Friday, March 11, 2016

Less than We Expect But…

In a world of rapidly expanding technology, there is this latent (blatant?) expectation that we really don’t have to worry about the biggest environmental problems of our era because, sooner or later, the “the scientists” will figure it out. Strange in a time where we devalue the best educated amongst us, continue to reduce per capita spending on students from kindergarten through doctoral programs and watch governmental programs fostering scientific research get pared to the bone. Except where the expectation is, alternatively, divine intervention (the Evangelical cry, “After the Great Flood, God promised no more global disasters, so we should exploit the earth to our hearts’ content as God wants us to do.”), too many of us really believe all of these issues will be solved by “experts.”
It happens at every level. As our infrastructure crumbles from budget-cutting disrepair, as dependence on fossil fuels accelerates global climate change, a single traffic jam shows us how much of that dependence on oil seems to be simply supporting unsustainable waste. But wait, we are told, lots of big companies, from Apple to Google to the big car manufacturers, are working on a new system of driverless cars, where traffic flow is controlled and monitored by efficient automated systems to maximize every drop of precious fuel. This will lessen our dependence on oil, may move us to electric cars, perhaps hydrogen-driven fuel cells, and may even result in the end of car ownership as we know it.
A miracle that will solve our current dependence on petroleum, a traffic decongestant if you will, or something less? According Transportation Research Part A by University of Leeds, University of Washington, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory released on February 26th, perhaps we need to lower our expectations a giant notch. While we cannot know how utilization factors will really be until we have implemented such an automated system, there are some serious questions about exactly how much efficiency would increase and whether demands on such mobile systems will increase or decrease. Even with electric cars, the required charging power has to come from somewhere. Here are the headlines of this report:
“Automation per se is unlikely to significantly affect energy consumption, but is expected to facilitate myriad other changes in the road transportation system that may significantly alter energy consumption and GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. For example, automated vehicles may enable the adoption of energy-saving driving practices, and facilitate changes in the design of individual vehicles or the transportation system as a whole that enable reductions in energy intensity. Fully automated, self-driving cars can offer on-demand mobility services and change vehicle ownership and travel patterns. However, they are also likely to substantially change the in-vehicle experience and the cost of drivers’ time in the vehicle (perceived cost for private drivers, and actual cost for commercial drivers), which could lead to more demand for travel by car and modal shift away from public transport, passenger train and air travel. Freight truck travel could also increase. These travel demand and energy intensity related changes would have large total energy and carbon implications.” (February 26th) talked to some of the study’s authors and reviewed many of the report’s salient results: “The biggest shocker is that a world without traffic jams wouldn’t move the needle on energy efficiency all that much—only lowering energy costs by 0-4%. ‘I would say the most overhyped benefit from energy standpoint is congestion mitigation,’ [says Don MacKenzie, Assistant Professor at University of Washington]. ‘Relieving congestion can do great things for people's time, but it’s not doing much for energy or emissions.’ The reason is that, while it may feel like we’re all stuck in traffic all the time, the reality scaled across U.S. roads is that we’re really not, and fuel costs from traffic congestion is relatively low. Traffic jams account for a mere 2% of all fuel cost today. And so while stop-and-go traffic can reduce a car’s fuel economy by as much as 50%, a United States without traffic jams would ‘save maybe 5%’ on the total energy tab of driving by 2050, MacKenzie says.
“The team is more bullish about other potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, though. Take the idea of Uber matching each user with the appropriate car in terms of size. Their analysis found that if car manufacturers supported the idea with single-seat cars, and no one owned their own private vehicle, this strategy could cut back on fuel usage by nearly 50%.
“Another big potential gain could be found in ‘platooning,’ which you may know better as drafting, in which large flocks of vehicles could be coordinated to drive on highways together, reducing aerodynamic drag across the group. Platooning could lead to as much as a 25% reduction in our vehicular energy use. However, it’s also a prime example of how complicated these projections are to generate, the authors explain. The efficiency of platooning depends on how close self-driving cars can cruise in relationship to one another, how long these trains of vehicles could grow, and whether urban infrastructures could adapt to take advantage of platooning in denser areas.
“No one knows the real answers to these questions yet, and only the realistic application of these technologies coupled with public policy will truly answer them. Platooning, in the worst case scenario calculated by the paper, might offer only a 4% reduction in energy usage. That’s not any more helpful than the aforementioned gains offered by traffic mitigation!” It really seems to be a matter of personal responsibility, and the notion of “how much of an impact can I, as an individual, make anyway,” a deep drilldown into our emerging value system in light of too many people, dwindling resources (particular oil and water) and devastating environmental change. Who are we, and what is our real willingness, as a society to take responsibility on that personal level?
I’m Peter Dekom, and how many of us eschew personal responsibility in favor of the abstract belief in the power and actions of “others” to “fix it”?

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