The Complexities of Transportation
I recently came across several articles related to transportation--well, very loosely related, in one case--that once again show why it is so difficult to predict the consequences of new technologies on energy use.
Much of the problem has to do with human behavior. We often assume that a new technology will take cars off the road, and therefore reduce pollution and congestion. Wrong! Some recent articles on autonomous cars and on e-scooters suggest that we are finding otherwise. Rather than replacing cars, autonomous cars may be taking people out of public transportation, and e-scooters may be attractive mainly to people who would otherwise walk.
One study on autonomous cars was particularly interesting. The article reports on a survey of commuters done by the University of Adelaide questioning them on vehicle ownership and use, vehicle sharing, etc. While the people doing the study saw a significant potential for driverless vehicles to reduce traffic congestion in the long term, they discovered that commuter attitudes, the price of new technology, and other factors may make the transition a slow one. In fact, they initially foresee an adverse impact on public transport, and a likely increase in traffic congestion over the next few decades.
And I note that this article didn't even address another congestion factor that I saw discussed elsewhere. In cities where parking is difficult to find and expensive, there may be a tendency to let driverless cars just wander around the streets between uses, which would greatly increase traffic congestion.
Another study focused on e-scooters in Paris. The biggest surprise to me was the statement that the scooters don't replace cars, they "motorize walking trips." In addition to that, the article noted a slew of of other ecological downsides. Although they are billed as carbon-free, they still require energy and materials to build, generating carbon in the process, and they have a short life span (due to both wear-and-tear and to vandalism), so must be replaced frequently. They are being rented out and left in different places, so they have to be gathered up every day and brought to an area for recharging. A lot are ending up in the river and must be retrieved.
While both of these reports are from outside the US, the findings appear relevant. Certainly, Americans are known for their love affair with their automobiles, so I suspect that a survey on autonomous cars in the US would have similar results to the one in Australia. And the article on e-scooters in Paris also quoted a study in the US that showed that most e-scooters are replacing walking or biking, not automobiles. In fact, the US study showed that the electricity for charging was only a small percentage of the e-scooter's environmental impact--most of the emissions were from the materials and manufacturing, and from driving around to pick the scooters up.
Obviously, both these studies could--and should--lead to efforts to address at least some of the issues raised. For example, financial incentives might be possible to counter concerns about the price of autonomous vehicles, and electric vans could be used to pick up e-scooters. But the articles do highlight the fact that introducing new technologies is not enough to achieve the expected--and desired--outcomes. Factors such as those identified in the articles need to be raised and addressed. And even with that, human nature and other factors suggest that we may have to temper our expectations about how much some of the new technologies will reduce pollution, carbon use, congestion, etc.
The final article I saw recently initially looked to me like it was going to tell a different story. It addressed the energy uses of streaming videos. I naturally thought about all the car trips on-demand access is potentially saving compared to the "good old days" when we had to pick up DVDs at Blockbuster. Therefore, I was surprised at their conclusion that Netflix and its competitors are not as good for the environment as I would have guessed! What the article made clear was that sitting in our living rooms, we don't see that energy is required for the streaming services. And the higher the definition of our TV screens, the larger the data files that have to be streamed. As always, the article notes that there are options--higher efficiencies at the source, convincing users to choose lower resolutions, and having the streaming services use clean energy sources.
While all of this may sound unduly negative, that is not my intention. My intention is only to point out that the new technologies do not operate in a vacuum, and whether or not they achieve their full potential depends a lot on whether appropriate measures are taken to address human tendencies, comparative costs, convenience, and many other factors.