Oil Ain’t What it Used To Be

So there I was, being bemused about why BBC radio has a programme called Archive on 4 and another called the Archive Hour, when I caught an episode called Driven on Archive on 4.

Whichever series it was, wasn’t, isn’t or might be, the episode was about driverless cars. Mainly the sociological aspect of driverless cars. Will we take to them? Will they change us? Can we cope with the idea of not being in control?

Not, you’ll notice, are driverless cars economically feasible? As in, how likely is it that a society that today can barely afford to fill potholes will tomorrow be able to maintain the level of complexity-investment needed to build and operate fleets of autonomous vehicles?

During the programme, a voice from archive-land intoned that there are (or were – it could have been an old voice) 5.5 trillion barrels of oil still out there. One assumes they brought this up to head off any carping from dreary sceptics wishing to know whether the BBC had thought about the laws of thermodynamics before editing-together 58 minutes of speculation about our glorious autonomous future.

Anyway. Oil. Not a problem. Billions of BTUs at our service.

Or not. There’s a school of thought that says that oil ain’t what it used to be. Yes, it’s basically the self-same stuff that comes in styles ranging from too-light-for-vehicles to too-heavy-for-anything. But what today’s oil will do for you just isn’t as good as what yesterday’s did.

Yesterday’s oil – think fields in pre-WWII Texas or the 1950s Middle East – virtually jumped into your lap and rubbed its head under your chin. It was wonderfully eager and absolutely able to turn itself into interstate highways, space programmes, suburbs, the Internet and everything else we’ve come to think of as the foundations of a dazzlingly bright future full of .… oh, I don’t know .… full of self-driving cars.

But today’s oil. Oh dear. Today’s oil is a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-sand. You have to pour so much money into getting it to come out to play that there’s barely enough money/energy left over to keep patching up the systems we’ve got, let alone put a Tesla in everyone’s cooking pot (or was that a chicken?).

The ‘fracking miracle’, for example, is all about it being a fracking miracle that outlets like the BBC never mention how the only folk making money out of tight oil are Wall Street bankers whose loans keep drillers afloat so they in turn can pan-handle for investors’ cash to spend on extracting for $55 dollars a barrel what they can sell for only $50.

Today’s oil is also a bit pants as a transport fuel. Fracked oil is too light. So, to ‘Goldilocks’ it, you have to mix it with stuff from elsewhere. More expense. Still-fewer net BTUs left over to keep the economy from resetting to a lower level of complexity. ‘Lower level of complexity’ being shorthand for most people being unable to afford a lifestyle where self-driving cars had either purpose or meaning.

There’s still a reasonable supply of conventional, Mark 1 civilisation-building goop left but that’s been getting less and less every year since 2005. Also, more and more of it stays in its country of origin. That means less energy for UK PLC and its autonomous dreams. And less income for the producing countries to spend on importing our war machinery – sorry, defence equipment.

What was that, Sooty? We could make the autonomous cars electric? Well we could, Sooty. But do you think the people promoting self-driving cars do much systems thinking?

What do they think about the likelihood that running Bitcoin, for example – an entirely digital phenomenon – already uses as much electricity as the whole of Ecuador?

If simply mining imaginary coins takes the same amount of juice as running the world’s 64th largest economy, how much will it take to run the control systems for tens of thousands of autonomous cars? And that’s merely powering the central software: you’ll still need to power all the roadside hardware, the plethora of cameras, sensors and processors in the cars, and all the rest of it. And we haven’t included building and running the cars yet.

No-one’s asking what the point is of doing all driving this. The best the BBC archive could manage was a bit of wishy washy guff about freedom to travel. The main point of mass motoring was to turn oil – basically a smelly, flammable substance with useful chemical applications – into food, housing, supermarkets, hospitals, universities, containerloads of plastic dreck from China and so on .… aka civilisation …. on a scale never before conceived let alone achieved.

Take away oil and you take away most of the point of having cars. I’ll bet that there are a thousand more-efficient ways of turning sunlight into civilisation than perpetuating the massively energy-hungry automobile system.

