Electric Cars and “Disruptive” Technology

The term “disruptive”, when applied to technology, refers to something which replaces the incumbent technology for a particular application.  Replacing the internal combustion engine in a car with an electric motor will, it is hoped, eventually prove a disruptive technology.  At the moment, however, electric motors are not in any position to disrupt combustion engines in all cars.

In the most influential analysis of technology disruption, Clayton Christenson used many examples to show how difficult it is for a new technology to dislodge the current one. The latter has the benefit of widespead understanding, a support infrastructure, and an ongoing research and development programme that constantly refines it, year on year.  In the car industry, the efficiency of modern car engines compared with those of just a few decades ago shows this effect – despite the fact that there is hardly anything in a modern car that hasn’t been well known and understood for a generation.

Given this very common scenario, it is surprising that any disruptive technology ever makes it to market, unless it has some all encompassing technical and commercial advantage. When we study actual examples we often find, as Christenson did, that early disruptive technologies did not initially have either a technical or a cost advantage in the current dominant application.

A good example for Christenson is hydaulic mechanical digger – which the British call a “JCB” in honour of the first mass market supplier of these machines in the UK.  When these first appeared, the predominant mechanical digger used a crane arm, drag chains and a buckets to excavate prodigious quantities of material at one draw.  And you can still find machines like that at work in open-cast coal mines today, even though they have all but vanished elsewhere.  Early hydraulic diggers didn’t have the capacity to take over the most common application.  Instead, they were used for new, much smaller applications, where their flexibility and their ability to work in confined spaces enabled them to tackle jobs that a crane-type digger couldn’t.

Another more recent example of disruption is the personal computer, which has all but replaced the mainframe to the extent that large central computing facilities are now based on arrays of cut-down personal computers.  But the PC didn’t do mainframe computer work initially.  It performed useful and recreational functions for individuals, then office and clerical functions.  Cut-down lower powered mini-computers were developed to deliver mainframe applications at much lower cost to smaller companies or distributed large ones. The personal computer, now backed by the rapid evolution a huge market and many suppliers provides, was soon able to disrupt the mini-computer and then go on to replace (or perhaps one should say, redefine) the mainframe as well.

So how’s the electric car doing as a disruptive technology for personal transport?  A direct assault on the sub-compact car market – i.e. by trying to do what a car does today – will be difficult for the electric car given the weight of its batteries and how long they take to charge. For as long as batteries are a hundred times heavier than a petrol tank for the same energy storage, electric cars as currently constructed aren’t ever going to completely replace conventional ones.  However, there are some things they can already do better than a car, and if they can establish themselves sufficiently doing those things, history suggests that they will attract investment away from the incumbent technology to the point where they may eventually displace it.  Currently, however, electric cars will struggle if they attempt to persuade the mainstream car market that they represent a superior product.

Consider, therefore, a potential scenario which could explain, after the fact, how and why electric cars eventually displaced internal combustion engined cars for most consumers.

1.  The cost of fuel increases by ten-fold while the cost of electricity doubles.

2.  Electric batteries improve along the current trajectory to the point where, while they may not hold as much energy as a petrol tank in terms of weight, they can do so in terms of cost.

3.  As driving a high speed long range car becomes increasingly more costly in terms of both running cost and insurance, young people are priced out of the car-owning market.  They turn to cheap, lightweight electric cars which can fulfill the transport needs of the urban young.  These cars do not go very far or very fast, but they don’t need to.  Governments encourage them by lowering the driving age for lightweight electric cars to 16 while raising the driving age for conventional cars to 21.

4.  Inductive charging at fuel stations, lay-bys, and car parks becomes widespread to the point where pretty well everywhere is within 10 miles of a charge point.  The electricity is charged to your electricity bill, and a lightweight electric vehicle can be significantly recharged in an hour.

5.  Next generation inductive charging allows lightweight electric cars to pick up their charge from the road whie on the move.  As a result, battery sizes can reduce to cater for the longest “off-grid” trip the buyer expects to make.  These electric cars are not only more energy efficient than petrol cars, they are now significantly faster as well.

