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Lithium mine in Argentina satellite image public domain

Self-driving Cars: Following the Money up a Cooling Trail

The market for lithium for electric car batteries is slowing
Lithium in oil/Public Domain

You’ve heard the quip, “Follow the money”? Technology pundits teem with astonishing predictions of the future. But the best predictor is not theory, however captivating. It is where the money goes… or does not. And right now it is not leading to streets overwhelmed with self-driving electric cars.

One way we can track the trend is to ask, what physical components do the cars depend on and what is the market demand for them?

A key component of the electric car battery is the element lithium, an alkali metal. But miners banking on a future centering on electric vehicles have hit a “speed bump.” Between 2015 and 2018, lithium prices tripled. The rise encouraged new mines leading to oversupply. Now, according to a recent report,

Sales growth is slowing in China, the top market, and the drive to fill the battery supply chain has cooled. The result: A 30% price plunge for lithium that’s spurring concern over where the bottom may lie.

“The latest EV data did reveal slowing growth, inferring that on top of excess supply, demand is now a problem,” Vivienne Lloyd and other analysts at Macquarie Capital Ltd. wrote in a report this month. “The key interest for investors should be who is likely to survive.”

Laura Millan Lombrana, “Lithium Industry Buildup Is Outracing the Electric-Car Boom” at Bloomberg

Analysts still expect long-term growth in electric vehicles and continued research into self-driving cars. But let’s say you hear a wild promise for self-driving cars:

During nearly three hours of presentations before investors during the company’s inaugural “Autonomy Day” on Monday, Musk and other Tesla leaders doubled down on the company’s extraordinary claims about the future of travel. Musk said a Tesla purchased today has all the hardware it will ever need to drive itself. By next year, Musk pledged, robotic Tesla taxis will pick up passengers, even though no fully self-driving cars currently exist. A Tesla bought today will soon be able to make up to $30,000 a year for its owners by ferrying passengers around when they don’t need it, Musk said.

“It’s financially insane to buy anything but a Tesla,” Musk said, arguing that the vehicle would appreciate in value over time.

Aarian Marshall, “Old promises broken, musk offers new pledges on self-driving” at Wired

If you have anything at stake, you can do more than just be skeptical. Follow the money up the supply chain. Your skepticism will probably be justified.

More by Brendan Dixon on inflated self-driving car claims:

Should Tesla’s Autopilot feature be illegal? A recent study from the United Kingdom suggests that maybe it should

Even Uber didn’t believe in Uber’s self-driving taxis We found that out after Google’s Waymo sued the company

True Believer Loses Faith in Fully Self-Driving Cars Levandowski sees the future—and it is tech aids for safer driving

The Real Future of Self-Driving Cars Is — Better Human Drivers! Manufacturers are improving safety by incorporating warning systems developed for self-driving cars into conventional models


Autopilot is not just another word for “asleep at the wheel” As a recent fatal accident in Florida shows, even sober, attentive drivers often put too much trust into Tesla’s Autopilot system, with disastrous results

Featured image: A lithium mine in Argentina, satellite image/NASA

Brendan Dixon

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Brendan Dixon is a Software Architect with experience designing, creating, and managing projects of all sizes. His first foray into Artificial Intelligence was in the 1980s when he built an Expert System to assist in the diagnosis of software problems at IBM. Since then, he’s worked both as a Principal Engineer and Development Manager for industry leaders, such as Microsoft and Amazon, and numerous start-ups. While he spent most of that time other types of software, he’s remained engaged and interested in Artificial Intelligence.

Self-driving Cars: Following the Money up a Cooling Trail