Embrace the current age of disruption

September 04, 2014

Embrace the current age of disruption

When thinking about some recent (mostly technical) announcements, I can't help but think of Schumpeter's concept of creative destruction. Feared by th...

When thinking about some recent (mostly technical) announcements, I can’t help but think of Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. Feared by those who prefer the continuation of a still comfortable but lose-lose position, embraced by those who look beyond the sometimes painful transition period wanting to be on the win-win side. Looking back in history, however, resistance is futile and everyone will benefit in the long term.

The disruptive changes that we see today have their roots in previous disruptive changes, such as cheap communication, itself made possible by the abundance of cheap and powerful semiconductors. Combine this with new materials and you get a disruptive new technology.

What do Tesla, the driverless Google car, Google Glass, Space-X, and even Higgs particle detectors and communication by entangled particles have in common? First, the people behind each have a daring and ambitious vision. They aim for something that doesn’t exist and in the process they often show that the established practices are due for creative destruction. Putting it bluntly, you’re either on the moving train or standing still on the platform.

It looks like many of these developments signal a trend away from centralization and toward decentralization, although they still need sophisticated coordination. A sector with the largest potential for change is mobility and transport in conjunction with a transition toward decentralized energy production and use. The economic windfall of this evolution is enormous as it signals another step toward more efficiency. Both suppliers and users (who can afford the transition) will benefit.

Wait a minute; haven’t we seen this before? When was the last telecom and Internet bubble? And weren’t electric cars going to take over? What are the preconditions to make that transition happen? It comes down to good systems and safety engineering.

First of all, we still have an issue with the battery. Its energy density is still too low and it takes too long to charge. And the best batteries (Lithium based) have a safety risk. That risk is lower than with gasoline but the perception is otherwise. Actually, the risk is acceptable for a small single-battery cell, but not when you put thousands of them in a car.

Second, what’s the life cycle balance in energy consumption, from when you dig up the raw material until you dispose of the broken vehicle? There may be a social and political choice to make, but the good news is that engineering is pushing it in the right direction.

Most challenging however is the drive towards autonomous driving. Today, we’re only seeing proof of concept experiments. The goal should not be to drive around at 30 km/hr but to drive at 200 km/hr closely knit together like a high speed train. But even at our current modest speed, the safety challenges are underestimated. In such a system, the vehicle becomes a component.

Contrary to our current trains and planes, the situation is much more dynamic. The difference between life and death is measured in seconds and centimeters. Hence, there’s no time to alert the driver when things go wrong. Such a vehicle must be fault tolerant and is likely to have multiple electric motors (required for redundancy, not just for being less polluting). Also the roads will need to be adapted, made more predictable and shielded from random access.

Different types of transport modes should be separated. The question is whether this can be achieved by adapting existing cars. Most likely, we’ll have to reinvent the car. And the key enabler is not only fault tolerance at the car level but also cheap and abundant sensors, at an affordable price.

I’m looking forward to this evolution. Let the mobility pod (hired on demand) bring me comfortably, quickly, and safely from door to door. No more traffic jams, sweaty buses, or delayed trains. Unless these old technologies reinvent themselves, there’s no reason for governments to keep them alive with taxpayer money. It would be better to invest that money in disruptive enabling technologies.

Eric Verhulst, CEO/CTO of Altreonic, has a broad engineering education in electronics and software, most recently focusing on developing a formalized approach for embedded systems engineering. His broad scope spans from deep nano-level electronic design to the application software level.

Eric Verhulst, Altreonic