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Driving ourselves to environmental disaster

When everyone has a self-driving car, the roads will be much safer, but whatever will we do with all our current vehicles?
Illustrative. 'Drivnig' a self-driving car. (iStock)
Illustrative. 'Drivnig' a self-driving car. (iStock)

I was driving with my kids the other day. I had sleepy belly — our delicious lunch made me crave a nap. If only our car was self-driving, I told my kids, then I could have a nap on the way home, too. That launched us into a lengthy discussion on one of my kids’ favorite topics — transportation technology.

Ever since their father (consider this is a disclosure) started working at Mobileye, we talk about automated driving technologies A LOT! Their mother, me, is an ardent environmentalist and waste management expert.

Our discussion arrived at a critical point. How do we embrace self-driving cars with their potential to reduce traffic, lighten the burden on our roads, and improve safety without causing an environmental disaster along the way? When the world goes fully self-driving, what is going to happen to all the cars currently on the road?

We’re going to have a LOT of vehicles to scrap. What are we going to do with all those scrapped cars as we make the shift to a critical mass of self-driving cars on the road. Everyone is going to give up their personal cars and instead embrace the self-driving revolution? What size car graveyard are we going to need, in Israel? Globally? At what environmental cost?

We can’t just have a few self-driving cars on the road; we need full road saturation for this technology to prove fully functional. From my personal experience, as a driver of  a new car with advanced driver-assistive features (adaptive cruise control, lane-keep), I don’t trust the other drivers. My car isn’t smart enough yet to anticipate the stupidity I see on a regular basis. My car can’t anticipate the driver in the next lane who might come into mine at the very last minute or know how close the car ahead of me is to the car ahead of him. The technology just isn’t there yet. In my assessment, it won’t be there until we get to total self-driving saturation on the roads.

That’s the point of self-driving cars, isn’t it? If we can get everyone into a self-driving car, then our roads will be much safer, especially here in Israel.

Israel has nearly 3.5 million cars on the road today. That’s a transportation density of 2,800 vehicles per kilometer of road — more than double the next most crowded OECD country (Spain has 1,300 per km) — and more than triple the OECD average of 800 cars per km. Imagine what our roads will look like when all those cars are self-driving and higher occupancy? Life without traffic! As we drive by graveyard after graveyard of scrapped cars.

We need to learn from the case of electric scooters — they aren’t as environmentally friendly as we think they are. On the surface, the concept is great — fewer people using their cars for short, urban rides. In reality, fewer people are using buses instead, and, in fact, the carbon footprint of the scooter and its short lifespan — thanks to irresponsible use or vandalism –makes it a far worse environmental choice.

There is so much talk of shifting to a circular economy these days, including here in Israel. What does that look like in the automotive industry as we shift toward self-driving cars? Creating a fleet of new, self-driving cars isn’t very circular. Retrofitting existing cars is closer to that goal.

Self-driving car companies need to focus on and economically viable retrofit option for existing cars. We can’t scrap them all and start fresh. In order to do that, a retrofit cannot cost the estimated $20K that it does today. The struggle is that we love to fully adopt new technologies — not retrofit our old ones. Planned obsolescence, in this case of our cars, is not a responsible technology adoption technique.

Otherwise, the self-driving car revolution will solve some of our problems on the road and create an environmental waste management disaster instead.

About the Author
Rachel Gould made aliyah in 2010 to Haifa and now lives in Yokneam. She is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at TAU focusing on environmental and population policies. She was a candidate for city council in Yokneam on the Mekomi list in 2018.
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