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Is Greenhouse Warming a Good Pretext for Selling Driverless Cars?

By Stan Cox - Resilience, November 6, 2017

The automakers and IT giants are predicting that autonomous vehicles (AVs or “driverless cars”) will play a big role in reducing America’s currently extravagant emissions of greenhouse gases. In this claim (as in the assertion that flying cars will be more energy efficient than helicopters), climate mitigation is serving not as a goal but as a selling point for a lucrative new technology that society doesn’t need.

Most of the academic discussion of autonomous vehicles assumes the gradual introduction of both personal and shared electric AVs into the market. During that lengthy transition, AVs presumably will ply the streets and highways alongside human-driven electric and internal-combustion vehicles. How this is going to take us toward deep reductions in greenhouse emissions is not clear; the expectation appears to be that market forces and government incentives will somehow push the system toward fully autonomous, electrified transportation powered exclusively by renewable sources.

But the 100-percent renewable dream is a mirage, and AV cars will not bring it to life. That’s not due to any shortcomings of AVs; on the contrary, the technology’s failure to resolve the climate problem will be a result of the many attractive features that a successful AV-based system would offer—all of which will have the effect of increasing greenhouse emissions.

In a commentary on autonomous vehicles, Shelie Miller and Brent Heard of the University of Michigan wrote, “From an environmental point of view, the intrinsic technical attributes of AVs appear to be largely favorable.” However, they continued, it is “travel behavior patterns” that may have the greater influence, and that influence will be more negative.

The logic is simple: a better riding experience will encourage more riding. According to AV developers, the new vehicles will elevate the experience by offering more efficient operation and lower operating expense; improving safety; reducing driver stress and fewer road-rage incidents; freeing up hands, eyes, and attention for more useful tasks or more pleasant activities; reducing traffic congestion; putting an end to parking hassles; and offering greater mobility for young people, the elderly, and the disabled.

All of those benefits are already provided by public transportation. But most Americans’ goal is to be able to travel seamlessly door to door, and to do so without having to share space with  people they don’t know. Those desires, often sharpened by class bias, are a chief reason that most people who can afford to buy and operate a car (or can pay to be driven in a car) elect to stay off the train, bus, or subway.

Personal AVs offer to eliminate both the inconvenience of public transit and the hassles of driving, creating a system that appears at first glance to be the best of both worlds. As a result, incentives to travel even more miles per day will be intense. (Conversely, if Murphy’s Law remains in force and AVs don’t manage to deliver many of the promised personal benefits, miles traveled will not increase as much.)

Until AVs go into large-scale production, all projections of how America’s transportation systems will evolve are highly speculative. Nevertheless, a number of studies have attempted to model that evolution, their assumptions being based on what we know about how humans use transportation today.

The models show that under most scenarios, personal AVs will tend to increase the total vehicle miles traveled. When commuting time becomes less of a burden, people will be less inclined to live close to their workplaces. Suburban sprawl and attendant commuting distances are expected to increase. Parents will be able to send children off to school in their own car instead of having to drive a carpool or ask the kids to walk or ride the school bus. Commuters arriving at work be able to send their vehicles, empty, back out to the suburbs for cheaper or free parking, or to be plugged in. Cars could even be sent on solo errands, whether necessary or frivolous—maybe even to pick up a lunch box forgotten in one’s morning rush out the door.

Personal AVs would also make long-distance travel more appealing. One article speculates about “the use of AVs as mobile dwellings or luxury overnight sleeping compartments in lieu of higher density long-distance modes of travel.” In an AV world, use of all types of non-car public transportation is certain to decrease, and some fear that with reduced ridership, transit systems will go into a downward spiral—a disaster for those who can’t afford to buy or operate personal vehicles or ride-sharing services. Whether it’s in big cities or in regions with widely dispersed, smaller cities and limited public transportation (think Iowa or central Pennsylvania), per capita annual miles traveled will increase significantly once AVs are widely adopted.

The self-driving feature also comes at a high cost in energy efficiency. According to Bloomberg, the control systems for AVs “consume two to four kilowatts of electricity — the equivalent of having 50 to 100 laptops continuously running in the trunk.”

(The argument has been made that an increase in travel miles won’t matter if cars are powered by renewable electricity. But it will matter very much. Through much of the coming decades-long struggle to eliminate all fossil-fueled power generation, large portions of the national power supply will remain dirty. Meanwhile, every additional kilowatt-hour of wind or solar generation that goes to power a growing fleet of electric vehicles will be unavailable for traditional uses of electricity like lighting homes, refrigerating food, and reading online articles about self-driving cars. That will push even farther into the future the day when fossil-fueled electricity is eliminated. If we want ever to see that happy day, we will have to structure society in ways that will consume much less electricity, not more.)

The Fortress World of Capitalism vs. the Beautiful Possibilities of Cooperation

By Cynthia Kaufman - Common Dreams, July 7, 2017

Our beloved world is entering an increasingly unstable period, full of dangers and also full of possibilities. In many countries, old political parties are crumbling faster and anyone thought imaginable. Old geopolitical alliances have come unglued as the US comes to exercise its role as world hegemon in new and unpredictable ways. The development of the internet, of mobile phones and of apps has led to incredible disruption of many aspects of many societies: from how we pay for and listen to music, to how we consume and propagate information and news, to how we shop for almost anything. All that is solid is melting into air.

