Who’s killing the (self-driving) electric car?
And is Detroit leading Silicon Valley astray?
- Despite early hype, autonomous vehicles aren’t on an autopiloted path to being electric and cutting emissions (in fact, emissions could double).
- If we want these smart vehicles of the future to join our fight for a cleaner, cooler planet, California needs to lead the way to make it so. Given Trump’s Paris Climate Agreement exit and obstructionist policies, the Golden State’s boldness is needed now more than ever.
- The first attempt to push for clean electric AVs hit corporate lobbying blockades, but it’s not too late to push ahead.
Hitting the road
This is a story about the future & electric vehicles. It starts ten years ago.
Slim, smart, cute and likes music. No, it’s not a personal ad — it’s a cellphone.
Thus began Forbes’ recap of the “Hottest Phones of 2006”.
At that time, the Motorola RAZR flip phone was the best-selling phone in the world, and phone makers were scrambling to add “digital music-playing features” to chase the success of Apple’s iPod. Just one month later, however, the playing field would drastically change yet again with Steve Jobs’ January 9th announcement of the iPhone at MacWorld 2007: “an iPod, a phone, and a breakthrough internet communicator; … this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone”.
Within months, the iPhone was released, and the rest is history.
Immediately, the bar was raised for what it meant to be a “smartphone” and before long they were selling like hotcakes — er, iPhones. By Q1 2011, it and similar smartphones made up over half of all new phone sales in the US (followed by the rest of the world just two years after that). By 2017, just ten years after Steve Jobs’ announcement, 77% of all Americans would own a smartphone.
Now imagine the world a decade after the first fully autonomous vehicles roll themselves in. The potential scale of change makes the smartphone revolution look like — excuse the pun — pocket change. The smartphone makes way for the smartcar. The brains behind the app which recognizes and swaps our faces for fun becomes the intelligence allowing a vehicle to recognize (and, ideally, avoid) pedestrians considering whether and when to step into the road.
Plus LIDAR. That’s not in phones — yet. But GPS, accelerometers, and other underlying technologies are the same.
The benefit: fast track for climate action?
The great news is there’s a decent chance the autonomous vehicle revolution could be a huge win for the climate.
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a team of scientists and researchers focused on energy and efficiency, predicts that hundreds of megatonnes of carbon dioxide could be eliminated by the year 2030 (roughly equal to the total emissions of California today) and the reduction could grow to almost a gigatonne toward the second half of that decade.
The report calculates these climate gains as a result of trips switching in mass from privately owned gas-powered vehicles to rides in shared electric vehicles powered by a cleaner grid.
There’s reason to take this hopeful scenario seriously:
- Anyone betting on this could win big — trillions big.
- GM is betting on it. They’ve wagered over $1 billion on self-driving startup Cruse Automation and have invested $500M in Lyft. In fact, Ford and Mercedes and basically every other car company are at least looking at autonomous tech, if not also shared ride systems (see Ford’s acquisition of Chariot for example).
- Lyft just hired one of the authors of this report. (And Google’s self-driving shop snatched the other).
Other scenarios, however, are much more alarming than the ideal presented by researchers at RMI. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reviewed available research by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and others, and found that “system energy impacts, accounting for all of the potential changes discussed in this section, are highly uncertain”, ranging from an 80–90% decrease to up to a 200% increase in total U.S. vehicle fuel consumption.
Which scenario you end up with depends on a number of factors (you can see the math in this NREL poster), but in a nutshell the best case scenario is that of shared efficient electric vehicles supporting transit without a large increase in total miles driven, while the nightmare scenario is privately owned gas guzzling autonomous vehicles driving the now much higher speeds made safe by removing human error (and with a 70% increase in miles travelled as motoring is made open to all age groups).
Two wildly different possibilities. Clearly, we should heed that old Danish witticism often attributed to the physicist Niels Bohr: “it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”.
With the future at stake, it’s not just difficult, but downright dicey.
Are we sure those self-driving supercomputing vehicles of the future will be electric? In our rapidly warming world, will the next generation of cars be optimized for that one particularly pressing design criteria: minimizing climate impact?
One might hope — but better, one can act. In fact, one did. Specifically, California State Senator Nancy Skinner introduced a bill calling for the highest levels of autonomous vehicles (those that can operate truly driverless the entire trip) to be zero-emissions vehicles.