6. On the back of the lightweight wired grid infrastructure, larger electric cars and commercial vehicles with more extensive off-grid capacity start to compete with internal combustion engined vehicles in all applications.  They are already much cheaper to run, to build and to service.

6.  Combustion engined vehicles become specialist, and/or confined to off-road application in developed economies.  Their fuel is now bio-fuel derived from sustainable sources without undue impact on food supply in the Third World, because it only needs to provide a fraction of today’s vehicle power.  Developing world economies which do not (yet) have an electricity grid may instead develop a distributed power infrastructure based on renewable energy to take advantage of the cheaper electric vehicles.

This is, of course, a prediction filled with unlikely fancy, and is almost certainly not the way the World will go.  But had you predicted the the personal computer and the Internet in the mid 1960’s, you’d have sounded just as silly as this does!


About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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2 Responses to Electric Cars and “Disruptive” Technology

  1. Zobeid Zuma says:

    I wonder if you have any updated thoughts on this subject, since a few years have passed and we’ve seen some outcomes from the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and the Tesla Model S? (The BMW i3 and Kia Soul EV are proving interesting as well.) For the second year in a row Consumer Reports have named a Tesla the best car — of any kind — that they’ve ever tested. These cars have yet to break into the mainstream, but it could be argued that the groundwork is being laid.

    I think I can already point to a couple of weaknesses in your original analysis. You seemed to imply that batteries need to match the energy density of gasoline. Electric motors, however, make far more efficient use of the energy they are given. The Model S already is going around 250 miles on a charge, and both GM and Tesla (and presumably Nissan) are aiming for more affordable cars with a 200-mile range. That wouldn’t be possible without the much greater efficiency of electric motors.

    Your typical gas car has a range of about 300 miles per tank (although that varies: my diesel Jeep can double that!), and established car makers assume they need to match that number before electric cars can be successful. I think that’s a classic error described in The Innovator’s Dilemma, where new products are only evaluated based on the criteria of the old ones, while the new capabilities they offer are overlooked. In this case, an awful lot of people are overlooking the convenience of charging a car at home overnight, starting every morning with a full charge, and never having to go to the gas station again.

    From where I sit, inductive charging or charging systems built into roadways seem like costly experiments to solve a non-problem. If you can already charge at home, and you can already get a rapid charge from hundreds of Tesla “Supercharger” (or other Level 3) stations, and you can already charge (albeit slowly) from a 50-amp RV hookup in almost every little town in the middle of nowhere, then where’s the problem that inductive charging would solve?

    Gasoline is cheap now. It certainly hasn’t increased tenfold from the time of your original post! However, I don’t think that is going to make a huge difference. The people shelling out big money for a Tesla are, I’m sure, not doing it to save a little money on fuel. They’re buying a car with good looks, superb acceleration, large passenger and cargo space, a radically advanced touchscreen interface, and never having to go to the gas station again. If it’s a better car, cheap gas isn’t going keep people away from it.

    • Alison Kidd says:

      Things have certainly moved on a bit since I first posted, but despite the improvement in energy density of batteries. an EV with comparable range to an internal combustion engine would still be very heavy and very expensive. And the energy cost of accelerating and lifting the battery weight necessary to achieve a range of 600 miles – which is the norm in Europe – would undoubtedly impact efficiency.

      So while it is true that EV’s are more efficient at converting their stored energy into mechanical power the current cost and weight of the batteries is still a limiting factor that starts to erode that advantage at high ranges.

      I very much agree, therefore, that EV’s need to establish themselves along the dimensions where they perform better than existing cars, as Chistensen pointed out. I agree that charging at home overnight, and the kind of mileage that can be achieved with that amount of energy, offers a stronger basis on which to develop the market. Carrying 250 miles worth of battery means that the Model S’s carbon emissions from the UK grid are little better than the most efficient gas-powered cars.

      And while fast en route charging can certainly improve the practical range of an EV, the kind of charge station necessary to support multiple Model S class vehicles simultaneously filling up would demand a grid load similar to an aluminium smelter. Since you would need to run high capacity power lines along the freeways to provide that amount of power, you might as well bury the cables under the road and pick up the power more gently and continuously. 🙂

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