In the computer industry, there’s a concept known as Moore’s Law. It basically describes the historical trend that, every year (or two), the number of transistors that can be put onto a semiconductor device roughly doubles – which means the power and capability of our computing devices roughly double as well. …This is the reason that your iPod can do so many more things than your Atari 2600 could 30+ years ago. (And if you already knew what Moore’s Law is, then you’re a giant nerd. Or you work in the semiconductor industry – which is basically the same thing.)
On occasion, I’ve heard people criticize the auto industry when comparing it to the computer industry. They say things like, “If we’d had the same amount of innovation in the auto industry as we’ve had in computers, then we’d all be driving around at 800mph in cars that cost $10 and get 200mpg.” …OK, I made up those numbers. But you get the point – it’s complete crap.
There’s a big difference between the semiconductor industry and the auto industry. Automobiles are used to move people – and their stuff – around. In semiconductors, the goal is to move around electrons. Electrons are, in general, much smaller than people. We’ve been able to make semiconductors so much better because we’ve been able to improve the way we manufacture them, reducing their size to sub-micron levels – much closer to the size of those electrons than when we first started.
Cars, on the other hand, are roughly the size they need to be to move us around. (OK, you could argue that our cars here in the U.S. are a little bloated. But, they’re not orders of magnitude larger than they need to be.) It’s not like the first cars manufactured were about the size of a small town, and we’re only slowly shrinking them down as our manufacturing capabilities allow. The constraint here is the size of the passengers – which probably won’t be changing anytime soon.
Ironically, some of the most exciting new “green” cars are coming from companies that were formed by folks who cut their teeth in the semiconductor industry. They know what Moore’s Law is. They’ve got some great ideas, but I hope they don’t expect the same year-after-year exponential improvements in their new industry as they’re accustomed to.