The bill stated:
It is, therefore, the intent of the Legislature to ensure that all Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous vehicles registered for use in California are zero-emission vehicles, and that when operated autonomously, the vehicles are operated in a manner that optimizes fuel efficiency.
A more than reasonable request, given the grave consequences of continuing down the dangerous path of business as usual (instead of taking the ‘dramatic action’ needed) in what writer and climate activist Bill McKibben has called our losing “war against physics”.
The war is essentially human beings against physics. We are losing because the temperature keeps going up — it takes territory every day, as islands and coastlines disappear. It takes casualties, as people die every day now from drought and flood and fire. The only way to fight back is to stop burning coal and gas and oil — which means replacing them with sun and wind and hydropower.
Senator Skinner’s proposal for clean autonomous vehicles, Senate Bill 802 (SB 802), is an obscure and overlooked but perhaps quite important battle in the war we’re currently losing to physics and time. It follows prior legislation and executive directives aimed at curbing the state’s enormous carbon emissions.
California Executive Order B-16–12 set ambitious goals for increasing zero-emission vehicles. SB 350 supported programs and investments to accelerate widespread transportation electrification. Numerous other bills are in consideration currently.
But nothing else previously passed or presently discussed comes close to the potential of SB 802 for altering the fundamental rules of the road (literally and figuratively) when it comes to electric vehicles. That, in turn, would have a huge impact on carbon pollution.
Currently, 27% of total U.S emissions come from transportation, and in a state like California that chunk of the pollution pie is even greater: 36%, with the bulk of that (32.8% of all emissions [current link]) coming from road transport alone.
We should consider every conceivable incentive for cutting transport sector emissions, including making zero-emission electrics the smartest vehicles on the road. Why? We’re running out of time. We have only nine years to zero out all carbon emissions. (A few more if you opt for dangerous magic bullets and high stakes bets associated with “negative emissions”.)
Rocky road: quick stop at the mechanic’s shop
We’ll get back to the fate of the bill in a moment, but first we need to ask one question and take a quick dive into automotive technology to answer it.
Can you even make an autonomous vehicle that isn’t electric? It’s a common and commonsense speculation that cars smart enough to drive themselves would also be smart enough to kick their oil addiction, but it’s not a given.
There’s a reason nearly every autonomous prototype out there is electric: When you’re talking bout one technology of the future, it makes sense to pair it with another.
— Alex Davies, WIRED
In fact, Bloomberg predicts that even twenty-three years from now, in 2040, almost two out of every three new cars sold will still come standard with a 1900’s era petroleum powered combustion engine (that includes hybrids).
And that is the optimistic scenario; the US Energy Information Administration pegs fully electric vehicles at only 6% of sales by 2040. (Energy Outlook 2017, p.98)
“If they’re advanced enough to drive themselves, they’ll ideally be advanced enough not to use oil.” — Alexander C. Kaufman, HuffPost
There is actually nothing preventing automakers from overhauling the petrol-powered auto and adding self-driving capabilities.
Before Google ditched the steering wheel and developed a custom electric driverless car from the ground up, it jumpstarted the driverless revolution by acquiring a scrappy Berkeley startup that had simply modified an off the shelf (“off the dealership?”) production Prius:
“Since everything is electric in that car, you can do a man-in-the-middle type of deal,” says Majusiak. “We figured out what the signals were supposed to be, then spoofed them to make the car do what we wanted.”
Electric and hybrid drive vehicles use a partial “drive-by-wire” system by necessity: electrical vehicles need to do more electrically than in traditional vehicles which can accomplish the same tasks mechanically (“wire” being the kind used to send electrical signals — the name is inspired by the “fly-by-wire” systems first used in advanced aircraft).
At the very least, when you “step on the gas” in something with a battery, a computer is needed to actually decide how much propulsion comes from the electric motor and how much from the petrol engine (and if the car is fully electric, the computer just directs the battery to increase current to the motor). That’s called “throttle-by-wire” (in vehicles propelled only by the combustion of liquid fuels, pumping the pedal can be a much more mechanical process).
Similarly, electrics and hybrids were first to use brake-by-wire systems (when you’re trying to regenerate power while braking, it helps to have a computer involved).
