For over half a century, cars have been a central part of the American dream. The building of the interstate highway system helped increase shipping speeds and allow for faster transportation from point to point, but the spread of the car came to connote much more. It represented freedom, prosperity, and ownership in the American Century. The car itself grew to be considered an extension of its driver’s personality, as every country boy craved a pickup truck and every teenager wanted a hot rod. Little has changed, and the appetite for cars is continuing to grow worldwide. This is not necessarily a good thing for humanity. One of the most widespread comparisons made by any product making green claims is its effect in comparison to taking cars off of the road (i.e. Using this new bottle saves the same amount of emissions as taking 40,000 cars off the road), underscoring the environmental challenges that the worldwide demand for cars dictates. Nobody besides Jeremy Clarkson believes that cars do not play a part in the degradation of the environment in which we live, yet cars have become such a central part of life that it is quite impossible to imagine life without cars (unless you live in New York City). There has been a recent push to make cars more economical, and all indications are that we will continue to make good gains there. I remember while taking one class in school, the professor showed us a graph of the efficiency of cars versus the fuel economy, and while the efficiency grew on a continuous, nearly straight line, the fuel economy began to flatten out a few decades ago as more and more accessories were added to cars. Luckily, increasingly tough fuel economy standards are leading to jumps in car economy despite the continued rise in accessories, but today, news came of a new accessory that seems destined to, at the very least, set off a debate about the very reason of cars, a self-driving car. This article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/science/10google.html?_r=1&ref=science goes over a few of the specifics.
There are many MANY debates that can be had about this idea, and if anybody finds any good discussions on any part of this project I encourage them to post it below, but in this forum it is most important to ask what the possible impact is on environmental sustainability. It does not seem to be an environmental game-changer, but there are some clues as to how it might help on a more modest level. The initial thought is that the car would be able to maximize fuel economy by cutting out the human element and driving at the most efficient cruising speeds. There is a problem with this theory. Since the speed limits exist for increased safety, if every car on the road is able to move quickly without jeopardizing the safety of the occupants, then the call would of course begin for these cars to go faster, and there would be a resulting loss of fuel economy. If we are able to switch to a heavily renewable energy source and use plug-in electrical vehicles, then such a raised power demand might have low environmental costs, otherwise I am not so sure.
Beyond this, there is also the thought that there could come a time where nobody would “own” a car, instead simply ordering a car when they needed it (like a Zipcar except the car comes to the consumer instead of vice versa). This is an intriguing thought. I find it hard to believe that people would give up the status symbols that cars have become, but with the ever-growing list of communities that use Zipcar-like services, there is certainly a market for this concept, and, while it may not happen in my father’s lifetime, may very well be implemented in mine.
Those are my initial thoughts on the Google automatic cars. If you have any further thoughts or want me to expand on my ideas, please post them!