Featured Post

This is the Kodak Moment for the Auto Industry

Plug-In Drivers Not Missin' the Piston Electric vehicles are here to stay. Their market acceptance and growth will continue. Why?...

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Moore's Law, Wright's Law, Swanson's Law, & Jevons Paradox: How these axioms will impact EVs and our future energy system

Original scaling predictions by Gordon Moore
This became the basic for Moore's Law

In this post, we'll look at a few "laws" that have (and will continue to) transform our world. And, more specifically, we'll look at how these laws came about, how they've impacted our world, and (since that's kind of what we're about here) how these laws apply to Electric Vehicles (EVs). 

Moore's Law 

Moore's Law is the most well-known axiom we'll be looking at here. The law is named after Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, co-founder of Intel, and former Intel CEO.
In 1965, Moore observed that the number of transistors in integrated circuits had been doubling about every two years. Moore projected that this exponential growth would continue for at least the next decade.

Now, 5+ decades later, the trend has continued and this has had huge implications on the cost of computing power. This exponential growth means that the phone you likely have in your pocket is more powerful than the computers that were used to land the first man on Luna. Compared to 1965, computers are now everywhere and have changed the way we live. Moore's Law has resulted in lower cost, lower power, and better performance. It has allowed chips to be used in nearly everything we own from toys, cars, and appliances. This has been a springboard for innovation.

How does this apply to EVs? 

With all of their high-tech features, Tesla's vehicles have been called computers on wheels. This is most obvious in a tech-forward car like a Tesla, but computer chips are used throughout all modern vehicles for functions like antilock breaks and airbag deployment. This became painfully apparent in early 2020 when several auto manufactures had to shut down production due to a worldwide chip shortage

Looking forward, the increase in computing performance and cost reduction will enable better in-car entertainment and, eventually, autonomous driving.

Wright’s Law

T. P. Wright was a U.S. aeronautical engineer. He had a storied career at Curtiss-Wright Aeroplane starting out as a Naval Aircraft Inspector and moving up to Chief Engineer. Then Wright became a member of the National Defense Advisory Committee under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Here he had several roles and titles primarily focused on the production of military aircraft.

It was here that Wright determined that for every doubling of airplane production the labor requirement was reduced by 10-15%. In 1936, he detailed his findings in a paper titled “Factors Affecting the Costs of Airplanes.” The paper described that “we learn by doing” and that the cost of each unit produced decreases as more units are produced.

This is the "economy of scale" axiom. As you make more of something, you can expect the per-item cost of manufacturing to drop. This follows that the manufacturing equipment would have higher utilization, you'd be able to buy materials in bulk and receive better pricing from your suppliers. As production grows, optimizations for scalability allow manufacturing costs to be further reduced. 

As prices drop, it becomes easier to displace older technologies that have stagnated. Additionally, new uses are found, thereby creating growth opportunities, further allowing production to expand, further reducing costs. 

How does this apply to EVs?

The batteries are currently the largest cost factor for EVs. The battery cells are a significant factor in range, performance, and cost. They have been following Wright's Law. Production has been steadily increasing and costs have been reducing since the start of this generation of EVs began a decade ago. 

Swanson's Law

Swanson's Law is named after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower Corporation, a solar panel manufacturer. Swanson regularly gave talks and wrote papers and articles that showed the cost decline trend of solar photovoltaics (PV). Specifically, it showed the price of PV modules dropped ~20% for every doubling of production.

This is an industry-specific application of Wright's Law, but it is worth specifically addressing this one because EVs require electricity (preferably renewable). 

How will this impact EVs? 

As solar prices decrease, it will be more affordable to cover your rooftop in them, to have solar canopies over parking lots providing shade and generating electricity. It is incredibly rewarding to know that your car can be powered by the sunlight hitting your roof. Each 1kW of solar on your roof is enough to power an EV for about 4000 miles

Solar scales well with electricity need in many parts of the world. Solar generates electricity during the day when we tend to be more active and grid demand is higher. It also generates more electricity in the summer when the air conditioning units are running. 

Combine the price reductions for batteries (see Wright's Law above) with the price reduction of solar panels and you soon have the ability to have home battery or industrial-scale battery backup. This turns energy "digital." The current energy grid that we have has to match supply and demand in real-time. This makes for a fragile system. To compensate for this, utilities have to over-provision and/or have wasteful, polluting spinning reserves to avoid rolling blackouts or other outages.

Batteries, on the other hand, can respond in milliseconds and can provide hours of backup. If there's a short-term increase in demand, batteries can easily cover it. If it's a longer-term issue, the batteries give the grid operators the time they need to ramp up energy generation, bring more systems online, or recruit supply from neighboring systems. This makes for a far more robust energy grid.

