Winner-takes all effects in autonomous cars
… it seems pretty clear that the hardware and sensors for autonomy will be commodities. There is plenty of science and engineering in these (and a lot more work to do), just as there is in, say, LCD screens, but there is no reason why you have to use one rather than another just because everyone else is. There are strong manufacturing scale effects, but no network effect. So, LIDAR, for example, will go from a ‘spinning KFC bucket’ that costs $50k to a small solid-state widget at a few hundred dollars or less, and there will be winners within that segment, but there’s no network effect, while winning LIDAR doesn’t give leverage at other layers of the stack (unless you get a monopoly), anymore than than making the best image sensors (and selling them to Apple) helps Sony’s smartphone business. In the same way, it’s likely that batteries (and motors and battery/motor control) will be as much of a commodity as RAM is today – again, scale, lots of science and perhaps some winners within each category, but no broader leverage.
Maps have network effects. When any autonomous car drives down a pre-mapped road, it is both comparing the road to the map and updating the map: every AV can also be a survey car. If you have sold 500,000 AVs and someone else has only sold 10,000, your maps will be updated more often and be more accurate, and so your cars will have less chance of encountering something totally new and unexpected and getting confused. The more cars you sell the better all of your cars are – the definition of a network effect.
The more real world driving data that you have, the more accurate you can make your simulation and therefore the better you can make your software. There are also clear scale advantages to simulation, in how much computing resource you can afford to devote to this, how many people you have working on it, and how much institutional expertise you have in large computing projects. Being part of Google clearly gives Waymo an advantage: it reports driving 25,000 ‘real’ autonomous miles each week, but also one billion simulated miles in 2016 (an average of 19 million miles a week).
So, the network effects – the winner-takes-all effects – are in data: in driving data and in maps. This prompts two questions: who gets that data, and how much do you need?
This leads me to the final question: how much data do you really need? Does the system get better more or less indefinitely as you add more data, or is there an S-Curve – is there a point at which adding more data has diminishing returns? That is – how strong is the network effect?
The stereo speaker company giving sight to self-driving cars
Although it will soon face plenty of competition, Velodyne has become the industry’s go-to lidar supplier and is cranking up production to match. Last year, Ford Motor Co. and Chinese Internet giant Baidu pumped $150 million into Velodyne, money the company used to open its “mega-factory” on San Jose’s southern edge.
Lidar works by firing laser beams — thousands per second — at nearby objects and measuring how quickly they bounce back. With the notable exception of Tesla, most companies pursuing autonomous vehicles rely on lidar, along with radar and cameras.
“The prevailing view is that in the near term — at least a decade — you’re not going to be able to execute this safely without lidar,” said Mike Ramsey, research director at Gartner.
“One major automaker told me they had vetted 50 lidar companies,” Ramsey said. “So more than 50 companies exist, but only Velodyne is producing a lidar they can use.”
Now, the race is to cut lidar’s cost. Velodyne’s most popular lidar, about the size of two stacked hockey pucks, sells for $8,000. As it ramps up production, the company hopes to bring prices down to “a few hundred dollars,” Hall said. “We’re in the inventing business, so we’re going to keep working on this thing until we crack that nut.”
The internal combustion engine is not dead yet
Mazda, which now markets no hybrid vehicles, calls the engine Skyactiv-X and says it is scheduled for a 2019 introduction. In simplest terms, the big difference with the new engine is that under certain running conditions, the gasoline is ignited without the use of spark plugs. Instead, combustion is set off by the extreme heat in the cylinder that results from the piston inside the engine traveling upward and compressing air trapped inside, the same method diesel engines use. The efficiency gains come with the ability to operate using a very lean mixture — very little gas for the amount of air — that a typical spark-ignition engine cannot burn cleanly.
…addresses the challenge of gasoline’s future from a somewhat different direction: the practical limitations of battery electric cars. “Holding a gas nozzle, you can transfer 10 megawatts of energy in five minutes,” he said, explaining today’s refueling reality. To recharge a Tesla electric at that rate today, he said, would require “a cable you couldn’t hold.”