Fully “steer-by-wire” is possible as well, meaning the steering wheel is more like an electrical sensor than a traditional mechanical connection to the wheels. Nissan was the first to introduce a fully steer-by-wire system in their Infiniti Q50 luxury sedan (they call it “Direct Adaptive Steering”), but even without the really fancy stuff, computers can steer by tapping into the electric power steering systems that first appeared in a production car in 1988 but have really begun picking up in the last 10 years. Early use of this is seen in features like lane keeping, cross-wind correction, and auto parking.
Finally, shift-by-wire is the last piece of the completely autonomous puzzle and is necessary so the car can electronically switch from forward to reverse to park. More and more models are incorporating it, and the biggest challenge may be standardizing the controls and familiarizing users with them.
Shift-by-wire is the difference between the VW Tiguan SUV’s half-helpful automatic parking system which merely steers the wheel for you (the driver still needs to shift between forward, reverse, and park) and the BMW i3’s robo-parking system that does the shifting for you (no human needed). These models are designed to do this with the driver in the seat, but if Mercedes has it’s way, empty cars will soon park themselves thanks to a magic genie rub on your iPhone.
As for the rest of the hardware — the eyes and brains of the beast — that is actually relatively cheap.
The reason electrics and hybrids were the first autonomous vehicles tested on the road likely has much more to do with ease of implementation than altruism: more of the systems in those vehicles were electronic instead of mechanical, meaning less time spent on the physical mechanisms (actuators) necessary to perform what human arms and legs do, and more time to focus on the electronic “brain” being taught to drive.
The rise of drive-by-wire has paralleled that of modern electric cars, but more and more, the auto industry will expand its deployment in all vehicles. Partly they’ll do it to decrease weight, increase efficiency, and meet rising fuel economy standards, but they also recognize it as a critical component for the ultimate manifestation of the literal autos motivus: the self motion machine that is finally both sans-horse and sans-human. Big Auto will add the electronics bit by bit across all models as more and more people buy into emerging “driver assist” features that will come to litter the road to a driverless existence.
Indeed, though the Google driverless bubble car and Tesla Autopilot come to mind as obvious self-driving examples, driverless technology is headed toward a tailpipe near you.
Will there be an increase in driver-assist-style AI in regular cars? Absolutely. And you’re seeing that on a lot of our vehicles today in terms of the semi-autonomous features that we have.
Detroit loves selling cars and trucks, especially big ones with high profit margins. There’s little reason to believe that Adam Smith’s invisible hand will magically lead to smarter, cleaner cars instead of simply sticking “brains” on gas guzzlers.
While smartcars take over the wheel, industry marketing teams will find it just as important (and profitable) to feature oversized engines and responsive maneuvering capable of quelling a zombie snowman uprising. If that feature is a selling point in today’s Nissan Rogue SUV, surely it will not be forgotten in the Robo Rogue SUV of 2022.
Autonomous driving capabilities are being brought to the market in some of the most expensive cars first, and automakers have no qualms with the fact that those tend toward the lower end of the energy efficiency scale. Some of the worst examples may be the Mercedes GLE63 SUV which gets a measly 15mpg, or GM’s supersized Cadillac CT6 “premium luxury” sedan whose 400 twin turbo horses will tug on your wallet at a rate of five gallons every 100 miles (but hey, it comes with facial recognition).
As we’ll see in a moment, even if we get automakers to produce efficient self driving machines, it won’t be enough.
The road not taken: a truly intelligent transportation system
It’s true that Ford, for example, is introducing about a dozen electric (sorry, “electrified”, i.e. hybrid) vehicles in the next five years, but it’s unlikely that would have happened without a requirement; indeed, their 2016 annual report notes that “current ZEV [Zero Emissions Vehicle] regulations mandate substantial annual increases in the production and sale of battery-electric, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid vehicles, particularly for the 2018–2025 model years.
By the 2025 model year, approximately 15% of a manufacturer’s total California sales volume will need to be made up of such vehicles.” The report goes on to admit they are uncertain of their ability to actually sell such vehicles.
And while GM’s electric Bolt may have been designed with Lyft in mind , it may be no coincidence that the number of Bolts GM intends to produce is a close match to the number required by California’s mandates (a point Elon Musk notes as well). Getting Bolts to Lyft drivers could help GM meet those requirements.
