Self-driving cars are a stupidly-expensive distraction

As you know, QuadRanting is no fan of autonomous vehicles. It’s not just that they are infinitely more difficult to achieve than their over-excited fans would have you believe, it’s that no one has really come up with a convincing reason why we need them.

Of course, since self-driving cars (SDCs) are the greatest of techno-narcissism’s current grands projets, the requirement for something as dreary as a worthwhile raison d’etre for them is considered to be an irrelevance. They’re exciting and theoretically achievable so let’s pour billions of dollars into them!

In the same way that the word ‘blockchain’ magically enables unscrupulous outfits to relieve gullible fools of their money, any story involving ‘self-driving cars’ is fully guaranteed to gain wholly uncritical media coverage, even in outlets that should know better. So when we learned that fully-autonomous vehicles will be on the UK’s roads by 2021, it was no surprise to hear the news not from the lips of Ricky the Magic Pixie but from those of the Rt. Hon. Philip Hammond MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

You have to ask why the automotive industry – huge, highly regulated and quite responsible at the operational level, though not existentially – would want to play silly buggers in this way. The answer is that by and large it doesn’t.

There is a smidgen of truth in the idea that the big automakers fear they’ll be put out of business by Google and other tech giants flexing their artificial intelligence muscles. But the manufacturers know they have more pressing threats to their future to worry about than toy cars adorned with $100,000 dollars-worth of sensors that need to be connected 100% of the time to a multi-billion dollar IT infrastructure that itself is guaranteed to be ‘up’ 100% of the time. Yup, 99.99% won’t be good enough. Especially when even Chris Urmson, the former Chief Technical Officer of self-driving cars at Google, recently said it’ll be at least 30 years before anyone achieves a truly self-driving car. So 2050, Mr Hammond, not 2021.

Above all, motor manufacturers understand that even relatively minor moves (in comparison to putting a fully autonomous vehicle on the roads), like developing a new hybrid drivetrain, are immensely complex global undertakings that span international supply chains, multiple vehicle regulators, varied climates, traffic rules and highway design protocols sales channels, and so on. Agreeing something as seemingly insignificant as a global standard for an electronic interface that allows different components to talk to each other can take many years.

It’s obvious that a lot of people are mentally constructing castles on the sand in order to clutch at pies in the sky.

But something has caused Wired.com, hitherto one of the most shameless boosters of all things autonomous, to inject a note of realism into its discourse. Perhaps someone there had a butchers at the rising tide of SDC stories and thought, “Hmm. What does that remind me of?”

Hype-cycle

In Before Self-Driving Cars Become Real, They Face These Challenges, Wired quotes Bryan Salesky, who heads up Ford-backed autonomous vehicle company Argo AI, saying (emphasis added):

“Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology.” Medium.com

Take note of the comment on safe deployment. Achieving Level 5 (total) automation will be incredibly difficult. From the Wired piece:

”Technology developers are coming to appreciate that the last 1 percent is harder than the first 99 percent,” says Karl Iagnemma, CEO of Nutonomy, a Boston-based self-driving car company acquired by automotive supplier Delphi this fall. “Compared to last 1 percent, the first 99 percent is a walk in the park.”

Do the math. He’s saying that when the SDC-ers get 99 percent of the way to Level 5, they’ll be less than half-way to actually putting the technology safely on the road. Unless the rate of development goes exponential, it will take decades to iron out the final bugs between Level 4 and Level 5. And while we’re at it, let’s mix-in the warning from Salesky, above: developers – or countries – that try to rush the process will kill people.

Wired calls Iagnemma a killjoy. Its piece concludes with the obligatory happy ending:

The good news is that there seems to be enough momentum to carry this new industry out of the trough and onto what Gartner calls the plateau of productivity. Not everyone who started the journey will make the climb. But those who do, battered and a bit bloody, may just find the cash up there is green, the robots good, and the view stupendous.

I suspect the phrase ‘battered and a bit bloody’ will sooner rather than later prove rather too literal as far as some passengers and bystanders are concerned. Expect it to come back to haunt Wired.

‘Stupendous’ looks misplaced as well. What the plateau delivers is well short of what peak hype promises. A Gartner curve adapted to SDCs might look like this:

Autonomous-Vehicle-Hype-cycle

I’m not sure we’ll exactly see a trough of disillusionment. People, especially in the media, are deeply wedded to the belief that everything is getting better and that technology can deliver all our dreams at the flick of a venture capitalist’s quiff. Unless or until there’s a global depression deep enough to scour right through the layers of hype, sheer techno-optimism will ensure the SDC-ers have sufficient Other People’s Money to burn.

Nevertheless, the climb up from reality setting in to the plateau of productivity will be a lot, lot longer than implied by the Gartner model. And the economic headwinds will be getting stronger all the way up. The market for any car, let alone a super whizz-bang expensive SDC, is shrinking along with the dwindling buying power of ordinary people.

