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If the United States were to adopt the metric system of units, as commonly used in all other advanced industrial economies, there would clearly be switching costs for the economy as a whole, and there would likely be cost savings due to greater standardisation with other economies. Over a 20-year timeframe, what would the net cost savings likely be?

I am not asking the questions of whether the USA should adopt the metric system, or is likely to do so even if it's a good idea. I'm interested in the net cost.

I'm open to other timeframes than 20 years. If someone has done a study with a 5-year or 30-year horizon, that is also interesting. I picked 20 years to allow for several years of switching costs, and then a good long time for benefits to become apparent.

Clearly it's possible that the benefits might never outweigh the costs. In that case the "net cost savings" would be negative.

I imagine studies have been done on this. Canada is a similar economy and culture, which went metric (mostly and officially) during the 1980s, so that might be a good comparison.

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    What's the connection to politics in this question? – DJClayworth Jan 3 '13 at 15:24
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    @DJClayworth, the scope of Politics.StackExchange is "governments, policies, and political processes". Use of the metric system is a policy question. That's why I believe this question is in scope. – Jim DeLaHunt Jan 3 '13 at 17:15
  • @JimDeLaHunt I think you'll have difficulty finding an exact number. – John Bensin Mar 28 '13 at 13:56
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    Other than road signs, and auto parts, would there really be much of a 'switch'? Most products are sold labeled with both sets of units. – user1530 May 2 '14 at 22:31
  • @blip: is there a switch still for car parts? When I was in Canada 10 years ago, my US-made car had metric nuts/bolts. I was told, automotive industry made that transition mid of the 80s. – cbeleites Nov 10 '17 at 16:33
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It is probably impossible to give an upper bound on that, however I can give you a lower bound: 500 Million Dollars for the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter by NASA:

Of course plus the embarrassment in the scientific/engineering community which is still laughing about this story today ;-) . More stories can be found here:

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    Regarding the orbiter, the spec was written for metric because NASA was already using metric units. A contractor messed up their software, but that's their fault and could have happened any number of other ways. Saying that the US govt adopting metric would have prevented it doesn't make sense, because that part of the government already had. Also, I don't see how it's very relevant to a discussion of what would be saved in the next 5/10/15/20 years. – Geobits Dec 10 '14 at 20:10
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    @Geobits The question is about the whole country adopting the metric system, not merely the government. – Relaxed Dec 11 '14 at 8:53
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    @Relaxed I'm all for metrication, but I don't think this commonly used anecdote is helpful to the case. It was a lack of contractor oversight and testing that caused the crash, not simply the system of measurements used. As Tom Gavin, an administrator of NASA's jet propulsion lab said, "This is an end-to-end process problem. A single error like this should not have caused the loss of Climate Orbiter. Something went wrong in our system processes in checks and balances that we have that should have caught this and fixed it." – Geobits Dec 11 '14 at 14:00
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    @Geobits Maybe, I don't have a strong opinion about this. But any major industrial accident involves several failures (cf. “Swiss cheese model”) and the use of different measurement system was apparently one of them in this case. The problem was obviously compounded by other failures but that's not really an argument one way or the other as complex systems always fail that way. – Relaxed Dec 11 '14 at 15:10
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    My point was merely that the case for the metric system rests more on standardization (between countries and within the country) than on any potential intrinsic advantage. Partial metrification (i.e. within the government but not all its contractors) is simply not a relevant test case so your contention that it makes no sense to invoke the anecdote because NASA was using metric units is a non sequitur. – Relaxed Dec 11 '14 at 15:11

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