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A year and a quarter ago, “Tech Metals Insider” launched on Kitco News. What started with the innocent question: “what would happen to precious metals if we all drove electric cars” has become a roller coaster ride into the worlds of energy generation, nuclear fission, transmutation, electronics, and many more. As I was informed by Kitco, my series is enjoying steadily increasing popularity, which is why it was now moved from the “Contributed Commentaries” to the “News” section further up on the website.

As happy as I am with this development, there are a few downsides, too: apart from confusion to readers who will not find my articles where they used to be, news items in this section of the website rotate more quickly, meaning that my articles will not stay on the homepage for an entire week. They drop below the fold after about two days where they are harder to find. Here is how to get to my column:

Once an article is published, you will find it labeled “Featured” on the homepage:

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Afterwards, my reports can be found either by clicking “more news” and scrolling down, or via this direct link which takes you to the archive of all articles I have written so far (it may take a second or two to scroll to my name). Sorry about the inconvenience. I think it will be all for the better in the long run – we’ll see.

Many thanks to all of you who took an interest in my series, and to those who wrote in response to my sometimes controversial topics. I will continue to respond to all reader mail unless it is anonymous or contains personal insults – happy to report that there were VERY few of those so far. Have fun with the fascinating world of technology metals in 2015.

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Electric vehicles – toys of a few for several years, EVs have become main stream with Tesla producing them by the thousands, and many other manufacturers getting ready to join the fun next year. Electric vehicles are in fact incredible (if they work, but I won’t harp on that again…), fun to drive, they make you feel good and they make you the center of attention wherever you go. Infrastructure was an issue at first but more and more charging stations, free and fee-based, are going up around the world making it easier to use your car to go wherever you want to go. Even the charging times are much reduced: a Tesla takes about half an hour at a “super charger” to replenish its battery to over 80%. Few places can afford to ignore the trend these days and preferred parking for EVs is now quite common, at least in the main markets along the West- and East Coast of the USA.

EV ParkingAlas, this picture of a happy family casually strolling back to their electric vehicle after a pleasant shopping experience will soon be history (image: Schneider Electronics). The number of EVs and plug-in hybrids is growing much faster than the number of parking spaces offered. Inevitably, bad manners take over and the once happy community of pioneers sees itself confronted with a growing number of bullies:

  • EVs get unplugged by people who feel they need the power more.
  • EVs get unplugged by pranksters just because.
  • EV parking spaces get taken by EVs and Plug-Ins that aren’t charging (but the spaces are free)
  • Drivers of internal combustion engine (ICE) powered cars occupy EV parking spaces and chargers
  • Free “customer only” parking spaces get used by non-customers.

These, unfortunately, are symptoms of an idealistic world meeting the reality of daily life and its multi faceted annoyances of egocentricity and envy. Some EV drivers report about incidents in online forums, and the number of occurrences is increasing. They fight valiantly by placing notes (friendly and not) under windshield wipers; they confront perpetrators, report them…. to little avail. Special problems arise for people utilizing airport charging spaces: their cars are fully charged long before their return, after which they are unnecessarily blocking a valuable charger-equipped parking space.

These events may in fact be uncovering a major flaw in any kind of “plug-in” vehicle concept: a divided society, Gas versus Electric. Studies suggest that the transformation to electric will take a very long time. EVs will need another decade to even build a noticeable footprint in the automobile market. The complete transformation, which is inevitable, will take until 2070. Until then, how will the two camps coexist? Without a surplus of EV charging stations consumers will be deterred to make the switch. An increasing number of EV reserved parking spaces will, on the other hand, reduce the available conventional parking spaces. Conflicts are inevitable.

I have a feeling that the only way to resolve this will be to uncouple the process of charging from the “act” of parking. The two are asynchronous and should not be connected. Be it by way of ultra-quick chargers that will allow drivers to “refill” their EVs in the amount of time to refuel a conventional car (i.e. by way of battery-swapping as proposed by Tesla and Better Place), or to abandon the concept of lithium ion batteries altogether in favor of hydrogen fuel cells right away.

Future will tell – I am afraid, though, that this issue will turn out to be a major and unexpected roadblock in the proliferation of EV technology.