Sounding somewhat desperate, one SDC start-up is aiming at retirement communities – clearly hoping that the pension ponzi doesn’t pop before its founders cash out. Another aims at disabled users. That’s a better idea, in that there’s actually a problem there that an SDC could be the solution to. But again, it’s a niche market that doesn’t justify the stratospheric cost of attaining Level 5. There are undoubtedly better and cheaper community-based solutions for disabled travellers.

All in all, SDCs are industrial civilisation’s equivalent of brilliant plumage in the animal kingdom or exotic blooms among plants. But unlike natural showing-off, which is developed to be sustainable over millennial timescales, SDCs are no more than hubristic adornments at the apex of a system that’s already running out of cheap energy and starting to drown in its own effluent.

When the history of the 21st century comes to be written, SDCs will undoubtedly feature on the list of Stupidly Expensive Diversions from Attending to Real Problems.

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Brexodus

All across our green and pleasant land, we hear, people are upping sticks and heading east. East to the lands of the rising sun. East where opportunity still knocks and trade flows freely. East to Paris. East to Bonn. East to Europe.

It’s Brexodus. People and companies leaving the UK because they believe that Bexit will make them uncompetitive or unwelcome here, or both. Or – to go by the examples given in Naked Capitalism’s latest report on the dire progress of Britain’s deluded Brexiteer negotiating team – it’s ‘Techsodus’.

Tech companies can’t find enough home-grown talent to grow themselves in places like London’s silicone roundabout – which I used to peel across on a motorcycle 30 years ago when it was still just dirty tarmac and fag butts. Smart IT euro-dudes have jumped at the chance to live in London and take the offered jobs. But Brexit will nix the UK as a worthwhile career option in a self-perpetuating spiral of work restrictions and departing employers. The euro-dudes can simply remain chez eux while ‘our’ jobs transfer across the channel to them.

Leavers argue that this is precisely the opportunity plucky Britannia needs. To forge a dynamic, sovereign, digital training sector to supply our own dynamic, sovereign, silicone industry. Well we could. But it will take three to five years to turn around. Why do pro-leavers think that employers – who can base their businesses anywhere in the world with electricity and broadband – are going to stay put and stagnate while they wait?

At least digital businesses have the advantage of mobility. What the clowns in charge of Brexit are threatening to let happen to UK motor manufacturing is truly frightening.

Oil Ain’t What it Used To Be

So there I was, being bemused about why BBC radio has a programme called Archive on 4 and another called the Archive Hour, when I caught an episode called Driven on Archive on 4.

Whichever series it was, wasn’t, isn’t or might be, the episode was about driverless cars. Mainly the sociological aspect of driverless cars. Will we take to them? Will they change us? Can we cope with the idea of not being in control?

Not, you’ll notice, are driverless cars economically feasible? As in, how likely is it that a society that today can barely afford to fill potholes will tomorrow be able to maintain the level of complexity-investment needed to build and operate fleets of autonomous vehicles?

During the programme, a voice from archive-land intoned that there are (or were – it could have been an old voice) 5.5 trillion barrels of oil still out there. One assumes they brought this up to head off any carping from dreary sceptics wishing to know whether the BBC had thought about the laws of thermodynamics before editing-together 58 minutes of speculation about our glorious autonomous future.

Anyway. Oil. Not a problem. Billions of BTUs at our service.

Or not. There’s a school of thought that says that oil ain’t what it used to be. Yes, it’s basically the self-same stuff that comes in styles ranging from too-light-for-vehicles to too-heavy-for-anything. But what today’s oil will do for you just isn’t as good as what yesterday’s did.

Yesterday’s oil – think fields in pre-WWII Texas or the 1950s Middle East – virtually jumped into your lap and rubbed its head under your chin. It was wonderfully eager and absolutely able to turn itself into interstate highways, space programmes, suburbs, the Internet and everything else we’ve come to think of as the foundations of a dazzlingly bright future full of .… oh, I don’t know .… full of self-driving cars.

But today’s oil. Oh dear. Today’s oil is a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-sand. You have to pour so much money into getting it to come out to play that there’s barely enough money/energy left over to keep patching up the systems we’ve got, let alone put a Tesla in everyone’s cooking pot (or was that a chicken?).

The ‘fracking miracle’, for example, is all about it being a fracking miracle that outlets like the BBC never mention how the only folk making money out of tight oil are Wall Street bankers whose loans keep drillers afloat so they in turn can pan-handle for investors’ cash to spend on extracting for $55 dollars a barrel what they can sell for only $50.

