last pound mined and the recycler will make a windfall. So the benefits of recycling will likely go to the recyclers rather than the rest of us. This is what happened in the oil industry as prices rose. We all paid higher prices and those producers who could extract the stuff at lower cost did very well. Recycling may be a joke on us.

Most of us know how to manage our money but few understand how money is created in our economy. Most of the money we use to exchange goods and services is based on the debt created when bankers make loans. This works so long as the economy is growing and bankers make more and more loans.

Economists seldom if ever talk about what happens when the economy stops growing and loans have to be written off. Loans are being written off all the time but so long as the economy is growing they are replaced with even more loans. However, when large amounts have to be written off such as the recent mortgage crisis the money supply goes down and without money it becomes difficult to exchange goods and services and lots of people lose their savings and their employment. Because of the fractional reserve system we use the money supply goes down with a multiplier effect.

I do not know how much of the current money supply is based on debt to the automotive and energy firms. The introduction of self-driving electric vehicles could hit the banks and us with a double whammy if firms in both industries cannot repay their debts. We could lose a lot of the money supply as well as a lot of people losing their savings and pensions.

A lot of changes are likely to be forced upon us. Some of those changes we may not appreciate.

Through the millenia of history when there have been major economic upheavals up to 90 percent of populations have died. If something like that happens in the near future, the technology of self-driving electric cars will not be lost and the promises may be available to the survivors.


Solar energy – excitement and challenges

The most exciting, and challenging, economic news of recent days has been that in some parts of the world solar is now lower cost than other forms of energy and that is without subsidies. (One, two, three.) This is exciting because so much of what we call civilization is dependent upon cheap energy.  There are indications that the cost of solar energy will decrease even further and that it will become  available to most of us.

This is also challenging because of the economic changes which will have to be made including the writing off of a lot existing infrastructure.

We must start this discussion by noting that energy is only one input into economic growth.  A shortage of other minerals, agricultural land and over population may make a return to economic growth difficult.

A major problem in adapting to lower electricity costs will be the existing infrastructure. The price of an item is equal to the marginal cost of producing the last unit.  This means that if solar energy can be produced cheaper than other forms of electricity the producers of that energy will have to lower their prices or go out of business.  It may take time to work out but we can anticipate a lot of infrastructure will become obsolete.  Do not be surprised if there are demands for subsidies to protect firms from unfair competition.

The falling marginal cost may be a problem for the production of solar energy.  With fossil fuels we have been used to rising marginal costs which means the owners of cheaper oil have been reaping windfall profits as the price of oil has gone up.  This writer is not aware that much economic thought has been put into dealing with falling marginal costs on this scale but some people will have more expensive solar energy than others or will have to write off their initial investment.

Another interesting feature of solar energy is it is unlikely any corporation will get an exclusive license to use it.  With costs falling to the point where most people will be able afford their own solar collector(s) decision making power will be transferred to individuals.  No longer will bankers and governments be making decisions for us.

I am skeptical that cheap solar energy is going to mean a return to economic growth and the way our economy is currently organized requires growth for most of us to live in comfort.  Changing our economic organization will be far more difficult that introducing solar technology.

Economic salvation from shale gas?

A lot of people believe economic salvation depends upon economic growth and some people believe that salvation will come as a result of shale gas.

It could be true.

However, in a previous reincarnation I was a charter member of the skeptics club.  A more likely scenario is that shale gas may give us a temporary reprieve.  There are environmental and economic concerns.

The environmental concerns relate to global warming and earthquakes.  Also the current availability of cheap shale gas is interfering with the development or renewable energies such as wind and solar.

The economic concern relates to marginal cost.  (Marginal cost is the cost of extracting the last unit sold.)  If shale gas is going to be our salvation, then the marginal cost of extracting it will have to decrease as more gas is taken.  If the marginal cost increases, then it will only slow down the rate of economic decline.

The exploitation of shale gas is the result of high oil prices and the development of new and expensive technology.  It takes a lot of energy to get it out of the ground.  Certainly the gas currently being extracted is the easiest and cheapest.  There is some probability that future extractions will be more difficult and expensive.

Another concern about the potential for a return to economic growth is what is happening to the marginal cost of other minerals and resources such as topsoil and copper.

Rather than seeking a return to economic growth we might be better off to adapt our lives and our economy to zero or negative growth.  For some ideas about how to do that please see my essay: LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis.

Here are links to three articles on shale gas. One, two, three.


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