Saturday, September 17, 2016

Self-Driving cars and Nuclear Power, Part 1:

Echoes of Familiar Themes

No, I'm not going to advocate nuclear power for self-driving cars!  I was just struck by a couple of articles I've seen over the past few days that demonstrated to me some fundamental similarities among diverse technological developments.

In the first case, someone pointed me to a couple of articles in IEEE Spectrum about the history of self-driving cars.  One article cites reports dating as far back as 1958, while the other references a previous IEEE Spectrum article in 1969.  Both articles are optimistic about the future of self-driving cars, and to read them now, one would have thought the technology was around the corner.  And this was before all the modern computer and other technology that is being applied to the current demonstration models of self-driving cars.

As it happens, these two articles were sent to me just days after someone else sent me a list of predictions being made today in a variety of areas.

My point here is not to delve into the the pluses and minuses of all the recent predictions, or to try to assess the details of self-driving cars, then and now.  I am not an expert in most of these areas, and will leave that assessment to others.  But what did strike me is that elements of both these discussions seem eerily similar to the expectations for nuclear power in the early days.

When I worked at DOE in the early 2000s, I often gave talks on the Generation IV activities we were then just beginning.  One of my points addressed the "new" nuclear reactor technologies we were planning to pursue, such as molten-salt technology.  I remember one memorable evening when the first person that I recognized in the Q&A session after I completed my talk chided me gently for calling molten-salt reactor technology "new."  He himself, it turned out, had participated in the early work on molten-salt reactors--some 50 years before my talk!

And furthermore, that work on molten-salt reactors was associated with an ambitious program to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft, an effort that, for a number of reasons, never came to fruition.

All of which brings to mind that famous quote:  "It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future."  (I had always seen this attributed to Yogi Berra, but I have recently seen claims attributing it to a number of other people, including Neils Bohr.)

This is not to say that all predictions are wrong.  Far from it.  Clearly, the successful implementation of a ground-breaking new technology depends on a number of factors.  Sometimes, the technology just isn't advanced enough.  Sometimes it costs too much.  Sometimes there is a better alternative introduced at the same time.  Sometimes the need isn't there yet.  Sometimes, politics or public opinion or unexpected current events create barriers.  Sometimes, some or all of these factors change over the course of 50 years, and what didn't succeed before ends up succeeding the second time around.  Or the third time.

I personally am very hopeful about this current generation of self-driving cars, and I am very hopeful about the current round of development on advanced reactor technologies.  But I take heed of the lessons of history to note that all new technologies face challenges and potential roadblocks, some from the technologies themselves and some from other sources.  This is not pessimism, it is realism, and it suggests that proponents and advocates need to understand all the complex factors that may affect their plans and try, wherever possible, to address them in a timely fashion.  

I can only end by invoking another quote, this one, I'm pretty sure is only attributed to Yogi Berra:  "It ain't over 'til it's over." 


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