Whither the revolutions? Transportation and portable-power

Many sectors, especially technologically-driven ones, have undergone at least one if not multiple revolutions in the last half century. Much of the technology-driven ones can be laid at the foot of two major technologies, fiber optics (for long-distance high-speed communications) and the integrated circuit, whose children include just about everything on silicon, and, in its microprocessor variant, follows Moore’s Law.

Two areas that have, frustratingly, followed evolutionary, and at times very slow evolutionary, paths are transportation and portable-power.

  • Transportation: Transportation has undergone enormous changes since a hundred years ago. In World War II, barely 70 years ago, a major method of moving materiel and men was still horse-drawn, at least in the early years of the war. The first jet engines were invented in 1910-1930s, essentially immediately prior to World War I through immediately prior to World War II. Nonetheless, since the arrival of the commercial jet aircraft ¬†with the De Havilland Comet immediately after World War II and the popular Boeing 707 in the 1950s, essentially jet travel has remained the same. People gather together at major airfields (now called airports), hand their luggage, check in, sit on a plane that may or may not have the range to make it to their destination without refueling, and fly at somewhat under 600mph. The only real attempts to improve on that model – the Concorde series which could reach speeds 30-50% faster than general commercial jet aircraft – went down in flames after one of its models, unfortunately, went down in flames, and after years of unprofitable services to its operators. Other efforts in recent years have included many predictions about private jet taxis or air taxis, which are really structured around resolving mid-range travel issues. Commercial transportation, on the other hand, still gets on boats that ply the same routes as the British Navy in the 1700s and still goes at less than 30 knots (nautical miles per hour). A person still ships from New York to London in 7 hours, while his large-scale cargo goes in a week or two. While information has democratized, decentralized and diffused, transportation remains as slow as ever. I do not know where the next revolutions will come from in transportation, but it is ripe for a revolution. We might be concerned for all of the poor TSA employees who will no longer have the pleasure of smelling our shoes and seeing us naked through full-body scanners, but it is a price we are willing to pay. On the other hand, the increased (and increasingly inane) so-called security measures foisted on the public will only drive innovation in transportation. In that respect, there may be an upside. It is also worth noting that, in most years, airlines have lost money, and lots of it. The number of airline bankruptcy over the years is quite large. A new model may not only improve everyone’s lives; it would also need to be much more economically viable.
  • Portable-power: Also known as batteries, this is how we carry around power with us for usage in small and large objects, whether electric cars, iPhones, laptops, or everything in between. While power usage has improved over the last several years (and decades), this is largely due to improving efficiency in the devices themselves combined with minor evolutionary improvements in batteries. Batteries are improving on the order of single-digit to, sometimes, double-digit percentage improvements, over one to several years, in their ability to store power, while demand, driven by the systems that use them, are doubling in accordance with Moore’s Law. A number of researchers and firms are struggling with creating revolutionary battery (really portable-power) systems. Some are focused on hydrogen fuel cells, or micro-fuel cells; others are focused on biologic cells, for example, ones that use sugar or other biological fuel sources; an interesting research project is the air force’s work in betavoltaic cells, which use the decay of certain isotopes to generate power.

I believe both of these sectors are far underfunded and overdue for major revolutions that will affect almost every other sector there is.

About Avi Deitcher

Avi Deitcher is a technology business consultant who lives to dramatically improve fast-moving and fast-growing companies. He writes regularly on this blog, and can be reached via Facebook, Twitter and avi@atomicinc.com.
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