By 2050, Dr. Heywood’s studies project, today’s fuel economy could be doubled. “A quarter to a third of that improvement would come from improvements to the vehicle,” he said, in areas like aerodynamics and weight reduction. Other promising areas include variable compression ratios — a technology Nissan plans to introduce next year — and making better use of available fuels.
Wind power is all grown up now
People tend to think of renewable energy companies as the new kids on the block but Vestas Wind Systems A/S, the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, is no pimply teenager. The Danish group entered the turbine business almost 40 years ago and went public in 1998…
The wind industry is consolidating — Siemens merged its wind business with Gamesa in April — and competition is intensifying. This puts pressure on margins and makes it more difficult to lift revenue.
A bigger concern is that more countries are adopting auction-based contract awards. These promote projects that deliver the cheapest electricity as opposed to feed-in tariffs, which guaranteed a fixed electricity price. So life’s getting a little tougher for Vestas.
There are other ways to make money. High-margin maintenance contracts are an increasing share of business. There are opportunities too to upgrade the installed base with those newer, better turbines.
The very symbolic collision of Sotheby’s-Christie’s and Poly-Guardian in China art
If Sotheby’s and Christie’s are purely commercial Giants, then Poly Culture and Guardian are something else. They are certainly Giants, dominating the domestic art auction industry. But Poly in particular is also a direct extensions of the State. Because it turns out, what happens to historic Chinese art is a significant concern to the Chinese government. Part of this sensitivity is about repatriating works that were stolen and misappropriated over the centuries. Many of the works that have been returned can be seen on display at Poly’s headquarters in Beijing.
Poly Auction is now not just one of the top two auction houses in China. It is also the number three art auction house in the world (after Christie’s and Sotheby’s). Their 2013 turnover was over a billion dollars (about one-fourth of Sotheby’s). They sell approximately 10,000 objects each week, with as many as 40 different catalogs per show.
Because at the same time, Poly and Guardian have been expanding internationally. And they are now on Sotheby’s and Christie’s home turf for the first time. Both have moved into Hong Kong. And Poly is now moving aggressively into New York City, where Sotheby’s is headquartered. Thus far, they have focused mostly on finding consignments in the US for sale in China, particularly Chinese collectibles. But Poly’s openly stated ambition is to become the world’s top art auction house. According to CEO Jiang Yingchun, “We are very big in the art auction market in Mainland China but still have a long way to go to become the biggest auction house worldwide”.
It’s hard to keep up with all that lithium demand
Australia is the biggest lithium producer, though Chile and Argentina account for 67 percent of global reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Extracting lithium from the salt flats that dot the arid northern regions of the South American countries is a lot easier and cheaper than digging underground for metals like copper. Producers just pump the brine solution into evaporation ponds, harvesting the mineral once the moisture is gone.
With demand expected to keep rising as electric cars gain a bigger share of the global auto fleet, Argentina and Chile are attracting interest from mining companies because it costs about $2,000 to $3,800 a ton to extract lithium from brine, compared with $4,000 to $6,000 a ton in Australia, where lithium is mined from rock.
Of the 39 lithium ventures tracked by CRU, only four have firm commitments, and all of those are in China, adding about 24,000 tons of annual supply. Another 10 projects representing 400,000 tons are rated “probable” — in Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, Argentina and Australia — but probably only about 30 percent will make it into production, CRU said.
“But we have a window of only 25 years to develop these projects because prices can fall again as soon as a replacement to lithium appears.”
Hunt for next electric-car commodity quickens as prices soar
As one of the key components in the new breed of rechargeable batteries and with supply dominated by the Democratic Republic of Congo, prices have surged at four times the pace of major metals in the past year.
The cobalt market is in a 5,500-ton deficit, according to CRU, with global supply contracting 3.9 percent in 2016.
“The mix of iron and cobalt is tricky. Cobalt is already mined as a byproduct of copper and nickel, but iron has the most negative impact on cobalt, which means processing would be more difficult and more expensive.”