Tell you what, Sooty, maybe you could sprinkle some oofle dust on our policymakers to help them think more imaginatively. What’s that? You haven’t got any left because Elon Musk already took it all for his Mars programme?

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EVs and the renewable delusion

I wait for ages to read an article on my pet bugbears and then two come along at once.

Bugbear #1 is governments’ fond belief that the global auto fleet can somehow be entirely replaced with electric vehicles in the next 20 years.

Bugbear #2 is the Magical Thinking / Techno Green delusion that these billions of EVs, along with the rest of civilisation, can be sustained completely with renewable energy.

Kris de Decker dismantles the latter argument in How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone at Low Tech Magazine. Whatever way you look at it, trying to replicate the round-the-clock energy flows available from stored (fossil) sunlight using energy from current account sunlight (solar and wind) is beyond any conceivable future flow of capital.

And a pointed, if uneven, (raison d’etre does not mean ‘article of faith’) post on OilPrice.comElectric Vehicles: The High Cost Of Going Green – looks at the issue of job elimination in motor manufacturing as well as the challenges of upgrading infrastructure.

”two additional natural gas plants near Manchester have stalled because the developer has been unable to raise the dual project’s 800 million pounds required for them to be built.”

Indeed. If firms cannot raise relatively modest amounts of capital to install essential capacity running proven hardware, where will the thousands of billions come from to build EVs and fleets of wind and solar farms?

Both articles veer towards a point I keep making. Liquid fossil-fuelled Happy Motoring was a one-off. High energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROEI) fossil fuels are starting to diminish in the rear view mirror. What’s left is insufficient to maintain the global autos and transport infrastructure we built over the last century, let alone fund a multi-trillion dollar transition to renewable-powered EVs for everyone in a 30-year timeframe.

Put simply, shrinking the liquid-fossil-fuelled car fleet will shrink people’s ability to afford to make the switch to electric cars. My guess is that after a few more years of accelerating replacement of ICEs by Evs, there will be a Seneca cliff moment when sales of all types of private auto go into a steep decline.

When that happens, trucks, tractors, trains buses and ships will be where the action is. Very Victorian. But it will be a sweet thing – for a while at least – to own an electric bike shop.

Dominoes Fall for Self-Driving Cars

Latest hilarious development in the autonomous car saga is Ford’s breathless announcement that it’ll be providing self-driving cars for pizza deliveries in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Only, as with all autonomous vehicle stories, the whole will be considerably less than the sum of its parts. When tech-savvy Ann Arborians call up a 25-inch Quattro Staglione with extra everything and buckets of soda, it’ll traverse the city to their door in a vehicle laden down with a human driver (yes, really) plus a few Ford technicians, not to mention all the auntonomising gubbins on the car’s roof, sides and ends.

The hungry customers must then liberate their pizza from a ‘hot box’ squeezed into the trunk alongside more car-tech. Obviously, they’ll need to avoid eye contact with the car’s occupants since any acknowledgement of a human presence will ruin the self-driving vibe.

Domino’s Pizzas openly state that they’re only actually interested in the final 50 feet of the pizza’s journey, since the big worry is that customers will prove too lazy to walk out to the road to collect their meal – and let’s be honest, the customer is really only thinking about their pizza’s final five inches.

Mr Pizza must be hugely grateful to Mr Ford for creating a carbon footprint the size of the Tour de France merely to deliver smallish slabs of dough, cheese and toppings around a small city.

I think we can safely bet that Mr Pizza’s ultimate vision is not so much Ford/Tesla as small, self-piloting, heated mobile sideboards handling 25 deliveries at a time. The only catch being that the ruinous societal cost of all the thermodynamic dead-ends represented by autonomous cars will so impoverish Domino’s customer base that the only folk who can afford their product will be the very rich, who’d never dream of subjecting their bodies to the wellbeing downsides of a take-away pizza.

Whatever happened to the driverless car?

 

Is that a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a flying car.

Doubtless egged-on by the hype lavished on driverless cars, wild promises of levitating family autos are all the rage again.

Yup, the prospect of flying to meetings in your own car instead of a helicopter is right back on the agenda.

