Self-driving cars – hope springs eternal


Idly listening to KMO on the C-Realm Vault while doing the washing-up, his conversation turned to self-driving cars (SDCs). Like a lot of us, KMO is somewhat on the rebound from what you might call ‘Stage One’ peak oil so he’s inclined to give SDCs a free pass. You know the idea: people won’t own cars – instead they’ll hail an SDC when they need to get somewhere, and it’ll first drive itself to them and then drive them to their destination.

KMO is clearly frustrated with some other members of the Mark One Peak Oil Clan, particularly JHK, who decry SDCs as just another example of grandiose techno-narcissism. He said that if SDCs and/or advanced car sharing helps shift people away from ownership towards ‘usership’ or ‘ridership’, then that’s one way to make people more discerning and sustainable about the travel choices they make. He suggested that rides could be priced lower if you booked in advance. For example, if you book a ride to get to a routine doctor’s appointment several days in advance, it’d be cheaper than deciding to go on a spur-of-the-moment trip to see Auntie Mabel in Hertford or Hartford (you say tomato).

Well, that’s a pricing model you already find in train and airline fares as well as some taxis I dare say. It’s not really an argument for SDCs though. SDCs still boil down to an attempt to perpetuate ‘one-user-at-a-time’ vehicle use (‘one’ in this case meaning a single passenger or a bunch of people making a trip together). You’ll still have cars spending a lot of time empty, only they’ll be moving while empty (to get to the next user). From the oil industry’s perspective (as Dmitry Orlov suggests, cars’ first duty is to burn petroleum), SDCs are a brilliant idea. Unlike human-piloted cars, which waste the oil industry’s time when parked, SDCs can be burning oil round the clock.

There is already a more-efficient model for this version of perpetual motion: the Israeli sherut. These are minibuses or minivans that are a cross between a bus and a taxi. They don’t run on set routes but pick up passengers as they go, setting them down more or less in order depending on how the passengers’ destinations pan out. Doubtless the engineers could come up with a self-driving sherut capable of recognising when someone wanted to get in, and then computing and recomputing routes as passengers got on and off. But you need to weight up the differences between a human driver, who does that in their head and can run on tea and falafels, and the vast, energy-hungry techno-complex of servers, satellites, cell towers, programmers, etc., needed to operate SDCs. Makes SDCs look even more like a 500-tonne press looking for a sparrow’s egg to crush.

But to get back to the real function of cars, which is to turn fossil goo into industrial civilisation, multi-user SDCs run completely counter to purpose. Granted, an SDC will potentially use 85%-95% more fuel than an ICE because it will operate round the clock if the demand is there (in KMO’s variable pricing model, poor people would travel between midnight and 6am when demand was light enough for them to be able to afford to ride). Trouble is, once the imperative to possess personal cars is removed, the scale of the car industry goes with it.

And what’s in that for the oil industry? There are around 30 million passenger cars in the UK. Say each one has 10 litres of fuel on board. That’s about £360 million, including taxes, paid up front to the industry and government just to have petrol and diesel sitting around doing nothing 95% of the time. Ker-ching. Year in, year out. Kill off the need to own cars and you kill off the oil business, which for Western economies will feel like cutting off an arm and a leg and removing the liver.

Eventually, car ownership will disappear anyway because oil is a finite resource but as every good student of history knows, the way to bow to the inevitable is to do so very, very slowly. You certainly don’t want to hand the inevitable your head on a plate. Sigh. But techno narcissism (© James Howard Kunstler) is a fierce fire in the human breast. Look at the investors throwing away billions on Uber year after year.

SDCs are as logical and promising as lead balloons but, as long as the likes of even KMO see them as a twinkly hope for a better future, the saga will keep on running.