Season 4 - The self-driving car

Episode 3 - Are they really good for the planet?

Let’s quickly sum up our last episode. After a few years during which everyone imagined a near future in which cars would be able to drive on our behalf, the development of self-driving cars was mostly neglected by manufacturers. Why? First, because everyone quickly saw that level 5 – the one that would require no human invention – would never be a reality. Second, because increasing environmental awareness led the sector to focus on the electrification of cars. At a time when heatwaves and wildfires are raging across the world, this made total sense.

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Because although self-driving electric cars had been considered a key ‘decarbonisation’ tool by the European Commission for a long time, that’s not the case today. Our first problem, as Bernard Jullien touched on last week, is that the large-scale rollout of self-driving cars, even level 4 ones, would require the equally large-scale rollout of 5G. Brut that’s not all. You’d have to handle and store enormous amounts of data. According to Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel, “each self-driving vehicle on the road would produce as much data as 3,000 internautes. Imagine that the 1.3 billion cars around the world were replaced by autonomous equivalents. That would be the equivalent amount of data for 3,900 billion people using the internet. As a reminder, there are around 7.88 billion humans on Earth in 2021, and in 2020, only 59.6 percent of us used the internet. “While we are starting to worry about the environmental cost of the digital world, this vast expansion of our storage and handling capacities seems completely unthinkable”, says Jullien, an automobile economics expert at the University of Bordeaux. In fact, as France’s telecommunications regulation agency, the Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques, des Postes et de la Distribution de la Presse, the digital sphere will be responsible for 6.6 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. We’ll let you do the math.

And that’s not all. Your visions of a world filled with small Twingos that speak to each other, maybe even make the odd joke while you sleep in the back, are going to take another hit. For a car to be autonomous, or even automated, you need a lot of equipment. Cameras, including some very complex ones, radars, lidars (for detecting distance using light), powerful on-board computers, motion captors and several other things. The problem? To produce all this cutting-edge technology, you’d have to do a whole lot of digging. Generally speaking, the sophisticated nature of many automobile products has really encouraged the development of the mining industry (itself a big polluter) and sent prices soaring. The American Mining Association itself has been saying this for years.

Finally, just to hammer home the point, you’ve also got to consider the environmental impact of the self-driving car. As you’ll know not all inhabitants of the Earth have the same approach to climate change. Some worry about the future, others don’t (for various reasons). Others make small compromises that affect their comfort. And others still don’t believe in it at all. Regardless, as Jullien points out, the rollout of the self-driving car could lead to very problematic behaviour: “You can easily imagine that people might let their vehicles keep going, if there’s no parking place, or while they finish their video call when they’ve arrived at their destination…” Because, yes, the problem lies with the technology itself – not just in how it is used.

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