What a year it has been. With reference to Shannon (1948), we try to sort out signal from noise.
It seems like only eight months and two weeks since I last took out my typewriter from its leather case to write one of these annual reviews. Last year I ironically titled it A review of the automotive year: VW 1.4 TSi Engine Problems. The airbag problem eventually destroyed Takata. GM is still working with lawyers over faulty ignitions. Like Jarndyce and Jarndyce that case will roll on until lawyers have spent all the money.
This year VW actually did have serious engine problems and that story occupied a lot of news space for the remainder of the autumn months. At the same time two other trends (signal, if you will) kept recurring. One was the steady rise of electric, hybrid and PHEV vehicles. The other involved attempts by the governments of the world to look as if they wanted to try to look as if they were going to do something about climate change. Those two are related to the first. I would argue that VW’s attempts to get better fuel economy out of their diesels related in part to trying to optimise diesel engines beyond what they are theoretically capable of.
Every trend reaches a breaking point when some parameter requires a step-change and not something incremental. EPA fuel efficiency standards and competition in the market pushed that VW into that one, against a background of their wish to get somewhere in the US market. And that in part is driven by the slow, unsteady, uneven but generally forward push to reduce the impact of internal combustion engines because of worries about global warming. Even OPEC’s strategy of ultra-cheap oil is a result of their wish to delay the inevitable by pulling the rug from out under both tar sand oil and renewables.
The steady rise of electric vehicles (Tesla’s Model X turned up this year, and Ford announced a big shift in that direction, for example, and there will be an E-Jaguar coming soon) is another strand in this transformation of our model for personal and general transportation. Finally, in December something like an agreement to wean the industrialised world off of carbon-based fuels was struck in Paris. Some nations are taking this more seriously than others.
The Danish government reduced subsidies to electric vehicles. The Irish government doesn’t even know what an EV is. However, I think apart from the Republican Party in the US, most major parties accept the need for proper steps to reduce carbon dioxide output: more mass transportation and more bans on cars and more bans on ICE vehicles, more investment in renewables.
Those are the signals. The rest of the year was noise. For the next decade or maybe 15 years many firms will carry on with business as usual. The ones that find a way to make a living with alternatives to the ICE will be the ones we will be writing about in 2030.
6 thoughts on “Signal and Noise, Separated”
Entropy, everywhere. Is the electric car the solution? I doubt it.
Kudos for the Shannon reference in a car blog though!
Thanks – we keep quite high standards and have a readership that notices such things!
Regarding Claude Shannon, I simply cannot recommend enough The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. It details the work of Shannon and the other great scientists of Bell Labs, who arguably did more to lay the foundations for our current age than any other single organisation.
I am not so optimistic about the prospects of weaning ourselves off gasoline and the ICE. Sure, there is a lot of verbiage being bandied about concerning an ICE free future, but successive governments have demonstrated their keenness to push the environment under a bus when the economy stalls.
Besides, never overestimate the human capacity to ignore a crisis. Despite successive outbreaks of cholera, Victorian London literally stewed in its own shit for decades, nothing changing until the stench of the Thames grew too bad for a few toffs in the Houses of Parliament.
Perhaps our capacity for self delusion is ingrained. In his book ‘The World Without Us’, Alan Weismann relays a controversial theory of an event in prehistory he calls the ‘Pleistocene mega-massacre’, in which the arrival of early humans coincided with the mass extinction of numerous large species. Regarding the proto-human condition, he contends:
“The matter is more complicated than a killer instinct that never relents until another species is gone. It involves acquisitive instincts that also cannot tell when to stop, until something we never intended to harm is fatally deprived of something it needs.”
Nothing has changed. We have not changed. We simply cannot stop ourselves until we preside over the wholesale collapse of the very systems that support us.
Not the optimistic sort, nevertheless I sense even some of the smarter big brains in business see a way to turn a dollar and not lead us into extinction. That said, the future won’t be Star Trek but a bit more like Blake’s 7, in part.
I’m glad people liked the Shannon reference. Despite its usefulness, the concept doesn’t crop up enough in mainstream media. I stumbled across it in a book about product design.