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It’s day two of the transportation events at SXSW and I don’t really get it. It’s my first time at the tech conference here in Austin, but so far, these panels don’t seem like they’re worth the carbon emissions of the plane ride to get here.
There’s a lot of talk about how autonomous vehicles are going to change the world.
There’s a lot of talk about how EVs are the future.
While I personally believe those are pretty safe predictions, there’s been a conspicuous lack of discussion about how we’ll get there and what it will cost.
Yesterday afternoon, Kyle Vogt, CEO of autonomous vehicle company Cruise, spoke with General Motors CEO Mary Barra. If you didn’t know any better, you’d have left that panel thinking that Cruise’s coming fleet of driverless cars could have the climate crisis pretty much wrapped up by 2025.
I’m not trying to discount how impressive the company’s tech is or how autonomous vehicles will revolutionize society. But scientists have shown that rideshare services increase congestion, and autonomous vehicles could potentially double carbon emissions in the United States, if the tech is implemented the wrong way. While Vogt may be keenly aware of these pitfalls, the discussion never ventured anywhere near the edge of these waters.
I also have yet to hear a substantive conversation about how we’re going to source the astronomical amounts of lithium and other metals necessary to power this transition. I haven’t heard anyone talk about how to decarbonize the mining process. Nobody has dared to bring up the millions of rideshare workers who will lose their jobs as autonomous vehicles expand their reach, save for when Vogt pointed out that the human was the most expensive part of Uber and Lyft’s business model.
These are, admittedly, hard questions, and I certainly don’t have answers for them. But it would be both more interesting and somewhat reassuring to watch these industry leaders debate or at least acknowledge them. I’m not asking for a 4-hour lecture on the optimal way to distribute federal funding, but my kingdom for a panel moderator who asks “Where do you see the biggest challenges?” or “What are you the most worried about?” or “How do we make sure this technology doesn’t worsen the inequality in this country?”
In a nearly full session this morning Shailen Bhatt, the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, joked that his time slot on Transforming America’s Highways and Transportation Infrastructure was competing against Ryan Gosling interviewing Keanu Reeves.
Which is to say the people attending these panels care about transportation and emissions and infrastructure. They aren’t dumb and their time is valuable. They recognize the potential afforded by these technologies and the opportunity in Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan. I think we’re ready for a slightly more nuanced discussion here.
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