End of the World?

By John Eichberger | March 2016

In 1987, R.E.M. released its hit single, “It’s the End of the World.” Remember the song? A string of seemingly nonsensical lyrics and unconnected short statements linked together with a fast, halting rhythm and amplified by a captivating chorus that concluded with the lyric, “and I feel fine.” I remember spending hours rewinding the cassette tape (yeah, I know) in an attempt to understand and memorize the lyrics.

Well, three decades have passed and the music scene has changed dramatically. As I watch the trending news stories about the automotive industry, field questions from industry professionals and read through student submissions for the 2016 Fuels Institute University Case Competition, it seems the fuels and vehicles market has changed as well. With so much change on the horizon, I have started asking myself, “Are we seeing the end of the world as we know it?”

Watch Out for Disruptions to Momentum

From the perspective of so many around me, it would seem that the steering wheel and the internal combustion engine are destined for the history books. If this truly is the future knocking on the door, I will declare the end of the world as we know it…and that saddens me. But I caution against trusting the momentum of attention—public adoration is a fickle beast and innocent errors can derail the most promising of improvements.

Example 1: Every news outlet wants to write a story about the driverless car because the technology is exciting. Autonomous vehicles have recorded millions of driven miles, Uber is talking about eventually fielding an autonomous fleet and Tesla already is providing Model S drivers with an autonomous driver app. The research into the technology is yielding a number of safety and fuel efficiency advancements in today’s fleet, and the anticipation of bigger and greater things is enormous. Yet, how quickly can things turn? Just ask Google. After one extremely low speed (reported 3 mph) collision in mid-February with a bus, the piranhas have started to swarm, questioning the safety and suitability of the technology. I am concerned about this nitpicking by the public and my question is, if there is no driver, who can I advise to “watch their back” as fair weather fans start to turn against the technology? There remains great promise and tremendous upside to the research, but advocates and adoring observers should stay alert.

Example 2: Electric drivetrains are gaining traction as batteries are becoming more efficient and cheaper, automakers are introducing more versions at competitive prices and consumers are becoming more comfortable with the new technology. At the same time, regulators and advocates are touting the environmental benefits of zero-emissions vehicles. But how quickly can this backfire? Traditional vehicles experience technology challenges every day but we don’t always hear about them. Scrutiny is more intense for an up-and-coming technology, and the media descends on any negative news (such as an electric vehicle catching fire). Such stories are not game changers, but in the hands of sensationalist media outlets, they can be extremely damaging to momentum.

Is the Evolution of Change Accelerating?

We have been witnessing a change in the vehicles market for years. Note the decline in the number of powerful V8 engines and absence of the “vroom” that came when you pressed the gas pedal (a term that could become a historical reference). Furthermore, drivers have been increasingly disconnected from the driving experience as 9-speed automatic and continuously variable transmissions have replaced the clutch and manual gear shift, taking the human element out of performance. The driving experience may never be the same again, but at what rate will it completely transform with these new technologies?

From the noise swirling around my world, and from the perspectives of college students across the nation, it would seem that electric drive and driverless cars are descending on the market faster than grunge music killed 1980s alternative rock. But is it really coming that fast?

For those watching market development with concern about the effect changes might have on their traditional business model, I offer some encouragement. It will take time for these or any new technologies to gain significant market share. Hybrids debuted in the late 1990s and still represent less than 5% of the market. Granted, it seems there is more momentum currently pushing forward with the newest technologies, but the automotive and fuels industries are huge and will not be transformed overnight.

I believe R.E.M. said “and I feel fine” because they knew that the end of anything takes time—and nearly 30 years later, R.E.M. is still selling concert tickets. And I suspect 30 years from now I will still be able to drive an internal combustion engine as I stomp on the “gas pedal” to pass a large number of vehicles whose speed and rate of acceleration are carefully managed by their autonomous drive module, paired with an environmentally responsible electric drive train. And I bet the smile on my face is much bigger than the passengers in those vehicles whose noses are crammed into whatever personal communications device is popular at the time.

Read more from the March Issue of our Fuel for Thought newsletter.