The sin of prolonged life-cycle strategies

I can still remember. Thirty years ago, my physics teacher in secondary school talked about that. The patents were already there. Yes, the patents. Invented, but put into a closet for years, prohibiting others from using the technology unless they have their own and not overlapping. In fact, in the US, the first cars were mostly electric ones. They were already there. But the petrol companies and a famous car manufacturer made the government facilitate exchanging them en mass into petrol-driven ones.

Yes, the western economic system for years allowed for patenting technologies. If this was to preserve the right to make justified gains on past investment into research and development, it was all right. But for years now, many companies misused the rights to the technology they had patented as a means to stop others from further developing those technologies. You had to create an alternative to be rightfully allowed for technological advancement.

photo of man leaning on black car

Instead of using or further developing their patents, Western companies learned to prolong the life cycles of their technologies. The car manufacturing industry mastered that process to perfection. German engine constructors and manufacturers kept ongoing. Nobody dared to break out. Those who wanted even ten or fifteen years ago when we already knew about global warming to promote electric engines found resistance. I remember a case of a former Formula 1 driver who, after years of struggle, was forced to give up. Do not be surprised. Conventional engine manufacturers are at their best after years of research and development. Still, they crossed the break-even point already years ago. But prolonging the life cycle of the old technology seemed to be appealing and tolerated by the governments. Yes, lobbying techniques may seemingly do miracles, like years ago in the US. For years car manufacturers had not been interested in even developing electric cars. It would not be profitable for them.

Yes, we might say that electric cars are much more expensive, at least one-third than the price of the conventional car … The batteries are still not efficient enough … There are not enough sockets in the fuel stations and other public spaces to accommodate them all when in need of charging … Yes, in most of Europe or the US.

But why not in China?

Quite much technology applied by Chinese companies in the past decades was based on just copying technical knowledge from all over the world. It was stealing. Chinese companies did not work long and hard on research and development. They did not retain profits to invest now and gain in the future. They did not take risks. With the help of the government, they applied almost for-free solutions developed for years and with much money invested in other countries. And … Chinese had no past investment to lose diverting from conventional combustion engines to electric engines. No prior investment went in vain. Today, with the help of many Western engineers their develop their own technologies. The other difference is that unlike Western car manufacturing companies, Chinese companies have no chance to lobby for keeping the status quo. If the party thinks electric cars are the future, they must follow. Also, international car manufacturers have no choice. If the Chinese market constitutes 30-40% of a car manufacturer’s sales market worldwide, they have to comply. If not, they will lose the market shares to competitors, international or Chinese. By complying in China, they show to the world they have the technology. But why they do not sell it already en mass in their own country?

So, unfortunately, this is not the democracy that fostered development in this case. In fact, Chinese are those who seem today to have broken the wheel of technological stasis in the West. No matter whether this is because of CO2 and other pollutants that make Chines wear mouth masks to protect themselves from smog in the newly industrialized Chinese cities or because China wanted to be independent of oil imports.

We could only ask what would happen in Europe or in the US if not the climate change threat. Would the governments be so eager (at least some) to take the challenge of net-zero CO2 emissions? Or, would they allow further stopping the technological advancement by patenting and doing nothing?

The story of electric car development and the zero net challenge is today mainly about climate change. One should however also look at why the world’s response to climate change is so late. It should be clear for now that the old industrial order of prolonged technology life cycles is to be redefined. The patent system, unless the inventors do not show tangible results, should be limited in time. Maybe some other people in some other part of the world would do … Perhaps it is also time to redefine the link between lobbying and corporate corruption in the democratic world.

If not the sin of prolonged life cycles, the electric cars would then be already today a natural solution for personal mobility. The crude oil resources would last for longer than expected today. There are still many ways to use crude oil in the present world. Starting with cutting international air travel to save the planet is not even the second-best solution … till we do not have the technology. But for electric cars, and for batteries, affordable to everyone who possesses a conventional car, the technology was already there for years now. It only required refinement and testing. Not more and not less,