Terrafugia Flying Car Prototype on Road

See – here is the TF-X, Terrafugia’s bid for aero-motoring immortality. A deeply unsexy prototype that could become a sleek, er, road-legal helicopter-cum-plane.

fly-car-rendering

Call me a bit skeptical but to my untrained eye the TF-X visualised in the pics displays all the aerodynamic qualities of a Corgi toy attached to a lolly stick. Those skinny wings might lift a super-flyweight body – but not something that would conceivably get an NCAP collision rating for a family vehicle.

Since the first object you encounter on the project’s web page is a button labelled “$ Invest”, it’s a safe bet that there’s a long way to go and a lot of cash to burn before ‘une brique volante’ lands in a back garden near you. Ad astra per pecunia you could say.

(And by the way, what’s with the utterly crapola and mega-depressing, round-the-back-of-in-industrial-unit-next-to-the-dumpsters destination of the TF-X in the promo? Failure of imagination or a teeny hint that flying cars won’t fit in normal workplace parking bays?)

But each to his own, I say. It’s your money. If you’re excited enough to invest, be my guest. Really, if you think that road-legal helicopters have a future, I think someone might have a Moller M400 Skycar to sell you.

With driverless cars, at least there are a few potential benefits – like having multi-user vehicles that deliver themselves to drivers. The reason flying cars have remained a pipe dream since the 1950s is they’re basically a solution looking for a problem.

On wait! Silly me. Of course, we’ll soon have self-driving flying cars. Where else could today’s utterly fabulous technology lead us?

The title of this article? Oh, that’s just irony.

Car-boom!

Yesterday’s Guardian G2 section led with the somewhat self-consciously juvenile word, ‘Vroom!’.

Subtitled ‘Why Britain can’t stop buying new cars‘, the cover story tried to answer why car sales are rising in the UK while stagnating everywhere else in Europe.

It provided a handy platform for assorted industry mouthpieces to congratulate Britons on being clever little consumers. Apparently we are becoming adept at signing personal leases and/or rushing into car dealerships to blow PPI payouts on deposits on car loans.

And to be fair, £69 a month for a brand new Skoda Citigo runaround isn’t a lot more than a his’n’hers iPhone/iPad contract. Assuming of course that you can chop your old car in for the £2,500 deposit.

And to be fairer than fair, the writer did ask some awkward questions. Why are fewer and fewer young people bothering to learn to drive? Why are annual mileages dropping?

Naturally, the industry came back with ready-prepared answers. Young people just need the right kind of ‘marketing’ to turn them back on to car ownership: cue ‘cool’ car ads that are so painful you want to stick needles in your eyes. Mileages are really falling only in London and the south east, because public transport is quite good there and executive-level company car users all use Skype or the phone these days.

To be honest, it all sounded rather defensive. The overall picture painted by the article was that of an industry whose existing customers are happy to use alternatives when they become available while potential new customers are increasingly disinclined, not to mention financially unable, to contemplate buying its products.

Cheap credit and the fact that Britain is not in the euro are behind this mini boom in UK car sales. The article pointed out that carmakers are assiduously pumping production into the UK to try to keep their factories humming as demand in the eurozone collapses.

The big risk to the UK car business is that it is storing up big problems further down the road. Sales are being bought expensively through wafer thin margins, heightened credit risks and discounts that end up depressing second values and thus hurting the all important fleet sector, which makes up half the market.

So the answer to the Guardian’s question appears to be: ‘Because British car buyers are easily-influenced novelty-seekers with an underdeveloped sense of consequences. Rather like four-year-olds.

A much more interesting question, which hopefully the Guardian will get round to investigating, is why so many Europeans have apparently broken themselves of the new car habit?

What do they see that we don’t?

The retailers’ tale

Well I went to the mall on Sunday and bought a disposable fountain pen for £3.20. Big deal. Getting to the mall and back by car cost used £5-worth of petrol* . Then there was the £6.50 two coffees and a slice of shortbread, plus about £40 on a tin of paint, a light fitting, some sandpaper, and a notepad and birthday card for a friend’s daughter.