For us, we use our home battery system to time-shift our solar production to peak hours. This reduces the stress on the grid and reduces our electricity bill. Additionally, we charge our EVs overnight when there is surplus energy on the grid (this is when the wind mix is typically at its highest) and electricity prices are at their lowest.

Jevons' Paradox

The Jevons' paradox is named after the English economist, William Stanley Jevons. It was described in his 1865 book, The Coal Question

Jevons observed that England's consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced a more efficient coal-fired steam engine. A more efficient system uses less fuel, yet consumption greatly increased; hence, a paradox. This has also been called the Rebound Effect or the Backfire Effect. 

This paradox is often misunderstood or even maliciously misconstrued to attack efficiency efforts so we'll spend a little more time on this one.

In retrospect, the cause of the soaring coal use is apparent. In the 1800s, most labor was done with muscle power (either human or livestock). When the steam engine became more efficient, the cost of using coal became affordable and it started to displace workhorses, draft horses, mules, oxen, and the like. The society of the time was starved for horsepower. They were early in the S-curve of work energy. The improved steam engine overcame the cost of coal, this cost was the barrier to entry for many applications of the technology. Clearing this barrier allowed steam engines to move up the slope, from the initial slow growth phase to the exponential phase. 

Technology Lifecycle

The decline phase is generally kicked off when a better alternative arrives, rather than the underlying need disappearing. For steam engines, they were displaced by a combination of internal combustion and electric motors.

Coal, on the other hand, was not as quickly dismissed as the steam engine. It found additional uses in electricity generation. Coal use hit its peak in 2007 and was generally displaced by natural gas (methane). Advancements in hydraulic fracturing of shale caused a "fracking boom." This left coal at a major cost disadvantage just as coal had done to ox power more than 100 years before. 

It's Not A Backfire Effect 

Now, with some perspective, you can see that this was not a Rebound Effect or Backfire Effect. It was a Breakthrough Effect!

The Jevons Paradox was not a Backfire Effect; it was a Breakthrough Effect.

Unpriced Externalities Causes A Tragedy of the Commons

Coal was cheaper than draft horses because of the more efficient steam engine but also because there was no cost to pollute. When you purchased coal (then and now), there was no additional cost for the air pollution that it would cause. That price would be paid collectively by everyone that had to breathe polluted air. 

How does this apply to EVs? 
Just as Watt's steam engine was more efficient than the ones that came before it, the electric motor is far more efficient than the internal combustion engine that it is replacing. Electricity is far less expensive to use as a fuel than gasoline or diesel.

Tying It All Together

Wright's Law will result in battery prices dropping. This will result in EV prices continuing to drop. Since EVs are cheaper to operate, Jevons' Paradox means that new uses will emerge. Moore's Law will enable more computing power, allowing EVs to become autonomous and connected with more in-car entertainment options.

Swanson's Law will continue to lower the price of solar panels. This along with the reduced price of batteries will allow for more renewable energy on the grid. This will further reduce the cost of energy and energy storage thereby making EVs cheaper to operate and again cheaper to build. This will further reduce our use of fossil fuels, moving them down the decline curve while providing us with cleaner air and water. 

These Laws create a self-enforcing feedback loop that will accelerate EVs, energy storage, and renewable energy into multi-trillion-dollar markets.

Murphy's Law

Of course, you shouldn't forget Murphy's Law, which could bring all of this crashing down ☘️

Sidebar: "Laws"

Many of the things we looked at are called Laws. However, they are not Laws of Physics (like Boyle's law), nor are they fall into the legal category of laws (like Megan's Law). Rather, these were observations, dictums, principles, effects, axiom, rules (or rules of thumb), razors, corollaries, heuristics, hypotheses, parables, or the like. However, the English language (as far as I know) does not have an overarching word for this category. Calling something a "Law" is far more catchy than calling it a "Heuristic." Moore's Observation just doesn't have the same ring to it. 

If you know of a better term for these types of "Laws," please let me know in the comments below. There may be some obscure German word that's perfect for this. 

Meta Sidebar About Sidebars    

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you'll know that I cannot say something like Moore's Law, without a pedantic sidebar about it's not really a "Law." I recently did this in another post about the term "AC Batteries." The AC Battery sidebar occurred relatively early in its post and it was relatively long. This broke the flow of the post before it even had much of a chance to get started. So now, I'm trying something new and putting all the sidebar(s) at the end of the posts. This way I can still note and clarify the turbid occurrences without breaking up the flow of the primary story.

Disclosure: I am long Tesla


  1. Hy Patrick, thanks for your post.
    All those laws are emergent laws, that appear miracously in complex systems and are
    very difficult to explain with basis on a "microscopic" model.

    1. Very good point Alaor. They are all non-linear and often deliver far more than most people expect.