Friday, March 29, 2019

Place Your Bets: Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success

So far, autonomous vehicles look like a sinkhole for an estimated $80 billion in investment, more on that next week.
From IEEE Spectrum, October  2018:

The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success
A few key questions will help you distinguish winners from losers
Rodney Brooks was the chairman and chief technology officer of Rethink Robotics, which closed in October 2018. He’s also cofounder of iRobot.
Building electric cars and reusable rockets is fairly easy. Building a nuclear fusion reactor, flying cars, self-driving cars, or a Hyperloop system is very hard. What makes the difference?
The answer, in a word, is experience. The difference between the possible and the practical can only be discovered by trying things out. Therefore, even though the physics suggests that a thing will work, if it has not even been demonstrated in the lab you can consider that thing to be a long way off. If it has been demonstrated in prototypes only, then it is still distant. If versions have been deployed at scale, and most of the necessary refinements are of an evolutionary character, then perhaps it may become available fairly soon. Even then, if no one wants to use the thing, it will languish in the warehouse, no matter how much enthusiasm there is among the technologists who developed it.

It’s well worth considering what makes a potential technology easy or hard to develop, because a mistake can lead to unwise decisions. Take, for instance, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor that’s now under construction in France at an estimated cost of US $22 billion. If governments around the world believe that this herculean effort will automatically lead to success and therefore to near-term commercial fusion reactors, and if they plan their national energy strategies around that assumption, their citizens may very well be disappointed.

Here I present a short list of technology projects that are now under way or at least under serious discussion. In each case I’ll point out features that tend to make a technology easy or hard to bring to market.
Not Much Needs to Change 
Electric cars are a relatively easy technology because cars have been mass-produced for more than a century. We have more than 100 years of experience engineering and manufacturing windshield wipers, brakes, wheels, tires, steering systems, windows that can go up and down, car seats, chassis, and much more. We have more than 20 years of experience making digitized drivetrains.

On top of that, we already have a whole infrastructure for driving, including roads, parking spaces, safety standards, auto insurance, and government licensing of both the vehicles and the drivers. So to go from internal-combustion-engine cars to electric cars, you don’t have to invent everything from scratch and then figure out how to deploy it at scale.

True, to mass-produce electric cars at a competitive price, with good range and reliability, you have to be very clever—you need good batteries, for one thing—and well capitalized. But there is much that you do not need to change. For that part, there are plenty of people who have worked on the relevant components for decades and plenty of expertise for building and assembling the components. Electric cars constitute a new technology, but not an unreasonably hard one.

Likewise, reusable rockets may sound revolutionary, but here again there is plenty of prior art. All liquid-fueled rockets derive from the V-2 rockets that Wernher von Braun built for Hitler. The V-2 had high-flow turbopumps (433 kilowatts!) that circulated the fuel to cool parts of the engine, and it carried its own liquid oxygen so that it could fly above the atmosphere. The first flight of the V-2 happened just over 76 years ago. And it went on to be mass-produced, albeit with slave labor.

Since then, over 20 different families of liquid-fueled rockets have been developed around the world, some of those families coming in hundreds of different configurations. Soyuz rockets, a 52-year-old family, all lift off with 20 liquid-fueled thrust chambers burning. In the Delta family, the “Heavy” variant of the Delta IV has three essentially identical cores side by side, each being a first stage of the earlier, single-core Delta IV.

The technology for soft landing on Earth using jet engine thrusters has been around since the 1950s, when Rolls-Royce demonstrated its “flying bedstead.” The following decade came the Harrier fighter jet, which also could take off and land vertically. In 1969, a manned rocket—the lunar module—vertically landed people on the moon. And in the 1990s, McDonnell Douglas built the single-stage Delta Clipper Experimental, or DC-X, rocket, which took off and landed vertically half a dozen times at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico....