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Interview with Stephen Baker, co-author of Hop Skip Go: How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming our Lives (Harper Collins, 2019)

image credit: Harper Collins

Here on Energy Central, there's a lot of talk about the coming electric vehicle revolution. Specifically, when will it happen and how will utilities deal with the increased demand? To gain some more insights on the topic, I reached out to Stephen Baker, co-author of the recent book Hop Skip Go: How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming our Lives (Harper Collins, 2019). One point that Baker made stood out to me as particularly important to the utility industry: New technologies often don't follow the same patterns of the technologies the replace. So with regards to EVs, it would be naif to assume we will use them the same way we do traditional cars, just fueling them off the grid instead of the pump. The new networked vehicles, especially once autonomous, will invite efficiency. Smarter routes, less jams, more sharing could mean much lower energy consumption. 

Q: In the new book you co-wrote, Hop Skip Go: How the Mobility Revolution is Transforming our Lives, you make the case that we’re entering a mobility revolution, one powered largely by networked machines, most of them running on electricity. What impact will this have on energy markets?

A: A move away from internal combustion engines should have a major impact on global oil markets. At this early stage, it’s barely a blip. According to a Bloomberg report, electricity replaced only 352,000 barrels per day between 2011 and 2019. That’s a rounding error in global production, which is about 80 million barrels per day. But if you look at a couple of markets that are aggressively pushing electric cars, California and, more importantly, China, we could be facing much larger disruption.

Q: When will we see it?

A: That’s the tricky part. Technology revolutions are hard to predict. The rule of thumb, though, is that they tend to arrive later than expected, and then deliver greater change than predicted. Twenty years ago, I was covering mobile technology in Europe for BusinessWeek. In my articles, I predicted that smartphones were going to transform human communication and create lots of new businesses based on geography and movement. But I had the timing wrong, and said it would happen in 2003/4. It didn’t happen until Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007.

Q: You learned your lesson?

A: Yeah. In this new book, we make the case that new mobility will bring dramatic change to cities, the energy industries, you name it. But we don’t predict the timing.

Q: Leaving the timing out of it, do you foresee dramatic shifts in energy markets? Or are you expecting the growth of electricity and the easing away from oil to be more gradual?

A: If you look at the production numbers, it might look gradual. But one interesting thing about energy markets is that seemingly small shifts in supply and demand can cause enormous market movements. So I expect the coming decade to be turbulent for energy.

Q: What’s a common misunderstanding you come across regarding these energy markets?

A: The biggest one, I’d say, is that people tend to assume that new technologies will simply follow the patterns of the old. For example, today you drive around in a gasoline-powered machine, tomorrow it will be electric, and a decade from now autonomous. But you’ll keep following the same itineraries.

This isn’t this case. In the next stage of networked mobility, transportation should be far more efficient. Most of us have cars that are only in service 5% of the time. The rest of the time they’re parked. The idea for networked (and eventually autonomous) cars is to squeeze much more production out of them, most likely as a shared resource. This could dramatically reduce our consumption of energy. Then again, if transportation is cheap and efficient, we might use it much more capriciously, perhaps sending an autonomous car across town for tacos or croissants.

Q: But I imagine this will vary from one geography to another….

A: Right. That’s why we looked at different cities, and how they’re planning for these changes. We went to Los Angeles, Shanghai, Dubai, Helsinki and Detroit.

Q: Where are we most likely to see the changes first?

A: In authoritarian places. That’s one reason we went to Dubai. The ruler there can snap his fingers and order an expansion of the metro system, block off highways for new bike lanes, invite flying drones to offer air taxi services. He doesn’t have to worry about elections or petition drives. And his government can monitor everyone’s movements, from a control center, and start to optimize them. City governments in China have similar latitude. The mobility revolution, which is the next stage of the Internet, is going to raise all kinds of issues around freedom and privacy.

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