Today’s oil is also a bit pants as a transport fuel. Fracked oil is too light. So, to ‘Goldilocks’ it, you have to mix it with stuff from elsewhere. More expense. Still-fewer net BTUs left over to keep the economy from resetting to a lower level of complexity. ‘Lower level of complexity’ being shorthand for most people being unable to afford a lifestyle where self-driving cars had either purpose or meaning.

There’s still a reasonable supply of conventional, Mark 1 civilisation-building goop left but that’s been getting less and less every year since 2005. Also, more and more of it stays in its country of origin. That means less energy for UK PLC and its autonomous dreams. And less income for the producing countries to spend on importing our war machinery – sorry, defence equipment.

What was that, Sooty? We could make the autonomous cars electric? Well we could, Sooty. But do you think the people promoting self-driving cars do much systems thinking?

What do they think about the likelihood that running Bitcoin, for example – an entirely digital phenomenon – already uses as much electricity as the whole of Ecuador?

If simply mining imaginary coins takes the same amount of juice as running the world’s 64th largest economy, how much will it take to run the control systems for tens of thousands of autonomous cars? And that’s merely powering the central software: you’ll still need to power all the roadside hardware, the plethora of cameras, sensors and processors in the cars, and all the rest of it. And we haven’t included building and running the cars yet.

No-one’s asking what the point is of doing all driving this. The best the BBC archive could manage was a bit of wishy washy guff about freedom to travel. The main point of mass motoring was to turn oil – basically a smelly, flammable substance with useful chemical applications – into food, housing, supermarkets, hospitals, universities, containerloads of plastic dreck from China and so on .… aka civilisation …. on a scale never before conceived let alone achieved.

Take away oil and you take away most of the point of having cars. I’ll bet that there are a thousand more-efficient ways of turning sunlight into civilisation than perpetuating the massively energy-hungry automobile system.

Tell you what, Sooty, maybe you could sprinkle some oofle dust on our policymakers to help them think more imaginatively. What’s that? You haven’t got any left because Elon Musk already took it all for his Mars programme?

EVs and the renewable delusion

I wait for ages to read an article on my pet bugbears and then two come along at once.

Bugbear #1 is governments’ fond belief that the global auto fleet can somehow be entirely replaced with electric vehicles in the next 20 years.

Bugbear #2 is the Magical Thinking / Techno Green delusion that these billions of EVs, along with the rest of civilisation, can be sustained completely with renewable energy.

Kris de Decker dismantles the latter argument in How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone at Low Tech Magazine. Whatever way you look at it, trying to replicate the round-the-clock energy flows available from stored (fossil) sunlight using energy from current account sunlight (solar and wind) is beyond any conceivable future flow of capital.

And a pointed, if uneven, (raison d’etre does not mean ‘article of faith’) post on OilPrice.comElectric Vehicles: The High Cost Of Going Green – looks at the issue of job elimination in motor manufacturing as well as the challenges of upgrading infrastructure.

”two additional natural gas plants near Manchester have stalled because the developer has been unable to raise the dual project’s 800 million pounds required for them to be built.”

Indeed. If firms cannot raise relatively modest amounts of capital to install essential capacity running proven hardware, where will the thousands of billions come from to build EVs and fleets of wind and solar farms?

Both articles veer towards a point I keep making. Liquid fossil-fuelled Happy Motoring was a one-off. High energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROEI) fossil fuels are starting to diminish in the rear view mirror. What’s left is insufficient to maintain the global autos and transport infrastructure we built over the last century, let alone fund a multi-trillion dollar transition to renewable-powered EVs for everyone in a 30-year timeframe.

Put simply, shrinking the liquid-fossil-fuelled car fleet will shrink people’s ability to afford to make the switch to electric cars. My guess is that after a few more years of accelerating replacement of ICEs by Evs, there will be a Seneca cliff moment when sales of all types of private auto go into a steep decline.

When that happens, trucks, tractors, trains buses and ships will be where the action is. Very Victorian. But it will be a sweet thing – for a while at least – to own an electric bike shop.

Dominoes Fall for Self-Driving Cars

Latest hilarious development in the autonomous car saga is Ford’s breathless announcement that it’ll be providing self-driving cars for pizza deliveries in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Only, as with all autonomous vehicle stories, the whole will be considerably less than the sum of its parts. When tech-savvy Ann Arborians call up a 25-inch Quattro Staglione with extra everything and buckets of soda, it’ll traverse the city to their door in a vehicle laden down with a human driver (yes, really) plus a few Ford technicians, not to mention all the auntonomising gubbins on the car’s roof, sides and ends.

The hungry customers must then liberate their pizza from a ‘hot box’ squeezed into the trunk alongside more car-tech. Obviously, they’ll need to avoid eye contact with the car’s occupants since any acknowledgement of a human presence will ruin the self-driving vibe.

