Driverless disruptions coming, ready or not

Keith Norbury
March 15, 2016
By Keith Norbury

It’s difficult, if not impossible to predict the future. Well, astronomers can predict with great accuracy the timing of eclipses. But prognosticators in most other areas of human endeavor are about as accurate as astrologers.

We humans can, however, notice trends and imagine how they’ll play out in the future — even if they take unexpected twists and turns. One trend that has caught a lot of attention in recent years is the disruptive nature of new technologies.

Actually, that’s not a new trend at all — technology has always been disruptive. The Industrial Revolution disrupted a predominantly agrarian way of life, luring people into a manufacturing economy that, in North America, has largely been usurped by a service economy.

And now, that service economy is being disrupted by what its champions call a “sharing economy” and those disrupted by it describe in expletives.

Just a few years ago, nobody had heard of the ride-sharing service Uber — because it didn’t even exist. Now it’s disrupting (destroying) a moribund taxi industry.

Imagine a few years from now, though, when Uber’s fleet of volunteer cars won’t even have drivers. Not only is that within the realm of possibility, it seems increasingly inevitable. As Google has amply demonstrated, well-programmed computers are safer and better drivers than humans, who are easily distracted and over-confident.

Sure, a few things need to be worked out before self-driving vehicles take over the roadways — not the least being secure safeguards against system failure and hacking. Modern vehicles even with drivers have so much wireless connectivity that they’re already susceptible to those threats.

It won’t be in 2016, but within a decade or so driverless trucks will likely transport much of the world’s ground freight. Canadian firm Suncor Energy Inc. announced in June 2015 that it was buying 175 driverless trucks for its operations in Alberta, the CBC reported. Around the same, Daimler tested self-driving trucks in the Nevada desert and on the German Autobahn.

Major transportation disruption, including the loss of millions of professional driving jobs, is coming soon.

Crane operators will likely keep their jobs for a while longer. However, a time might come sooner than they imagine when they won’t drive their cranes to their job sites.

So we’re not going to predict, yet, that the arrival of the robo-crane-operator is imminent, although robotic dexterity is improving apace. Long before that we can expect other advances in transportation technology to disrupt many other industries.

One of the significant events of 2015 was the agreement among 195 nations in Paris to limit carbon dioxide emissions. Whether one thinks that’s a good idea or not, one of the ways — maybe the primary way — to achieve the goal is through technological innovation.

Among those leading that charge is Tesla founder Elon Musk. His company is reinventing the automobile and poised to bring to the market, in late 2016, the Tesla X, which is expected to sell for around $35,000 and have a range of 250 miles on a single charge.

Musk is also building a whole ecosystem around electric cars, including a Gigafactory for producing batteries en masse, charging stations, and Powerwall home battery packs rechargeable by solar panels. Detractors point out that at present solar panels can’t meet the energy demands of a typical home. But those criticisms miss a key point — this is still the beginning of the disruption. Technologies like solar and wind energy have become more sophisticated and less expensive in recent years. And those trends have not bottomed out.

Moreover, other fascinating technologies are in their infancy. Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, has built a $9 million prototype plant near Vancouver that sucks CO2 out of the air, extracts the carbon, which it turns into fuel, and emits from the process air that contains a quarter of the CO2 that went into the system.

In interviews, Carbon Engineering founder David Keith, a Harvard climatologist and leading proponent of geo-engineering, has played down the capability of the technology to put a dent in the vast amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, the company’s CEO, Adrian Corless, has noted that it has the capacity to be scaled up to make a difference.

Whether or not that CO2-derived fuel would disrupt Telsa’s plans for world domination remains to be seen. Whatever fuels the vehicles of the (near) future, though, it’s looking more and more like they won’t have drivers — even if the heavy lifting remains the domain of humans for the foreseeable future.

Keith Norbury

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