Do Self-Driven Cars Spell Doom for the Climate?
And should they remain consigned to sci-fi?
To drive or not to drive. This may be a question you will ask yourself when getting into your car in 6 months/1 year/2 years/5 years or 10 depending on who you ask and how much they’ve invested or they’re invested in “self driving” technologies. Much like we’ve been promised flying cars for the best part of half a century, we’re being promised that the dream of fully autonomous vehicles is just around the corner. But the reality paints a starkly different picture. Cars touted as self-driven today offer little in the way of autonomous driving. Tesla’s FSD, which stand for Full Self-Driving barely fulfils the criteria. Tesla itself claims:
While our cars require active driver supervision and are not fully autonomous today, the FSD computer is capable of delivering intelligent performance and control to enable a new level of safety and autonomy, without impacting cost or range.
So what can they do? Vehicles from Tesla and more conventional manufacturers including BMW, Hyundai, VW, Mercedes and Volvo can follow defined lanes, use radar to keep a safe distance from the car you’re following and even change lanes! Change lanes! Full. Self. Drive. The illusion of millions of autonomous vehicles cruising along the roads in perfect synchronisation has lead to companies spending billions upon billions on the technology. But in reality, what is the true benefit of self-driving cars? And the true cost?
The True Cost
We’re in the middle of a pandemic. As the richest nations in the world gorge themselves silly on booster vaccines while denying Africans even their first dose, does it really make sense for governments to pour billions into the self-driving car industry? The US government alone planned to pour $4 billion into the industry 5 years ago. Why? The US lets free market economics have a free run for pretty much everything including lifesaving drugs and health insurance, why bother with nascent technology?
The next question is the policy investment. There are no laws around self-driving vehicles. When one crashes into a bicyclist or another car or a building, we don’t know who’s responsible. The TikToker in the backseat or the maker of the car? There’s a massive shift in policy which will require massive investment to design and debate laws around this tech. We know governments, made up of old men in general, tend to struggle to get ahead of technology. This is no exception. Until then, car makers are expected to be liable for accidents involving their cars. In some states of the US. Some others like Nevada protect the manufacturer from liability. A patchwork of regulation is a recipe for disaster. If a state disagrees with a city, the parties are in for a rough ride in court. It would be disingenuous of me to ignore the obvious benefits promised (and delivered) by self driving cars.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Self-driving cars are safe. This comes with caveats like perfect roads and operating conditions but in those circumstances, they’re proven to be safer than human drivers. In fact, even slightly safer cars than ones we have today can potentially save thousands of lives. They’re also convenient. It is admittedly easier to let a car drive you on a highway. But that’s about it. They’re not proven to be better for fuel consumption yet. Nor have they brought significant reductions in terms of infrastructure required such as traffic lights and signages (if anything, they need more explicit signage). And while these are mostly electric vehicles and will reduce emissions (attributed to electric vehicle technology, not self-drive), they will not reduce congestion on our roads. You might ask then, what I suggest we do with the capability we have today for this technology? Well, let me suggest an alternative.
The way we move people has remained essentially unchanged over a hundred years. Buses, metros and monorails have followed the same principals over their lifetimes. Yet, self drive technology presents immense opportunity to invest in mass transit. Everyone loves mass transit when it works for them. Making the operational costs lower with reduced infrastructure as intelligent autonomous buses and trains begin to ply routes will allow budgets to improve conditions and add capacity which can decongest roads, reduce our carbon footprint and make cities liveable. Did you know that public transport has incredible ROI? Meanwhile, Deloitte doesn’t seem to enthusiastic about autonomous vehicles at all and gives us all a reality check into the “technology of the future”.
Public transport has few — if any — downsides. It improves connectivity and lends vibrancy to a culture. It can become part of the city lore and have a unique place in the hearts of residents such as the London Underground or the Mumbai Local. It can become the lifeblood of businesses, create jobs and boost economic productivity. And, better air quality! Fewer cars on streets! Lesser noise!
Capitalism theorises that in a free market, the money follows the best opportunity to make a return. However, this is rarely the case in reality. Money follows speculation. Speculation over the promised land of fabulous wealth and billion dollar valuations. Public Transport is boring. No one will make billions on it. But every single resident of that town or village or city will benefit.
Yet today, a billionaire making a few billions more is more important to us than the millions of poor availing even a few dollars more worth of value out of their lives.