At this crossroads it is possible that the global community will move in the direction that the dominant social forces seem to be pushing us towards. That possibility has been called “fortress world.” It is a world where we continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy the atmosphere; where climate refugees desperate to leave Africa are forced by military means to stay in a continent with a decreasing ability to produce food; where finance capital fashions a “market” that continue to squeeze working class people to into extreme poverty; where xenophobia rises in the wealthier countries and keeps masses of people voting for politicians who serve the masters of an extractive and unequal economy. That fortress world is a real possibility and the election of Donald Trump is certainly a sign that this worse future may be on the way.

But it is also possible to build a future where fossil fuels are phased out very quickly, where the political forces that oppose the domination of finance capital come to win elections, and where we work hard to create an economy where no one needs to work very hard.

The technical solutions to the climate crisis are already well at hand. Renewable energy is now economically competitive with fossil fuels, and alternatives to dirty technologies have emerged in virtually every sector of production. The problem of poverty and wealth is also an easy one to solve on a technical level. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, and our technology has developed to the point where we can meet our needs with very little work.

To give one simple illustration of how within reach a better life for all is: take the total personal income in the United States. Divide it by the number of people, and multiply by four. It turns out that the average family of four could have $220,000 per year to live on if we had income equality.  Imagine raising minimum wages, taxing the wealthy, and providing a guaranteed minimum income as ways of distributing that income. Imagine reducing work hours so that, as productivity when up, work time could go down, and work could be shared among those who needed an income. One of the main arguments against this approach is that without the profit incentive our technology would not develop. Imagine worker owner cooperatives developing better ways of doing things and sharing the wealth that comes from those developments with the people who work on them.

A new wave of automation is about to hit the world’s economies so hard that millions of service jobs will be lost in the coming period. People are starting to talk about the need for a guaranteed minimum income to deal with that displacement. If that wave hits the US with the current political consensus in place, it will mean another giant step toward the fortress world, as some people profit enormously while others have no access of the means to survive.

Driverless Cars: Hype, Hubris and Distractions

By Ralph Nader - Common Dreams, June 26, 2017

The hype and unsubstantiated hope behind the self-driving car movement continues unabated, distracting from addressing necessities of old “mobilities” such as inadequate public transit and upgrading highway and rail infrastructure.

At a conference on Driverless Cars sponsored by the George Washington University Law School earlier this month, the legal landscape of unresolved problems and unasked questions were deliberated for a full day:

What are the legal requirements that should be applied to the testing phase, the deployment phase, liability and insurance, impacts on displaced workers, cyber-security, privacy, and antitrust? A takeaway from this gathering was the number of mind-numbing unresolved systems awaiting this new, untested technology.

First, a little background – car ownership and car sales are expected to flatten or decline due to ride-sharing and a new generation of consumers that is less inclined to purchase motor vehicles. How is the industry to react? By adding high-priced value to motor vehicles, already described as computers on wheels. Voilà, the race for the driverless car! The mass media took the bait and over-reported each company’s sensationalized press releases, announcing breakthroughs without disclosing the underlying data. The arrogance of the algorithms, among many other variables, bypassed simple daily realties, such as bustling traffic in cities like New York.

In the shadows were the daily tribulations of Americans just trying to get to and from work, especially the poor and those who don’t own a vehicle.

Don’t expect driverless cars to be taking over anytime in the next few decades. Autonomous vehicles do not exist in the autonomous contexts of daily life. Start with how to fit these futuristic vehicles in a sea of over two hundred fifty million driven vehicles in the US. It’s easy to score driverless vehicles in well-orchestrated courses with minimum traffic over low mileage. Apply that controlled scenario to the scale and complexity of  actual roads with actual drivers in actual conditions and the difficulties multiply enormously.

The Robot Economy: Ready or Not, Here It Comes

By JP Sottile - Truthout, May 7, 2017

September 17th changed everything.

On that day in 2013, Oxford University published an innocuously titled academic paper by two mostly unknown economists. But "The Future of Employment" wasn't just another number-crunching exercise in opacity by a couple of dreary scientists. No, their bombshell report portended a coming robot apocalypse that could change the nature of human civilization, and perhaps even human beings themselves.

Thankfully, the forthcoming carnage described by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne isn't a doomsday scenario where Skynet systematically wipes out humankind, or a darkly lit near-future where attractive Replicants violently struggle to make sense of their emerging emotions in a perpetually damp Los Angeles.  

Instead, the economists previewed an all-too-real world where the second-richest man on the planet -- Amazon's Jeff Bezos -- gleefully parades around like Sigourney Weaver in a massive robotic exoskeleton built by Hankook Mirae Technology.

They presaged the impending doom from robots like Handle, the Michael Jordan-esque robot built by Boston Dynamics. Handle can leap like a superhero, can run a marathon in under three hours and, if Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son is right, will probably be smarter than you in just a few decades.

They foresaw a future with the likes of Gordon, the "first robotic barista in the U.S." Gordon can serve "about 120 coffees in an hour." They also predicted the likes of Otto, the self-driving big-rig designated by Uber to deliver truckloads of beer to thirsty consumers. And then there's Pepper, the empathic, "day-to-day" companion that is not just working in airports and banks, but being "adopted" into Japanese homes … and even "enrolling" in school.