Comments on Automation

Comments on our automated future

I recently visited an Apple store to buy replacement headphones. An employee showed me how to self-checkout via iPhone. I didn’t know this was an option. Next time you go into an Apple store, you should know that you can pick an item off the shelf, scan it with your iPhone, double-click to pay with Apple Pay and simply walk out. This automated checkout process presumably translates to lower staffing needs for Apple stores and allows employees to focus on higher-value tasks like educating and upselling. Eventually, other non-Apple stores will adopt this technology for their retail experience. It’s an exceptionally well-designed system for the user.

The driverless taxi company Cruise, owned by GM, recently lost their driver’s license in California due to safety concerns. 43,000 people died in the US in 2022 due to automobile accidents. The question is, should the US tolerate deaths by automated vehicles even if the total number is lower than the current average? Or should they be held to the same standard as the airline industry, which has essentially achieved a perfect operational record? Automated taxis will happen eventually either way, despite this setback. 

It’s interesting to note that the incident that broke the camel’s back for the DMV was a hit and run by a human driver that pushed a pedestrian into the path of the Cruise vehicle. Understandably, the DMV wants Cruise’s software to be better, but they could have picked an incident that didn’t involve a human driver as the initial culprit.

Amazon has a new humanoid robot called Digit working in its warehouses. It’s a bipedal 5’9 robot with arms that can lift up to 35kg. Amazon employs 1.5 million people, but much of the warehouse work is repetitive and menial. Check out the link to see what they look like. Seeing these types of robots go from fantasy to reality is pretty amazing. Live testing of the Digit robots in the workplace started this week.

There are two significant automation trends here that you can count on. The first is that despite setbacks like Cruise’s license issues, minimum-wage tasks will continue to be systematically and regularly replaced by automated solutions. The second is that automation will improve corporate job training programs, which will continue to put pressure on the need for expensive traditional four-year degrees.

The pessimistic view is that automation permanently disrupts and displaces jobs. The optimistic view is that fewer employees can be more productive with the help of automation and, therefore, justify higher wages. Automation also reduces prices over time as competitive forces push businesses to pass on the savings. 


Solid-state batteries

Toyota has recently ramped up the press coverage of its solid-state battery program. They have a goal to mass-produce solid-state batteries by 2027. Current lithium-ion batteries, like those used in Teslas, have an energy density of roughly 250 Wh/kg. Solid-state batteries aim for a 2.5x improvement, dramatically increasing the potential range to 750 miles per charge or substantially reducing the size and weight of the battery for the same range. Estimated charging times with solid-state batteries would also drop to just 10 minutes.

Cost is a significant issue with solid-state batteries. The cost per kWh for lithium batteries dropped from $732 in 2013 to just $150 today so it stands to reason that the cost for this new technology will fall rapidly as well. Solid-state batteries have been promised for a long time, so it’s unclear whether Toyota will achieve this target by 2027. Also, apparently, there are no working solid-state prototypes, which is also concerning. 

Eventually, there will be commercial-scale battery breakthroughs that achieve next-level performance targets. It’s estimated that once we reach 400 Wh/kg we can start using batteries to power aircrafts. It’s a big IF, but if Toyota is successful, that will open interesting opportunities.

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