OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change” – Albert Einstein
Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist. He propounded the theory of evolution which has become a very important, albeit controversial contribution to science. In his theory, he reached a very important conclusion; those species that cannot adapt to change, face extinction. This is the summary of my piece today and it is important to relate it to Nigeria.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution contends that all life descended from a common ancestor and that are all related. It presumes the development of life from non-life, insisting on a purely naturalistic (undirected) “descent with modification”. His main thesis was that complex creatures naturally evolve from more simplistic ancestors over time. “In a nutshell, as random genetic mutations occur within an organism’s genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival – a process known as “natural selection.” These beneficial mutations are passed on to the next generation. Over time, beneficial mutations accumulate and the result is an entirely different organism (not just a variation of the original, but an entirely different creature).
” All these he documented in his famous book titled, “On the Origin Of Species” published about 160 years ago. The summary of Darwin’s thesis is that man was not created but evolved from an ape. The logic of the thesis is that, a more simplistic animal like an ape, developed into man, a more complex one. While this theory became popular with most scientists, those of us who believe in creation have asked why the evolution of man from ape stopped. One should have seen more apes evolve into full grown human beings, but it does appear that after the Darwinian evolution theory, apes stoped mutating into humans. Surely, there must be a missing link somewhere. I can confirm that the debate continues unabated.
Revolution, on the other hand, has different connotations. It is defined as ‘a complete change in thinking, in how things are done or set of beliefs’. It can also be defined as a sudden change of government by a large mass of people, usually in a violent manner, eg, the French Revolution which overthrew the monarchical government and installed a republic by force.
The kind of revolution that is important to this essay today is the one that leads to a complete change in how things are done. They happen gradually through inventions and accelerated obsolescence. The different phases of the industrial revolution would very well make our list of the revolutions in question. According to Wikipedia,“the Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the US, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from manual production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.”
While the industrial revolution started in Britain, it quickly spread to other parts of Europe and America. The major industry that benefited from the revolution was the textile industry. This industry also benefitted from the use of “modern” equipment to aid production.
The Industrial Revolution led to a major change in almost all facets of life. These changes were, amongst other places, felt in lifestyle, income, and population. Societies where it occurred, began to enjoy higher standards of living and their demographics changed dramatically. Life would not be the same again. This phase in civilization had even more consequences. For instance, long-held beliefs, some of them the kernel of certain religious beliefs, came under questioning. People who were stuck to the past would be swept away by the rapid changes taking place in the different economies. New products were flooding the market. People moved away from the agrarian economies to the manufacturing economies.
One of the major changes was the enhancement of trade as division of labour was not only introduced, but it became an imperative. This was because people who manufactured one set of goods had to sell to the market and procure the many other goods and services they could not produce.
Following 1870, rapid economic growth began to occur across the West and these were fueled by newer innovations that came in the wake of what has been described as the Second Industrial Revolution. These new innovations included new steel making processes, the large-scale manufacture of machine tools, and the use of increasingly advanced machinery in steam-powered factories. Innovations rapidly expanded into Chemicals, Cement, Gas lighting, rail transportation, paper machine and glass making.
Then entered the new stage of development in the change trajectory, which some people have made attempts to fit into a different stage of industrial revolution. Some have given it different names but for the purpose of this essay, I have chosen to call it the ‘disruptive technology phase of human development’. This phase relates to the use of technology to disrupt earlier held beliefs and thinking and render not only many products useless but also many people around the world jobless. I am talking of the brave new world of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, 3D Printing and Electric Vehicles.
I have chosen to limit this discussion to Electric Vehicles (EVs) because this disruption is one among the various others, that is bound to hit us very hard as a country in a very short time. EVs were first produced in the UK in 1884 by Thomas Parker but it made very little impact at that time. One of the most popular brands of EVs, Tesla was launched by a South African called Elon Musk, who lives in California.
Musk is a maverick engineer and tech whiz kid. After obtaining degrees in Physics and Economics, in the USA, he commenced a doctorate degree programme which he gave up on almost immediately and plunged into the world of Information technology. His meteoric rise in the world of Hi Tech began when he founded an online financial services and email payment system X.com in 1999. Subsequently, he turned it into an online payment platform, Paypal which he eventually sold in 2002. Since then, Musk has founded many other companies including SpaceX – Space Exploration Technologies Corporation and Tesla Motors in 2008.
Of all of Musk’s companies and technological forays, it is clear that Tesla Motors is the one that would mark him out as one of the leading scientific minds of this generation and probably, of all times. The simple value proposition of Tesla Motors is to produce cars that are powered by alternative energy sources other than fossil fuels. The dream of functional EVs had been around for quite some time. The concept had made a giant leap from the fertile imagination of science fiction writers a long time ago to the research laboratories of engineers and finally now, the factory floor. As a matter of fact, many automobile companies were already engaged in advanced research on it, and some prototypes had already been manufactured. But a broad range of issues conspired to militate against mainstreaming the concept and making the EV a viable mass market product. High production costs and low battery performance ranked high among such challenges.
