Sep 27, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: The next billion cars

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

When the world's automakers are scrambling to retool into electric and driverless mobility companies, they are thinking about this number: 1 billion.

That's how many cars it is estimated will be added to the global fleet as early as 2030, igniting a frenzy over who will capture the sale of these probably much cleaner, higher-tech vehicles.

Why it matters: 1 billion is a large number. It is double the current number of cars on the road. And, at a rate of 80 million cars sold annually around the world, it is sufficient to build and sustain numerous trillion-dollar companies, a geopolitically defining scale of wealth.

  • What very few analysts are considering: The actual prize may be much higher — at least some of the existing global fleet may be up for grabs, too, in a gigantic future, one-time-only bout of automobile obsolescence.

What's going on: By the second half of the next decade, the cost of electric and combustion drive trains will converge, and then cross over, according to Bloomberg NEF, which studies renewable energy tech. Electric cars will become cheaper than conventional combustion systems, BNEF says.

  • At that point, electric car sales will boom, BNEF and other analysts forecast.
  • BNEF estimates that there will be 30 million electrics on the road around the world in 2030, up from 4 million today, and 560 million, a third of the global fleet, in 2040.
  • The International Energy Agency forecasts 125 million electrics by 2030.

There is no estimate for sales of self-driving cars, as commercial models do not exist yet. But almost every major automaker on the planet is pouring billions of dollars into creating electrics, driverless cars or both, often combined.

  • Daimler explicitly targeted this future yesterday by setting in motion a succession in which it will elevate Dieter Zetsche, director of its electric and driverless car efforts, to CEO, reports the WSJ's William Boston.

Driving the news: The developing world, chiefly China and India, will account for about 85% of the 1 billion cars to be added to the global fleet, analysts say.

  • Given government policy, at least in China — which is promoting electric vehicles — many of those cars may be electric.
  • If sales so far are any indicator, a lot of them won't be the type currently made or planned by BMW, Tesla or GM. Instead, they are likelier to be dominated by "micro-EVs," tiny electrics costing as little as $1,000, which accounted for two-thirds of the 2.5 million EVs sold in China last year.
  • At least at this stage, Chinese and not Western companies seem likeliest to dominate those 1 billion vehicle sales.

Sound smart: The surer market for the planned high-tech vehicles is advanced countries — those with the least growth. But if they are to sell in the expected volumes, the market needs to start retiring cars a lot faster than the current dozen or so years they currently stay on the road.

And there is reason to believe they will.

The argument: At some stage, AI-infused sensors and other self-driving features will make such cars much safer than conventional, human-driven vehicles, analysts say. When that happens, they could trigger a change in social perception in which, for instance, a critical mass of parents are no longer willing to allow their children to drive in less-safe conventional cars.

  • At this point, a large number of the conventional car fleet could become obsolete.

Reality check: Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transport at BNEF, cautions that while fleet obsolescence could happen, it does not mean conventional vehicles vanish. Instead, they may be sold to drivers in other countries.

2. Rapes are up, but other violent crimes are down
Expand chart
Data: FBI Crime Data Explorer; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios. Note: Data used for crime rate of rape only includes cases encompassed in the FBI's legacy definition: "The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will."

Reported rapes in the U.S. reached the highest point in a decade last year under both the FBI's old description of rape, which includes only women victims, and the newer definition, which includes all genders. Other violent crimes, including homicide, assault and robbery, are sharply down, reports Axios' Stef Kight.

More than two-thirds of rapes still go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

3. An age of resurrected disease

Photo: D.Jiang/Getty

Amid a years-long outbreak of measles and other childhood diseases across Europe and the U.S., anti-establishment politics continues to put increasing numbers of children at risk, experts say.

What's going on: Last week, Italy extended the period before parents must certify that their kids have been inoculated against measles, highlighting the public's growing distrust of experts, including their doctors.

As we reported earlier this month, more than 41,000 people in Europe were infected by measles just in the first half of the year, according to the World Health Organization.

  • Paul Offit, head of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Axios that there is no danger of a pandemic of the type that killed some 40 million people in 1918–19. He said vaccines and intensive care are much better than a decade ago.
  • But he said vaccines have helped to create the conditions for the new outbreak. "People are not scared of the diseases anymore," he said.
  • The anti-establishment wave exacerbates the situation. "We live in dangerous times because people do declare their own truths," he said.

Go deeper:

  • The world is unready for a pandemic (Knoema)
  • The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready? (The Atlantic)
4. Worthy of your time

Super Typhoon Trami as seen from the International Space Station on Sept. 25, 2018. Photo: Alexander Gerst/ESA

China's system for taking other people's tech (Lingling Wei, Bob Davis — WSJ)

Super Typhoon Trami, from the ISS (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

Russia's fancy new cyber weapon (Kevin Poulsen — WSJ)

Food, not people, delivery is the new new thing (John Gapper — FT)

The hay in a haystack conundrum (Kevin Hartnett -— Quanta)

5. 1 crunchy thing: Robots peeling lettuce

Image: Geography Photos/UIG via Getty Images

A robot developed in a Cambridge University lab can remove unwanted outer layers from freshly picked heads of lettuce, a task farm workers generally do by hand.

Why it matters: Robots will need to take over many manual farming tasks to keep up with a growing global demand for food. Tasks that require human dexterity — like peeling lettuce — are the hardest for machines to do, reports Axios' Kaveh Waddell.

The big picture: Robots excel in factories, where they perform the same task over and over in exactly the same way. But a gentler, more adaptable robot hand would be able to take on all sorts of physical tasks currently out of the reach of machines.

Like many actions humans take without even thinking about them, peeling lettuce presents all sorts of challenges for a robot.

  • Unlike precisely machined parts coming down a conveyor belt, every head of lettuce is slightly different.
  • They're also soft and need to be handled with care if they're going to make it to the supermarket shelf in one piece.

It's still a tough task for a robot. In a statement, the researchers said their machine successfully pulled off the outer layer half the time, and it took nearly 30 seconds every time. Humans can do this in just a few seconds.

  • Their robot uses an algorithm to process images from a camera, detecting the lettuce stem and orienting the head correctly.
  • Then with one arm holding down the lettuce head, another applies suction to a leaf and tears it off.

Go deeper:

  • The Cambridge lab's lettuce peeler in action (video)
  • A robot hand is a breakthrough for more capable AI (Axios)
  • The AI farm experiment (Axios)
Bryan Walsh