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IMG_4368As fortune would have it I was able to spend much time on two of my favorite things recently: innovative technology and cars. The two have met, the world of cars is transforming in a big way, and my not-so-new-anymore writing charter for KITCO News allowed me to study it up front and close. In the process, I believe to have unraveled the mystery of where the industry, and we as frequent users of cars, are going. After many hours of conversations with people from all camps, and after even more hours of visiting events and reading online material, here is my prediction on what the next twenty or so years will look like:

  • We will not run out of gas. Yes, more people use gas, but more people use less gas than before. Ironically, the melting ice caps will allow us to drill for oil in even more places.
  • Consequently, the internal combustion engine (ICE) will continue to live on for quite a while.
  • However, since we keep changing climate by living the way we do, there is still an urgent need to implement new technologies that reduce our carbon footprint.
  • These new technologies don’t necessarily have to be “sustainable” in the beginning, but using what is always available instead of continuing to burn up precious resources must be the ultimate goal.
  • The majority of consumers is not in the “pioneer” or “early adopter” camps when it comes to changing.
  • This is bad news for any car that’s battery powered. A large amount of people will remain sympathetic but on the fence for a very long time, especially since there is no immediate need to change.
  • Small battery powered cars will continue to struggle with range for a while, meaning they will mostly be used for commuting only. Their market is further narrowed down by the necessity to keep a second car, so to a lot of people they make no sense economically.
  • Large battery powered cars like the Tesla will continue to be expensive for quite some time. Tesla’s Model S has replaced the Toyota Prius as an avatar to a specific demographic subgroup of society: people with a certain level of education, enough money and an overall “sustainable” and “organic” approach to life. Plus, in some cases, the desire to show it.
  • The majority of car producers will move towards designing new models in ways that will allow for an easy swap of power trains.  Customers will not only be able to select between different conventional engine sizes (gasoline and diesel) but also CNG, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery EV and fuel cell EV.
  • This “menu” approach will put them at a distinct cost and acceptance advantage over EV-only concepts like Tesla or the new BMW i-line of cars. In fact, I am ready to predict that unless Tesla keeps pushing the envelope their growth will flatline within a few years. Note that the “new” Tesla X scheduled to come out next year is essentially the same car.

IMG_4316Bold predictions? Perhaps. Except they are not, apart from the last bullet, maybe. The above statements are a -preliminary- assembly of puzzle pieces I gathered as explained in my my opening paragraph. Elon Musk has so far remained elusive to me but I hope to be able to confront him with this scenario one day. As to the other manufacturers, VW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Ford and Toyota are all rolling out “menu” cars already, with other brands close behind. So it isn’t actually a prediction I am making, it’s an observation of what is already happening.

Meaning the future is now, and I like it!

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What to do in Las Vegas when you’re not into gambling? Dive into history! The part of town that started it all is now called the “Freemont Street Experience”. I won’t go into details of the curved roof which is a half-mile screen featuring rock bands every full hour. One of the older casinos around is the “Golden Nugget” where – they claim – the largest golden nugget ever found is on display; a cool 875 troy ounces of gold and well worth seeing.

Opposite of the display we spotted an actual gold vending machine. I blogged about them earlier but so far had never seen one. So what are they like? First impressions first: design and purpose are perfectly aligned: the machine looks and feels solid and golden.

There are two parts to the machine: the actual “business” space and an information panel. Let’s start with the latter: the panel tells you exactly what brands you will get, and who you are getting them from. Given the amount of money involved in each transaction providing this level of detail is crucial. The machines are built and operated by a German company named Ex Oriente Lux AG, a name leaving room for imagination as to its origin and meaning. Alas, their website is http://www.gold-to-go.com which then ruins everything. Both are valid ways to go but I wish they had decided to be consistent on one.

The information panel also tells you the products inside are provided by Credit Suisse and Heraeus, both very credible names in the industry. But then the fine print: “and other producers” leaving all options open again, and softening the promise. I wish they wouldn’t do that.

I am also curious if customers might be deterred by the German customer service number. What if the wrong product comes out, or if any other problem occurs during a transaction? Why is there no domestic customer service available?

Now to the main space which is where you buy products. A great combination of product images and actual samples on display, illuminated individually corresponding to your selection. Current prices are directly on the button so there is no ambiguity. I didn’t go as far as to buy anything so I cannot report about my checkout experience. But it seems like there is great ease of buying an item, the controls are very intuitive.

Bottom line: after having seen the machine I love the business model even more, and I wonder if the company should not deploy the machines more rapidly to high-end shopping malls and other places where people with money go more frequently, and in more familiar environments than amusement areas where neighboring buildings offer “Beef, Booze, Broads”, or airports where the TSA might ask you unpleasant questions regarding the nature of your purchase.

On their website, the company is offering tons of news clips, links, pictures and such, but I was unable to find an annual report that might answer my next question: are they making any money? Ex Oriente Lux is a publicly traded company so reports should become available at some point (or maybe they are, and I overlooked them) so let’s see how they do. At any rate, I love the idea, it’s a German company…. so I wish them tons of good luck with their business model. And I promise, next time I see a machine I’ll buy something.

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