Saturday, September 24, 2016

Self-Driving Cars and Nuclear Power, Part 2:

Echoes of Familiar Themes

When I started my previous blog, I realized that I had also stumbled upon another theme about self-driving cars that echoed the history of other technologies, and that is, predictions about the impacts of the technologies.  In this case, the predictions were about whether self-driving cars would help the environment or harm it.  The answer seemed to be a resounding YES!

The article really highlights the dilemmas of trying to make predictions when the final outcome depends not only on the technology, but on the rules that will govern it, and on how individual and collective behaviors will change.

In this case, self-driving cars conceptually will not need all the safety equipment we have on current automobiles.  This should save weight, and therefore, save fuel.  What the article doesn't address is whether the public and the regulators will even feel confident enough to remove requirements for safety equipment.  We have already seen one fatal accident in a self-driving car.  Will people want the anti-skid brakes and the airbags "just in case"?

But, say that we do eliminate some of the requirements for safety equipment, resulting in a significant energy savings.  The other side of the coin is to wonder what impact a self-driving car will have on individual behavior.  Will people move farther outside of town because the commuting time will no longer be wasted time, thus negating some of the energy savings.  Or, bizarrely, will people let their cars drive around endlessly in cities rather than paying for a parking space!  Or if they can't find a parking space.  (I shudder at the road congestion that would cause!)

The article raises other issues as well--will cars be permitted to drive faster, which is less fuel-efficient; will they be programmed to follow the most fuel-efficient route; etc.

Again, this dilemma reminds me of the fact that automobiles were initially perceived as being a great boon to the environment.  After all, they would eliminate all the pollution from horses on city streets!

Once again, at the very beginning of a technology, it is hard to envision all the ramifications a technology should have.  That's no excuse, of course.  This article does a service in pointing to some of the issues that need to be addressed in parallel with the technology development and the testing.  Further thought needs to be given to other potential impacts self-driving cars could have.  So far, most of the emphasis has been on the greater safety, and that is truly a big factor, but more thought needs to be given to the unintended consequences on energy use, road congestion, urban and rural communities, etc.

The same, of course, can be said of any new technologies.  In fact, another prime example would be power plants for electricity production.  A small number of any type of power plant has very little impact, but once you ramp up the percent penetration, you need to think more seriously about the amount of land required, the materials and manufacturing processes needed and their environmental impacts, the implications for the transmission grid and backup systems, and the impacts on air and water quality.

No technology is going to be perfect.  No technology is going to be optimal in all respects.  However, anticipating and planning for new technologies can help society make informed determinations about which technologies to use, where and how to deploy them, and how to minimize their negative impacts.   


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