It’s been 10 years since Apple Inc. unleashed a surge of innovation that upended the mobile phone industry. Electric cars, with a little help from ride-hailing and self-driving technology, could be about to pull the same trick on Big Oil.
The rise of Tesla Inc. and its rivals could be turbo charged by complementary services from Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo unit, just as the iPhone rode the app economy and fast mobile internet to decimate mobile phone giants like Nokia Oyj.
The culmination of these technologies—autonomous electric cars available on demand—could transform how people travel and confound predictions that battery-powered vehicles will have a limited impact on oil demand in the coming decades.
“Electric cars on their own may not add up to much,” David Eyton, head of technology at London-based oil giant BP Plc, said. “But when you add in car sharing, ride pooling, the numbers can get significantly greater.”
Most forecasters see the shift away from oil in transport as an incremental process guided by slow improvements in the cost and capacity of batteries and progressive tightening of emissions standards. But big economic shifts are rarely that straightforward, said Tim Harford, the economist behind a book and radio series on historic innovations that disrupted the economy.
“These things are a lot more complicated,” he said. Rather than electric motors gradually replacing internal combustion engines within the existing model, there’s probably going to be “some degree of systemic change.”
That’s what happened 10 years ago. The iPhone didn’t just offer people a new way to make phone calls; it created an entirely new economy for multibillion-dollar companies like Angry Birds maker Rovio Entertainment Oy or WhatsApp Inc. The fundamental nature of the mobile phone business changed and incumbents like Nokia and BlackBerry Ltd. were replaced by Apple and makers of Android handsets like Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.
Today, as Elon Musk’s Tesla and established automakers like General Motors Co. are striving to make their electric cars desirable consumer products, companies like Uber and Lyft Inc. are turning transport into an on-demand service and Waymo is testing fully autonomous vehicles on the streets of California and Arizona.
Combine all three, for example through an Alphabet investment in Lyft, and you have a new model of transport as a service that would be a cheap compelling alternative to traditional car ownership, according to RethinkX, a think tank that analyses technology-driven disruption. One key advantage of electric cars is the lack of mechanical complexity, which makes them more suitable for the heavy use allowed by driverless technology, Francesco Starace, chief executive officer of Enel SpA, Italy’s largest utility, said. “I don’t see driverless being pushed into internal combustion engine” vehicles, he said.
After disassembling General Motors’s Chevrolet Bolt, UBS Group concluded it required almost no maintenance, with the electric motor having just three moving parts compared with 133 in an internal combustion engine.
“Competitiveness very much depends on the utilisation of the car,” Laszlo Varro, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said. The average Uber vehicle covers a third more distance than the typical middle-class family car in Europe, amplifying the benefit of lower running costs to the point that “the oil price at which it makes sense to switch to electric is $30 per barrel lower,” he said.
Uber on Steroids
The total cost of ownership of electric and oil-fuelled vehicles will reach parity in 2020 for shared-mobility fleets, five years earlier than for individually-owned vehicles, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Already in London, Uber plans for its UberX service to be hybrid or fully electric by the end of 2019. Its rival Lyft aims to provide at least 1 billion rides a year in autonomous electric vehicles by 2025, saying they can be used much more efficiently than gasoline-powered cars.
This combination would be “the Uber model on steroids,” Steven Martin, chief digital officer and vice president of General Electric Co.’s Energy Connections unit, said. “Once you have complete autonomous operation of a vehicle, then my desire to own one is going to go down and I’ll be more willing to sign up to a subscription service.”
The transition to fully autonomous fleets may not match the speed of the smartphone revolution because of the many regulatory, legal, ethical and behavioural hurdles. Self-driving technology should become available in the 2020s, but won’t be widely adopted until 2030, BNEF says.
Even so, the shift to electric cars could displace about 8 million barrels a day of oil demand by 2040, more than the 7 million barrels a day Saudi Arabia exports today, the London-based researcher says.
The sheer breadth of the potential disruption makes it hard to predict what will happen. When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, few people anticipated that it meant trouble for makers of everything from cameras to chewing gum.
“The smartphone and its apps made new business models possible,” said Tony Seba, a Stanford University economist. “The mix of sharing, electric and driverless cars could disrupt everything from parking to insurance, oil demand and retail.”
Apple’s web of R&D labs doubles
In recent years, Apple Inc. has quietly put together a global network of small research and development labs, from the French Alps to New Zealand.
Nothing unusual about that for a company that spends $11 billion a year on R&D. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll notice that many of these labs are located near companies with a strong record in mapping, augmented reality and other areas Apple is pushing into. In several cases, these companies lost employees to Apple not long after the iPhone maker came to town. Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined to comment.
BerlinIn early 2016, Apple opened an office in the German capital, located not two miles from HERE, a maps company that Nokia Oyj sold to a consortium of German carmakers in 2015. Today, Apple’s lab is mostly staffed by former HERE software engineers. Apple has since rolled out improvements to its Maps app intended to make in-car navigation easier, exactly the competency that prompted BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler to acquire HERE to begin with.
Just last week, Apple posted a job listing for a software engineer in Denver specialising in mapping. Since the beginning of last year, Apple has quietly hired a handful of engineers from Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, the visual effects house behind The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and The Planet of the Apes. The team is part of the augmented reality division Apple created in 2016 to develop smart glasses that may ultimately supplant the iPhone.
With Apple, 50-yr-old facial recognition goes mainstream
Thanks to Apple Inc.’s new iPhone X, facial recognition may finally be on the verge of breaking out with consumers.
The technology first developed in the 1960s has since been mostly relegated to the realm of government agencies and high-security firms. But if it follows the same path as Apple’s previous rollouts, like fingerprint sensors, it’s just a matter of time before the technology starts popping up in homes, stores and on other phones, too.
While not everyone will buy the $999 high-end iPhone, rival electronics makers are already trying to figure out how they can incorporate the technology in their offerings. Startups selling their own versions of facial recognition say they’ve already seen a pickup in demand since Apple announced the iPhone X, aka 10 this month.
“We now have a leader like Apple acknowledging that this makes sense,” said George Brostoff, chief executive officer of SensibleVision Inc., a Cape Coral, Florida-based startup that makes software for tablets and smartphones. “This makes companies like Motorola, like LG come knocking on the doors of companies like ours.”
As is often the case, Apple isn’t the pioneer of the latest tech it’s now hyping. Amazon.com Inc. has filed for a patent to allow payments by taking a selfie, similar to a service Mastercard Inc.
Apple has a history of taking already in-use technologies and perfecting them.