Domino’s Pizzas openly state that they’re only actually interested in the final 50 feet of the pizza’s journey, since the big worry is that customers will prove too lazy to walk out to the road to collect their meal – and let’s be honest, the customer is really only thinking about their pizza’s final five inches.

Mr Pizza must be hugely grateful to Mr Ford for creating a carbon footprint the size of the Tour de France merely to deliver smallish slabs of dough, cheese and toppings around a small city.

I think we can safely bet that Mr Pizza’s ultimate vision is not so much Ford/Tesla as small, self-piloting, heated mobile sideboards handling 25 deliveries at a time. The only catch being that the ruinous societal cost of all the thermodynamic dead-ends represented by autonomous cars will so impoverish Domino’s customer base that the only folk who can afford their product will be the very rich, who’d never dream of subjecting their bodies to the wellbeing downsides of a take-away pizza.

Whatever happened to the driverless car?

 

Is that a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a flying car.

Doubtless egged-on by the hype lavished on driverless cars, wild promises of levitating family autos are all the rage again.

Yup, the prospect of flying to meetings in your own car instead of a helicopter is right back on the agenda.

Terrafugia Flying Car Prototype on Road

See – here is the TF-X, Terrafugia’s bid for aero-motoring immortality. A deeply unsexy prototype that could become a sleek, er, road-legal helicopter-cum-plane.

fly-car-rendering

Call me a bit skeptical but to my untrained eye the TF-X visualised in the pics displays all the aerodynamic qualities of a Corgi toy attached to a lolly stick. Those skinny wings might lift a super-flyweight body – but not something that would conceivably get an NCAP collision rating for a family vehicle.

Since the first object you encounter on the project’s web page is a button labelled “$ Invest”, it’s a safe bet that there’s a long way to go and a lot of cash to burn before ‘une brique volante’ lands in a back garden near you. Ad astra per pecunia you could say.

(And by the way, what’s with the utterly crapola and mega-depressing, round-the-back-of-in-industrial-unit-next-to-the-dumpsters destination of the TF-X in the promo? Failure of imagination or a teeny hint that flying cars won’t fit in normal workplace parking bays?)

But each to his own, I say. It’s your money. If you’re excited enough to invest, be my guest. Really, if you think that road-legal helicopters have a future, I think someone might have a Moller M400 Skycar to sell you.

With driverless cars, at least there are a few potential benefits – like having multi-user vehicles that deliver themselves to drivers. The reason flying cars have remained a pipe dream since the 1950s is they’re basically a solution looking for a problem.

On wait! Silly me. Of course, we’ll soon have self-driving flying cars. Where else could today’s utterly fabulous technology lead us?

The title of this article? Oh, that’s just irony.

Car-boom!

Yesterday’s Guardian G2 section led with the somewhat self-consciously juvenile word, ‘Vroom!’.

Subtitled ‘Why Britain can’t stop buying new cars‘, the cover story tried to answer why car sales are rising in the UK while stagnating everywhere else in Europe.

It provided a handy platform for assorted industry mouthpieces to congratulate Britons on being clever little consumers. Apparently we are becoming adept at signing personal leases and/or rushing into car dealerships to blow PPI payouts on deposits on car loans.

And to be fair, £69 a month for a brand new Skoda Citigo runaround isn’t a lot more than a his’n’hers iPhone/iPad contract. Assuming of course that you can chop your old car in for the £2,500 deposit.

And to be fairer than fair, the writer did ask some awkward questions. Why are fewer and fewer young people bothering to learn to drive? Why are annual mileages dropping?

Naturally, the industry came back with ready-prepared answers. Young people just need the right kind of ‘marketing’ to turn them back on to car ownership: cue ‘cool’ car ads that are so painful you want to stick needles in your eyes. Mileages are really falling only in London and the south east, because public transport is quite good there and executive-level company car users all use Skype or the phone these days.

To be honest, it all sounded rather defensive. The overall picture painted by the article was that of an industry whose existing customers are happy to use alternatives when they become available while potential new customers are increasingly disinclined, not to mention financially unable, to contemplate buying its products.

Cheap credit and the fact that Britain is not in the euro are behind this mini boom in UK car sales. The article pointed out that carmakers are assiduously pumping production into the UK to try to keep their factories humming as demand in the eurozone collapses.

The big risk to the UK car business is that it is storing up big problems further down the road. Sales are being bought expensively through wafer thin margins, heightened credit risks and discounts that end up depressing second values and thus hurting the all important fleet sector, which makes up half the market.

So the answer to the Guardian’s question appears to be: ‘Because British car buyers are easily-influenced novelty-seekers with an underdeveloped sense of consequences. Rather like four-year-olds.

A much more interesting question, which hopefully the Guardian will get round to investigating, is why so many Europeans have apparently broken themselves of the new car habit?

What do they see that we don’t?