It is to the credit of Musk’s bulldog tenacity, technological prowess and vision that have altered the equation and provided a lift for the EV concept to gain traction. Today, the EV as a mass market consumer product has become an imminent reality. Its rise raises the spectre of the inevitable end of another age, one which we are all used to – the age of the combustion engine. It will bring into full bloom what I call the technologies of the new age. These technologies, which will impact not only the automobile industry, include – Artificial intelligence, Robotics, Virtual and Enhanced Reality, block chain and several others. The use of alternative (renewable) energy sources to power automobiles is the final frontier in this generation’s journey of discovery in transportation.
Informed analysts project that it is the catalyst that will recreate the world and reshape it into innovative and wondrous forms. As industrial revolutions go, this one promises to be even more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution. In fact, I shudder to think of the full dimensions of its impact. My instinct is that unless the processes are well managed, the overall impact may be cataclysmic and explosive, especially for our country in particular and Africa, generally.
Understandably, there are many, among them even those who ought to know who are still in denial about the reality of the EV and its inexorable rise and dominance.
Their plight is understandable, even if sadly. They still luxuriate in the comfort zone where fossil fuel is king. But the allure of low costs which have been the main advantage of fossil fuel, has worn dry. Advances in production technology, especially in the area of battery costs and life span, is rapidly narrowing the cost gap between EVs and gasoline powered automobiles. Tesla’s mid range Model 3 which it launched in July 2017 has a factory price of about $45,000. Battery performances have also improved remarkably. A fully charged battery can now drive for up to 399km (highway) and 430km (city). Bringing it home, it means that a fully charged Tesla Model 3 can travel from Lagos to Port Harcourt or from Abuja to Kano without needing to be recharged. These advances have boosted the appeal of the EV’s. Accordingly, demand has spiked across the globe, apart from Africa. By 2014, 700,000 EV’s were sold worldwide. But last year, about 4 million EV’s were sold worldwide. Bloomberg projects that by 2025, EVs may become cheaper than gasoline cars. When that happens, then the disruption will be complete.
According to projections, EVs will then dominate the automobile market and all new car sales. Certainly, there are other factors driving the exponential growth of the EV revolution. The growing international awareness of the need for climate control has prompted a rash of policies by various governments in different parts of the world, targeted at ensuring cleaner energy and climate control. The concerted efforts of environmental activists and public policies have finally forced the hands of automakers. In different countries, governments have enacted legislation prohibiting the manufacture of gasoline vehicles. Many countries have set targets for stopping the production of gasoline-powered vehicles. For instance, Norway has set a target of 2025, while India, Netherlands, Israel and Japan, amongst some others, have set a 2030 date. China has set up a policy team to study the whole phenomenon of EVs. As a result of all these, it is now estimated that 11 million EVs will be sold annually by 2035, with half of that number in China which is currently the largest car market in the world. Industry experts are predicting that about 50m EVs will be manufactured globally by 2040.
To many people, especially in the developed world, this is cheery news. But to many others, especially we in Africa, it is certainly not. The question to ask is: what preparations are we making at the official, corporate and personal levels? More specifically, what is our governments at the various levels doing, to prepare for the enormous changes which are inevitable?
Since oil emerged as Nigeria’s primary foreign exchange earner, it has remained the soul of our national life. Over 70% of the nation’s foreign exchange revenue comes from the export of crude. Obviously, the decline of gasoline powered automobile and the emergence of alternative sources of energy would spell the doom of fossil fuel. In a recent study by Bloomberg, it emerged that countries that are heavy crude oil importers are also in the forefront of the move to legislate against gasoline automobiles. The implication of that is quite obvious. The demand for crude oil is declining globally. So the elementary question which arises is, “If Nigeria can no longer sell crude oil, how can it earn foreign exchange to finance her imports?” For long, the need to diversify the Nigerian economy was quite compelling. Sadly, our policy makers chose to fiddle like Nero while Rome was in flames.
So successive governments squandered tons of dollars and with it the opportunity to recreate our country and ensure a meaningful life for our children and posterity. So while other societies transited into more focussed and knowledge based economies, we dawdled and clung to narrow, primordial worldviews often no different from the primitive superstitious narratives of our forefathers. We abandoned education and skill development. We did not improve or increase our infrastructure stock. Now the chickens have come home to roost and our date with history may just be around the corner. What then are our options?
The first order of business is fostering credible and effective leadership. In fact, history has shown that it is leadership that has made the difference in all the societies that have made quantum leaps in progress. Providentially, this is an election season. We now hold our fate in our own hands. We have before us the opportunity to begin a process of saving ourselves, and it is not as arduous as some people think. All it takes is for you to make time out and cast your vote, or you will be one of those who moan about how things are going wrong, but who are not willing to bring about the required change.
It is imperative that we choose the right leadership at every level; visionary, intelligent and knowledgeable leaders. The era of mediocrity should be over. The tasks in hand are rather urgent and compelling. Nigerians should eschew the narrow sentiments that often determine electoral choices and take a bold stand for the common good. The world is changing rapidly. The new world cannot wait for Nigeria.