So a bit under sixty quid in a three-hour sojourn at the coalface of consumerism. Not a great economic return on the £20 million-worth of cars gathered around it, plus whatever it costs to keep the place running seven days a week. Although by recent standards, the mall was decently decked-out with people, you couldn’t always call them ‘shoppers’ since there seemed to be many more of them in the thoroughfares and coffee bars than in the shops.

At least a dozen units, including some anchor locations, were closed. My wife said she’d only counted six shuttered units a couple of weeks ago. The mall operators had got round to boarding-up about half the closed units. Printed across the hoardings were slightly larger-than-life images of artfully minimalist shop window displays. They showed frocks, shoes and handbags in oddly muted colours – as if apologising for drawing attention to the two-dimensionality of retail gratification.

Several of the stores had closed in the past few days. Monsoon and East had evidently decided they had too many outlets for today’s demand for massively marked-up garments imported from the low-wage countries, as somewhat cynically evoked by their brand names. Stripped of stock, fittings and twinkly display lighting, the vacated units looked cramped and ugly. But the gods of retailing abhor dark spaces far more than ugliness so each empty space was bathed in a wan glow seeping from a few basic light fittings.

Notices taped to windows still streaked with dust left by the removal men varied from brashly informative, poster-sized placards – “You can still visit us at Canary Wharf!” (just 120 miles away) – to shamefaced bits of A4, apparently knocked out on the stockroom inkjet moments before it was hauled off to head office. Few people looked at the notices, let alone past them to the stripped-out interiors. Who wants to see the dreary concrete and steel carapaces encasing the brightly lit fantasy of each carefully-differentiated fashion brand? Who wants to see the cheap sameness of production, margins, distribution, positioning, promotion and ‘loyalty-building’ laid bare by the pitiless emptiness behind dirty plate glass?

In any case, what good are repeat customers if they’re too broke to take advantage of the volume-related discounts that masquerade as loyalty? We are in a deflationary depression. Hardly any of the expanding supply of funny money from central banks is finding its way into people’s pockets. With every passing year, more people are corralled into shopping for necessities alone. Fewer and fewer have spare cash to shop at Karen Millen and Cecil Gee, even though they still have the inclination to do so.

Ironically, the primary reason for the death of the retailers in the mall on the hill was scattered thickly across its windswept car parks. Without cars, the out-of-town retail park wouldn’t exist. But with cars, the customers can’t afford to buy the goods. Cars are a commitment to waste. Day in and day out they cost the average owner £14 in fuel, bills and depreciation. Cars spend 95% of their time doing precisely nothing. That’s 13.30 a day, £93 per week, £4,840 a year to do nothing apart from suck up money.

But unless people maintain their financial commitment to personal mobility, going to the mall would be half the fun for twice the price. Going there by train and bus instead of by car would have taken us twice as long and cost about twice as much as the roughly 45p per mile it costs to run the car. The bottom line is the mall’s future is tightly tied to the future of cars-first transportation. In a future where cars-first transportation probably won’t exist, there will be no rationale for places like the mall.

Significantly, several of the outlets that have recently abandoned the out-of-town mall have moved to units at its new town-centre rival. That place doesn’t have ‘easy surface parking’ or a major motorway running right past it but it’s slap bang in the heart of the city, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who could … at a pinch … put a couple of thousand quid of shopping money in their pockets each year by chucking-in car ownership.

That’s a calculation more people are starting to make. And of course, if fewer people drive in cities, the cities become more liveable. Then moving retail … or what’s left of it …to the centre makes more sense. Unfortunately, the economy is so utterly geared to driving that moving away from a cars-first lifestyle will cause a long period of stagnation punctuated by brief upticks and occasional crashes. But the end of affordable oil has baked that scenario into the cake anyway.

The spiral is self-reinforcing. Less driving = less money. Less money = less retailing. Less retailing = less money (in a so-called ‘consumer’ economy). Less money = less retailing. Rinse and repeat. Until or unless energy starts getting cheaper again (and there is no reason why the fossil energy that powers 90% of global industrial civilisation will get any cheaper), that process will inexorably accelerate.

