The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated that the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard reach 54.5 miles/gallon by 2025 (so many significant figures in that goal—the precision is truly admirable!). Before you say "huh?", note that this goal has many loopholes, subclauses, and qualifiers, befitting a number set by bureaucrats, see here.
I'm not here to argue about the virtue of higher fuel-economy standards—that's a topic for another time—but to say that setting technical goals by such mandates is at odds with the genuine path of research, development, and product reality. It's nice to have goals, of course, but when they become "meet them or else", it's almost like trying to mandate that π = 3.0 because that makes things so much easier.
How did we get into this situation? I see several reasons:
•First, technologists (engineers, scientists, manufacturing) have actually achieved so many technical "miracles" over the past few decades that we have made almost anything look doable and easy. Look back 40, 30, 20 or even 10 years at the state of consumer electronics, or technology infrastructure, and you'll be stunned. (I discoursed about this recently, here). Long story short: we've done it to ourselves, yet another unintended consequence of past successes.
•Second, the lure of the big-grant funding for R&D, mostly from the government, has spawned a symbiotic relationship. One side says, "here's a lot of money, can you get to us where we want to go?" and the industry and academics responds, "you give us the money and we'll get you there, no problem."
•Finally, we did it to ourselves. How so? Largely by publically hyping the industry "road map", initially promoted by semiconductor vendors such as Intel, but now a standard part of almost any technology story. Sure, it's essential to have one internally for planning purposes, but it has had, IMO, very adverse external consequences due to the mindset it has established.
What the road map says is that we know where we are going, we know how to get there, and it's just a matter of applying ourselves, spending the money, hiring the people, working hard and diligently and—poof! —we'll get there, no problem. It makes R&D and progress seem very linear, deterministic, and straightforward.
Reality is that progress has hope, anticipation, false starts, diversions, random walks, insurmountable barriers, and major disruptive developments. The vacuum-tube roadmap of 1950 did not show transistors; the transistor roadmap of 1955 did not show integrated circuits. In a word: stuff happens, both good and bad, while you are following your road map and promising to get to the Emerald City at the end.
Mandates and directives don't change this reality. Keep this in mind next time the bureaucrats and legislators mandate where a technology and product will be at a certain time, and what it will do.
Have you ever had this experience? Has it been reasonable or ridiculous?