I am aware that compiling a list of the “best” of anything can be fraught with peril since different people usually have different opinions of that is the best.  However, I have been pondering on the technological breakthroughs of this year and decided to list the ones that I consider have the most potential of significant impact in the decades to come.

Below I list my first five choices of new technologies that could someday be regarded as technological forks in the road from the first half of 2010.  In the next few weeks I will write about each of these choices and provide my reasons for selecting them,  starting this week with the mass produced electric vehicle.

I will complete the list as the year draws to a close to allow for any new developments in the next few months.

Although at first glance some of these technologies might merely seem like the latest gadget (Apple’s iPad), or merely the logical evolution of existing technologies (Nissan Leaf), I believe that each of these choices, and the technologies that they represent, will have a profound effect in our society and future development as a species. They represent the beginnings of an era in which Homo sapiens takes its first steps towards becoming Techno sapiens.

I welcome your comments, especially if you feel strongly that a certain technology is missing from this list. There are many out there.  Let me know what you think!

1. Mass Production EV (Nissan Leaf)

2. Falcon 9 Rocket (SpaceX)

3. The iPad

4. Synthetic Life

5. 3D TV (Samsung LED 700)

Mass Produced EV – Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf is not the first full blown electric vehicle (EV) to hit the road. Electric cars go back in history to the time of the first Internal Combustion (IC) engines in the mid 1800’s

Both technologies co-existed side by side, and for a while, it was not clear which technology would be widely adopted. The discovery of vast deposits of oil in the US Southeast made liquid fuels derived from oil both economical and convenient.  Mass production of internal combustion engine vehicles by Henry Ford combined with cheap fuel, gave IC engines a significant advantage and allowed the technology to dominate throughout the 20th century.

By the turn of the 20th century, IC engines had developed into engineering marvels that combined multiple technologies to squeeze ever more power from a gallon of gasoline.  Decade after decade new engine models were introduced with ever increasing horse power output at the cost of efficiency and damaging emissions. Unbelievable as it may seem, a Ford’s Model T from 1908 could go more miles on a gallon of gasoline (25 mpg) than the average automobile in 2008 (20.8 mpg).

Attempts were made along the way to design an electric vehicle that could be mass produced.  A notable example is GM’s EV1 in 1996. The EV1 experiment was deemed a commercial failure under a cloud of controversy.  EV1’s were recalled and destroyed much to the dismay of the early adopters who had accepted the EV1 with all its initial shortcomings. The official reasons given for the recall included cost, special equipment required to charge the car, low mileage and lack of demand. The story is told in the documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car”.

At a cost of $26,000 after incentives, the Nissan Leaf will put an end to those who say that an electric vehicle is not commercially viable or that consumers do not want electric cars over their gas guzzling SUVs.  Even if the Nissan Leaf does not live up to its commercial goals immediately  and even if the existing patch of electrical networks that we call the grid could have a hard time managing the new electricity demand, mass produced electric cars are finally here. To help them flourish we will have to rethink our electrical infrastructure. Perhaps a new grid powered by solar, wind and geothermal energy.

Watch a video of the Nissan Leaf being unveiled below.

Following the commercial success of the Toyota Hybrid, the Prius, Nissan has taken the gamble that a mass produced fully electric vehicle is viable. I think they are correct.   With the introduction of the Nissan Leaf, the genie is out the bottle and chances are good that your kids will be driving an electric model (perhaps supped up with ultracapacitors for extra hump).  As of whether people will want to buy an electric car that can only travel 100 miles per charge…Well, let’s just ask those earlier drivers of the EV1 who had to be pried from their steering wheels by force when the cars were recalled.

The Leaf will occupy an important place in the history of human transportation as the mass produced electric car becomes an important part of our future society. As important as the Model T was over a century ago.  Technologies like the Nissan Leaf represent a shift towards a society where electricity is generated by renewable sources and we are finally able to break the shackles of a fossil fuel based economy. This will be a gradual process but it represents a profound change in the way that we manage our energy resources. The Nissan Leaf and its successors are harbingers of a future in which we accept our responsibilities towards the environment as the dominant species of this planet.

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