We’re about a decade out from when electric vehicles (EVs) beat their alternative on price alone.
However, factoring in savings from fuel and drivers, plus the benefit of building consumer excitement for driverless vehicles, Ford and GM will likely see value in putting fleets of driverless ride hailing vehicles on the road.
It’s even possible that adoption of electric vehicles will come faster than anyone predicts. Perhaps, soon we’ll have a two part revolution: widespread adoption of vehicles that are both electric and autonomous.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is the mobility revolution the people and the climate of this world need is not the same one the automakers of Detroit, Germany, or Japan will want to bring us.
A recent report from the UC Davis looked at the possibility of three potential revolutions coming from automation, electrification, and sharing. The report compares the business as usual case with two alternate scenarios: in the “two revolutions” scenario (“2R”), there is widespread adoption of EVs and autonomous vehicles; in the three revolutions (“3R”) case, that is coupled with a much greater number of shared miles (ridesharing, transit, etc).
The 2 Revolutions scenario starts with the critical assumptions of strong policies that encourage EV uptake as well as an almost entirely decarbonized grid, so it’s useful to just consider the energy use (less energy use = less emissions, regardless of whether we succeed in moving away from carbon based energy sources like coal and gas).
Note that the biggest gains come when we shift from business as usual (“BAU” below) to the scenario with the vehicle and ride sharing (3R):
That scenario may not sit well with corporate boardrooms stuck with traditional manufacturing mindsets, however.
While the first part of the 2020’s are expected to see an increase in vehicle sales, there needs to be a sharp decline following that:
The manufacturer’s dream scenario would be a “one revolution” scenario, where we just get autonomous vehicles (Manufacturers: “Your car is… ok, but does it drive itself? Time to upgrade!”).
The UC Davis researchers point out the possibility that these driverless cars may go on a driving spree:
Given the reduction in time cost, people will drive in their vehicles significantly more than they do today. In all regions of the world, we assume a 10–15% increase in driving per capita (and per vehicle) in personal AVs relative to [Business As Usual]. This could also include increases in zero-occupant vehicle travel, as people assign vehicles to conduct tasks such as retrieving family members or even packages. We assume another 5% increase in vehicle travel from this in our scenarios, resulting in an overall 15–20% increase in vehicle travel, though we acknowledge the effect could be more significant.
And worse still, the convenience of it all actually makes it harder to get society to share their toys:
The rapid rise in the use of driverless cars in households precludes a rapid growth in shared mobility. People are content to continue to travel in their own vehicles, which are now more comfortable and can be sent on errands without occupants. This reinforces the ownership model that is already attractive and leads to high car ownership rates worldwide by 2050, similar to the BAU. Ride hailing serves a niche activity in cities as it does today.
In a perfect world, the leaders of GM, Ford, et. al. would recognize the drastic nature of the climate crisis and champion swift action to confront it. They would push for a three part revolution where petrol pumps make way for fast DC chargers that quickly bring 100% clean power to efficient electric vehicles that operate more like shared shuttles than private cars, more like public places than isolated consumerist spaces. They would push for a world where the automakers are making less autos. A lot less.
Predicting the future may be impossible, but the scenario of a perfect world seems implausible.
If evidence were needed, look no further than Ford’s recent (2016) stockholder report.
“Our plan for creating value going forward is simple and straightforward: continue our expansion from an auto company to an auto and a mobility company”
Auto and mobility. Not a transition to a mobility company alone. They still want to make a hell of a lot of cars. And they definitely don’t want those cars to be small and efficient; they list this as one of there market threats:
A shift in consumer preferences away from larger, more profitable vehicles at levels beyond our current planning assumption — whether because of spiking fuel prices, a decline in the construction industry, government actions or incentives, or other reasons — could result in an immediate and substantial adverse effect on our financial condition and results of operations.”
As for GM? They hedged their bets on Lyft ($500M) while betting big ($1B) on a 60 person autonomous driving startup [at time of acquisition, via LinkedIn]. If ride-hailing convinces more than a small share to ditch their car and goes on to gobble up all private trips while becoming a trillion dollar industry, GM will wish their $6bn acquisition attempt had worked, but at least they have a 9% chunk of the pie.