For a while to come, places like the mall will be able to mask the decline with dressy pictures of dressed-up windows that disguise the gaps in their pearly smiles. But eventually the point will come when someone has to weigh up the costs of constructing a really good public transport link out to the fringe mall (say a tramway) against the obvious and far cheaper expedient of moving the flagship retailers back to where the people already are – which of course would be the end of the out-of-town retail park.

Me? Well apart from a bottle of perfume my wife chose as a present to herself from her mother there was nothing we couldn’t have bought online, or in our nearest town. We went because we still have a modest amount of time, money and fuel to waste. When we don’t we won’t. And that will be another tick on the countdown to the end of car-dependent retailing.

* £5 is what it cost to buy it. Arguably such a fantastic store of lightweight, transportable energy is worth much more than a fiver

No friends for electric cars

That fizzling noise in the marketing-o-sphere is the sound of something terminal happening to Electric Cars 1.0.

By now, the UK’s roads were supposed to be filling rapidly with the silent swooshing of a juiced EV market. Instead, the EV scene is flatter than an iPhone 4 battery at 2.30 in the afternoon.

Leasing companies are lining up to tell their customers not to waste any more time on mains powered motors.

“Slow burning” is how the kindest commentators in the fleet car sector are describing battery-powered cars’ potential. After all, what is the commercial point of acquiring them for fleet use?

On a coalface-to-wheel basis, EVs emit more CO2 than dozens of more-capable combustion models. Functionally, they’re pants. In return for costing a small fortune to buy, their pathetic range is designed to keep a driver on tenterhooks most of the way from London to (nearly) Swindon – or Newbury if it’s cold, dark and raining.

Cargo cult

QuadRanting has always averred that current EVs are simply a cargo cult response to the withdrawal of the cheap liquid fossil fuel that enabled the Age of Happy Motoring; facsimiles of real cars.

Driving an EV is not a happy thing to do. The EV-makers’ latest throw of the dice – the Tesla S – is said to be good for 300 miles on a charge. But so what? Buying the additional 140 miles-worth of batteries adds £15,000 to the price of the 160-mile base model, which already costs thirty grand.

You could buy an equally roomy, year-old, ex-demo Passat or A4 with 12,000 miles on the clock for that £15k and then, if you wished, spend the £30k you’d saved by avoiding the Tesla on approximately 230,000 miles worth of diesel.

OK, so the Tesla’s a luxury car but, again, so what? If the answer to EVs’ shortcomings is to make toys for rich boys at the meagre rate of 12,000 units a year, that’s the biggest ‘sod off’ to the herd since Marie Antoinette urged starving commoners to switch to cake.

Trick question

So, if EVs are neither cheap nor cheerful nor plentiful nor environmentally sound, what are they for? It turns out that the answer to that question is the same as the response the trick question on QI: nobody knows.

The makers, who are being sucked into a monster whirlpool of overcapacity and disappearing demand for combustion cars in Europe, can barely give their pricey, heavy, range-crippled EVs away.

Nissan has sold 12,000 Leafs so far instead of the 44,000 p.a. it was counting on. It is planning to sell a ‘budget’ version of the car next year at a £4k discount to the current tag of £30,000 after we taxpayers chip in for the £5k Government subsidy per car.

Look dearie, if I wanted a budget Nissan that’d only do 70 miles before needing a good rest, I’d buy a knackered £950 Micra with two gallons of petrol in its tank.

Plain stupid

That’s the circle that EVs in their current form cannot square. If the proles are being priced out of conventional cars by the global debt implosion and peak oil, it’s plain stupid to try offering them super-pricey, barely functional EVs instead.

The future of mass vehicle ownership is in 2-wheelers and microlight cars – a shift the manufacturers are resisting as furiously as you’d expect of corporations with billions tied up in the wrong products.

Even so, I reckon we’ll see the first Ford scooters and GM microlight prototypes before 2020. Of course, this will require a complete rethink of road rules and infrastructure design to accommodate millions of lightweights among the legacy of conventional cars.

Ironically, by then Europe will have shovelled trillions of euros into perpetuating the current, doomed automotive infrastructure as it tries to stimulate its way out of GD2. It’s going to be interesting.