One of the themes I touch upon often in the blog is the contrast between apocalyptic environmental trends/predictions and the promise of technological progress/prosperity (check out “Information as Cheap Commodity” and “The Promise and Peril” for some good past content).
As people in the manufacturing industry know all to well, automation produces a cornucopia of products we need and want, all the while requiring less labor and less energy. The “green energy sector” is also feeling the encroachment of automation. When several governments across the globe promised thousands (maybe even millions in aggregate) of new jobs through green energy investment. Spain was the first country to find out that government investment in green energy didn’t produce net jobs. The U.S. made the same promises and got about the same result (detailed in the second half of this blog post). The trend is especially acute in the solar industry. The process of making the panels is highly automated and once the panels are installed, there isn’t a whole lot of labor required to keep a large solar array running. The price of installing the panels could come down even more by eliminating more labor through the use of robots. Check out this story about a German designed robot that installs large panels. What used to take 35 people now only takes 3 with the help of the robot. Even more spectacular is that the robot can install a large field of ground-mounted solar panels in one-eighth the time. To some, this might seem like bad news, because less people will have jobs installing solar panels, but if the ultimate goal is to switch the economies of the world over to cleaner energy sources, then it should not matter. Installation is now the biggest cost associated with solar. The cheaper and more efficiently we can install more solar capacity the better.
Another automation trend I have been following lately is the self-driving car. The latest achievement was a convoy of autonomous cars rolling down a freeway in Spain. I know some people might scoff at the idea of computers driving cars, but computers already fly commercial jet airplanes and drive most of the passenger trains in the world (human “pilots” are mainly there for emergency situations). These forms of travel are extremely safe as compared to driving a car. I have no doubt computers (self-driving cars) will make our highways much less of a human slaughterhouse (35,000 to 40,000 dead per year in the U.S. alone!) in the near future. This of course means that professional drivers will probably suffer some degree of unemployment.
Another thought dawned on me the other day in regards to development of self-driving cars. It could spell the end of traditional radio. Think about it. I mainly listen to the radio in my car as do millions of other people who commute and/or get stuck in traffic on a daily basis. Most other things you could do in a car are officially illegal. So we are a captive audience. It is one of the last profitable captive audiences left for radio stations. Once we have self-driving cars, then you will be able to do pretty much whatever you want while riding around. Sure, you could just sit there and listen to the radio for entertainment, but I think most people would rather watch TV, surf the Internet, eat, play games with friends, what-not. If I had a self-driving car I would certainly take longer trips by car instead of flying. A 20 hours trip would not be so bad if you could sleep, play, and work while the car drove. It sure beats standing around in security lines at the airport, getting held-up by the TSA, and paying ever more expensive and numerous fees to get on a plane with luggage.
Have a good Friday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.