After the public gets a taste for driverless cars and the technology has been tested in a controlled fleet environment, the most attractive scenario to automakers will be to do what they’ve always done: sell private cars and SUVs (and hey, now it’ll drive itself from dealership to doorstep).
As long as companies like GM and Ford treat EVs like a Chinese/CARB-inspired afterthought, so long as they limit electric model options and geographic availability and supporting ‘range anxiety’ by doing little to roll out a network of chargers, and as long as the ownership model encourages buyers to go with the giant-size-fits-all SUVs, as long as these are true and government fails to find policy solutions for any of it, we’ll continue to fail to progress toward a truly clean and efficient transportation system.
So, no, the “smart” cars won’t necessarily be smart enough: unfortunately they are being made in the image of their creators, they will not boldly go where we have not gone before but rather their uninspired neural networks will follow our (tire-)tracks — right to the gas station. The next generation, with all the problems of the last. Like father, like son. Addictions die hard.
Back to the bill: U-Turn ahead
Unchecked auto-industry capitalism threatens to hold the (gas) pedal to the metal & keep us addicted to the tried and tired practice of propelling our private vehicles by burning dead dinosaurs and ancient sunlight, but luckily Senator Skinner’s Senate Bill 802 requiring autonomous vehicles to be electric is the adaptive cruise control of the future, sensing an impending crash ahead and changing course to avoid systematic disaster.
Once signed, the law would say that if a car comes with a tank full of explosive fuels, it can’t go driving itself around unattended, but if the vehicle is electric and needs to drive itself to a recharging station, well then that’s just groovy.
If you want the full legalese, it’s actually not very long. The bill begins by laying out the background and reasons to act in Section 1, (a) through (i):
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:
(a) Executive Order No. B-16–12 set a statewide goal of over 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roads by 2025, representing an accelerating share of the market, with easy access to zero-emission vehicle infrastructure. Further, Senate Bill 1275 (Chapter 530, Statutes of 2014) called for one million zero-emission vehicles by January 1, 2023.
(b) Executive Order No. B-32–15 requires the State Air Resources Board, the Department of Transportation, the Energy Commission, and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to develop an integrated action plan by July 2016 that establishes clear targets to improve freight efficiency, transition to zero-emission technologies, and increase competitiveness of California’s freight system.
(c) Senate Bill 350 of the 2015–16 Regular Session (Chapter 547 of the Statutes of 2015) requires the State Air Resources Board to identify and adopt policies, rules, and regulations that remove regulatory disincentives preventing retail sellers and local publicly owned electric utilities from facilitating the achievement of greenhouse gas emission reductions in other sectors through increased investments in transportation electrification.
(d) Senate Bill 350 also requires the Public Utilities Commission, in consultation with the State Air Resources Board and the Energy Commission, to direct electrical corporations to file applications for programs and investments to accelerate widespread transportation electrification.
(e) Widespread transportation electrification is needed to achieve the goals of the Charge Ahead California Initiative (Chapter 8.5 (commencing with Section 44258) of Part 5 of Division 26 of the Health and Safety Code) enacted by Senate Bill 1275 of the 2013–14 Regular Session (Chapter 530 of the Statutes of 2014).
(f) Widespread transportation electrification requires increased access for disadvantaged communities, low- and moderate-income communities, and other consumers of zero-emission and near-zero-emission vehicles, and increased use of those vehicles in those communities and by other consumers to enhance air quality, lower greenhouse gases emissions, and promote overall benefits to those communities and other consumers.
(g) Widespread transportation electrification should stimulate innovation and competition, enable consumer options in charging equipment and services, attract private capital investments, and create high-quality jobs for Californians, where technologically feasible.
(h) Deploying electric vehicles should assist in grid management, integrating generation from eligible renewable energy resources, reducing costs for all ratepayers, reducing need for additional transmission infrastructure, and reducing fuel costs for vehicle drivers who charge in a manner consistent with electrical grid conditions.
(i) Academic studies show that autonomous vehicles provide benefits to society if they are zero-emission vehicles, but have the ability to significantly increase emissions and vehicle miles traveled if they are not zero emission, or if they are not programmed to optimize fuel efficiency.
Following that strong intro is the most useful part to read, which summarizes what the bill does (unless noted, emphasis mine):
(j) It is, therefore, the intent of the Legislature to ensure that all Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous vehicles registered for use in California are zero-emission vehicles, and that when operated autonomously, the vehicles are operated in a manner that optimizes fuel efficiency.
The second and final section follows immediately and is (lucky for us) even shorter than the first. It just specifies the specific legal change to meet the intent described above:
Section 38751 is added to the Vehicle Code, to read:
38751. (a) In order to meet California’s goals for zero-emission vehicle deployment and transportation electrification and to improve the stability and reliability of the state’s electricity grid, a Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous vehicle shall be eligible for initial registration, or renewal or transfer of registration, by the department under Division 3 (commencing with Section 4000) only if the vehicle is a zero-emission vehicle that is programmed to optimize fuel efficiency.
(b) For purposes of this section, “zero-emission vehicle” means a battery electric vehicle or a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
(c) The department shall adopt any regulations necessary to implement this section.
With that relatively brief bill, the auto industry would no longer be shooting for the facile 2025 target of 8% electric vehicle sales mandated by the state’s ZEV program. Instead, every autonomous vehicle sold in California would come with batteries included. 100% zero emissions autonomous vehicles. Talk about hitting the ‘ON’ switch! (Careful readers may note that the bill allows hydrogen too. Sure, but even hydrogen-happy Toyota is betting on electrics now.)
Before the physicist Dennis Gabor won a Nobel Prize for the invention of holography, he published a book calling out the dangers of war, overpopulation, and automation, which contained this eerily prescient and currently apt passage:
“We are still the masters of our fate. Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computors, cannot predict the future.
All it can do is to map out the probability space … Technological and social inventions are broadening this probability space all the time; it is now incomparably larger than it was before the industrial revolution — for good or for evil.
The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is.”
The future cannot be predicted. But it can be invented.
California’s SB 802 was an attempt to invent a cleaner, cooler future.
Sadly, the dream of these smart cars driving us (autonomously!) into an entirely zero-emissions transportation future lasted a hot nanosecond.
Within weeks, the bill requiring these futuristic cars to be clean cars as well was watered down substantially: it is now, literally, a “study group” which is set to report back to the legislature four months into the year these fully self driving vehicles are expected to come out.
Between March 23rd and April 20th, the entirety of the bill’s text you read above had been removed, and replaced with something far less visionary. It’s title was amended from “Autonomous vehicles: registration” to “Autonomous vehicles: advisory taskforce”.
It’s contents, in full:
SECTION 1. Section 38751 is added to the Vehicle Code, to read:
38751. (a) On or before April 1, 2018, the Office of Planning and Research shall convene an Autonomous Vehicle Advisory Taskforce to review and advise the Legislature on policies pertaining to autonomous vehicles. The Autonomous Vehicle Advisory Taskforce shall meet at least quarterly, and shall include at least one member each from the following entities:
(1) The State Air Resources Board.
(2) The Office of Planning and Research.
(3) The Strategic Growth Council.
(4) The Transportation Agency.
(5) The Department of Housing and Community Development.
(6) The Department of Motor Vehicles.
(7) The autonomous vehicle industry.
(8) A public health or clean air advocacy organization.
(b) On or before January 1, 2019, the Autonomous Vehicle Advisory Taskforce shall offer recommendations to the Legislature regarding policies that maximize the environmental benefits and minimize the air pollution, traffic congestion, and land use impacts of autonomous vehicles, including recommendations regarding updates to statewide infrastructure planning efforts.
[My emphasis; at least it still had some environmental focus…]
Not content with this, it was modified due to lobbyist pressure yet again by early May, including:
- The one representative of the “AV industry” became “At least two members representing autonomous vehicle manufacturers”
- “at least one member each from” … “a public health or clean air advocacy organization” became “a member from”
- “recommendations to the Legislature regarding policies… and incentives to maximize the environmental benefits and minimize the air pollution, traffic congestion, and land use impacts of autonomous vehicles” was removed entirely in favor of much more generic language.
Add in another tech industry lobbyist to the two AV manufactures, and the deck of outside advocates on the group is stacked 3:1 against the lonely policy wonk representing the entirety of “public health” and “clean air” interests at the same time.
The final version approved by the Senate and sent to the California Assembly at the end of May:
38751. (a) On or before April 1, 2018, the Office of Planning and Research shall convene an Emerging Vehicle Advisory Study Group to review and advise the Legislature on policies pertaining to new types of motor vehicles operating in California, including, but not limited to, autonomous vehicles and shared-use vehicles. The Emerging Vehicle Advisory Study Group shall meet at least quarterly. Membership in the Emerging Vehicle Advisory Study Group shall be as follows:
(1) At least one member from each of the following entities, who shall be appointed by the Governor:
(A) The State Air Resources Board.
(B) The Office of Planning and Research.
(C) The Strategic Growth Council.
(D) The Transportation Agency.
(E) The Department of Housing and Community Development.
(F) The Department of Motor Vehicles.
(2) Two members appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules and two members appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, who shall include:
(A) At least two members representing autonomous vehicle manufacturers.
(B) A member from a public health or clean air advocacy organization.
(C) A member from a technology industry organization.
(b) On or before April 1, 2019, the Emerging Vehicle Advisory Study Group shall offer recommendations to the Legislature regarding policies and incentives to maximize the social benefits, minimize the social costs, and encourage the electrification and hybridization of new types of motor vehicles operating in California, including, but not limited to, autonomous vehicles and shared-use vehicles. These recommendations shall include recommendations regarding updates to statewide infrastructure planning efforts, including recommendations to reduce traffic congestion and identification of any other state barriers to short- and long-term adoption of new types of motor vehicles by the public and private sectors.
So to recap, the bill was weakened again and again. At first, simply saying: “yes, AVs will be EVs”. Next, a paper tiger task force with the lofty yet ambiguous hope to “maximize the environmental benefits and minimize the air pollution”.
Finally, a stacked “study group” required to meet four times over one year and given a TODO list pulled in so many directions they may never arrive at the critical destination of recommending zero emissions AVs as a crucial weapon against a warming world.
This was the moment to act. With perhaps ten million autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020, and huge investments from traditional automakers, and initial leaders like Google giving up on producing the vehicles in favor of the software, we may be losing these early opportunities to shoot for a bold green future.
As consumers become accustomed to having their gas-guzzling SUVs (sorry, “eco-friendly hybrid” SUVs) drive themselves (“and look ma, we can refuel ourselves”), they’ll expect nothing else. A belated attempt to change the course of this behemoth industry will be about as possible as deftly maneuvering the Titanic around an iceberg.
In the short span of time it took to water down SB 802, here is just a sample of the headlines that must have been missed by the lobbyists (or ignored; “profits over planet”) while they busied themselves heating up the Senate and melting the best of the bill into a puddle of nothingness:
- “Parts of the Arctic Ocean Are Turning into the Atlantic”
- “Human-Caused Climate Change Made 2016 Way Too Hot”
- “Climate Change Is Likely to Make Air Travel a Lot Bumpier”
- “Record-Low Ice Confirmed at North and South Poles”
- “Great Barrier Reef Again Hit by Severe Coral Bleaching”
- “How Global Warming Diverted a River”
So what was the roadblock on SB 802? The auto-industry, right?
Well yes. But they weren’t alone.
Yes, it was in part the auto industry. Staff summary for the bill notes opposition from Global Automakers, an industry group representing automakers such as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, as well as Bosch, the world’s largest automotive parts supplier, and others. Ford and Volvo are members of another group in opposition as well, as we’ll see. So, this is not surprising (What’s better to vehicle manufacturers than efficient cities where mostly carless residents rely on a small fleet of Lyfts as their last-mile transit solution? Sprawling megacities filled with private cars bought from the industry).
They were joined by the California Chamber of Commerce, an organization with a solid history fighting against the environment. The Chamber doesn’t publish its full member list nor the level of funding it receives from each (an amount that depends on the company’s size), but executives from some of the world’s biggest oil companies — Shell and Chevron — sit on the board, so it’s not unreasonable to estimate the lobbying organization could fill more than a few spare barrels with the wads of oily cash they’re collecting from these multinationals’ member dues (oil against electrics? wouldn’t be a first).
This legislative session, the Chamber also fought a bill (AB 964) that would create the California Affordable Clean Vehicle Program to help even low-income residents get into low-emissions cars. In their opposition letter, they kindly call out “substantial legal uncertainties” in the state’s authority to fund such programs with money from California’s cap-and-trade program. Such “uncertainties” exist only because the Chamber itself has been fighting the state’s signature effort against climate change — for years. [Sidenote: if the Chamber is tracking a climate change bill, it’s likely either useless or they’re opposed. The most effective bills? They really hate those ones.]
But the most surprising opposition to a bill that would lay the foundation for an electric autonomous transportation revolution comes from those who stand to gain the most from it: the tech industry, and Lyft.
On April 18th, just minutes after Mollie D’Agostino from the UC Davis 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative testified in a California Senate hearing that the introduction of autonomous vehicles could result in as much as a doubling of carbon emissions, a representative from TechNet took the mic and let Senators know the tech industry lobbying group… was opposed anyway. The brief argument was rooted in the simplistic techno-libertarian thinking that the Silicon Valley startup is inherently virtuous, its advancement of “innovation” is society’s essential duty, and we must do nothing to stand in the way of this, our modern manifest destiny:
“…requirements, assertions, or even a request for a task force is premature and can have detrimental impacts on advancements and innovation” — TechNet, on SB 802
In other words, “the whiz-kids are working here, we best not slow down by wondering what happens when they succeed”.
You can ignore the vital need to take appropriate and urgent action on climate. You can even ignore the immense market inherit in disrupting the enormous energy sector and everything that connects to it. Yet the tech industry is foolish to forsake the chance to remake the entire transportation sector. Shortsighted lobbyists for the industry see every potential regulation as “stifling” innovation on the road to a quick cashout, when in reality such regulation would rapidly level the playing field between Silicon Valley and Detroit (and we need it).
As long as automakers keep the market addicted to an ownership model where we all drive vehicles as standard and complex as the combustion engine of the last century, existing players with experience and infrastructure designed for that will remain dominant. If instead the expectation was set that cars of the future would start to look and behave as if they deserved to exist in it, small and innovative tech startups could have a chance making the newer, cleaner, and drastically simpler electric vehicles.
Also surprising is the implicit opposition and lack of support from Lyft, a company which is otherwise making progress toward increasing shared rides, testing autonomous electrics in Boston, and is headed by CEO Logan Green whose desire to make the world greener and cleaner reportedly keeps him up at night and President John Zimmer who predicts that Lyft will make personal auto ownership a thing of the past by 2025.
Staff working on the bill report that the “Self Driving Coalition for Safer Streets” joined in opposing the bill. Lyft is one of the five members of the industry front, along with Ford, Google’s Waymo, Volvo, and Uber. It is not clear that Lyft pushed the coalition to oppose the bill, but when senate staff reached out to Lyft to obtain support, but the company remained silent. Perhaps Lyft’s $500MM connection to GM has its cost.
Lyft, Uber, and Google are the heavy hitters who could hold the key to Silicon Valley’s disruption of the autonomous industry, but it appears they’ve instead opted for the route to quick profit, clearly marked for them by the established automakers.
End of the road
It’s to be expected that the California Chamber and the world’s biggest automakers would oppose a clean autonomous car revolution. It’s mindbogglingly stupid that Lyft, Waymo, and the tech industry’s lobbyists would let themselves be dragged into helping the auto or oil industry kill an early and essential step toward that revolution. TechNet’s anti-regulatory agenda would make the Koch Brothers proud, and ride-hailing companies trying to disrupt the model where traditional car companies maintain monopolies on producing the vehicles of the future need to reassess the wisdom of their current alliances.
Tech investors planning to quickly cash in by slapping self-driving gizmos on any gas guzzler in town need to accept the reality that this is about as innovative as the Juicero; in the case of SB 802 the California Senate would not stifle innovation, but rather be our best chance at generating it, by providing a vision for Valley leadership into a bold green future and the means to get there.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone he quoted the early luminary Alan Kay, whose early work at Xerox PARC and elsewhere helped bring about object oriented programming and windowing graphic user interfaces. Kay has said,
People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.
As it turns out, if those who are earnest about driverless software took a serious stake in developing the self-driving hardware of the future, not only could they shake the auto industry. They’d be steering us on a path to remake the world. It’s not too late.
Unfortunately, so far it seems they’re not keen on taking the wheel.
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