Self-driving cars

It seems like a kind of Hollywood fantasy — autonomous little roadsters scooting in and out of traffic, breathlessly avoiding collisions and getting to their destination before anyone else.

Then again, it seems like the inevitable. If computers can perform medical diagnoses, accomplish instant translations for tourists and power Martian rovers, what’s so complicated about driving a car?

The self-driving car has gotten a lot of publicity lately. Google has a demonstration project and there have been the usual speculations about how long before self-drivers become a common sight. Four states have passed legislation allowing their operation and this month self-driving cars received the ultimate accolade of any new technology by being opposed by the Ralph Nader’s Consumer Watchdog, thereby joining fracking, nuclear power, GMO foods and other technological advances as being opposed by the Naderites.

Yet in truth, the idea of self-driving vehicles has been around for a long, long time. Experiments go back as far back as the 1920s. Engineers tried burying electric cables beneath the road to send signals that would keep cars on track. With the development of computers, however, research switched to autonomous vehicles with a dozen auto manufacturers and universities doing serious work.

In 1995, Carnegie Mellon University built an autonomous vehicle that traveled 3,100 miles cross-country for the “No Hands Across America” tour, with only minimal human intervention. In 2005, a Google vehicle equipped with 3D cameras, radar and a software package called Google Chauffeur won a $2 million prize in a Grand Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2010, four self-driving vehicles designed at the University of Parma, Italy duplicated Marco Polo’s expedition by driving from Italy to China with only occasional intervention by their human drivers. Google’s fleet of a dozen self-driving cars has now logged 700,000 miles on public highways without experiencing any trouble. The only accident occurred when one of them was read-ended by another vehicle at a traffic light.

Indeed, as things stand now, the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption may be the predictable human reluctance to have the wheel taken out of their hands. One poll in Germany found that while 22 percent of respondents had a positive attitude toward driverless cars, 44 percent were skeptical and 24 percent were actively hostile toward the idea.

So aside from inspiring a hundred high school science projects and proving that computer geeks can do just about anything, what would be the advantage of self-driving vehicles? Here are a few of the possibilities:

Greater fuel efficiency: Advocates say that the precision achieved by automated vehicles in evening out traffic flows would cut down on national gasoline consumption. Instead of some cars dawdling in the fast lane while others weave in and out, traffic would follow a much more orderly pattern. Estimates are that a large fleet of self-driving vehicles could cut national fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent.

The advance of non-gasoline fuel systems: Since the experiments with trolley-like electronic tracks of the 1920s, self-driving systems have been associated with electric cars. While it will be perfectly possible to mount self-driving equipment on a gasoline-powered car, the “wave of the future” seems to be associated with non-gasoline vehicles. Google’s self-driver runs on electricity as do nearly all other experimental models.

Fewer accidents: Although humans may be reluctant to admit it, the vast majority of accidents are caused by driver error. The 360-degree visibility and unblinking vigilance of self-drivers could be a vast improvement. Many new cars are already beginning to incorporate some of the features with rear-view cameras and automatic braking. The 2014 Mercedes S-class offers options for self-parking, automatic accident avoidance and driver fatigue detection. One website that projects the self-driving future even suggests that the main job losses would be among: 1) hospital emergency room services, 2) auto repair shops and 3) trial lawyers specializing in auto accidents!

Peer-to-peer sharing of traffic information: The end point of self-driving would be a peer-to-peer information-sharing system whereby individual vehicles would be warned of congestion and traffic tie-ups and routed away from them. A 2010 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that an amazing 80 percent of all traffic accidents could be avoided by such a peer-to-peer system that smooth out traffic patterns and prevent cars from bumping into each other on congested highways.

More efficient traffic lights: How much time and gas is wasted by cars waiting for the light to change when no cars are coming in the crossing lane? Computerized systems linked to self-drivers could do wonders to hasten traffic flow and ease the time needlessly spent waiting for red lights.

Driving services for people who cannot drive: Many elderly and handicapped people cannot drive under ordinary circumstances, but could manage a vehicle in which they program it to tell it where they want to go. One of Google’s first early adapters was Steve Mahan, a California resident who is legally blind. This YouTube video shows him running a series of errands through his neighborhood, including a visit to a drive-in taco stand. All this might seem that it would increase driving and add to the nation’s fuel consumption until you consider that many of these people are already serviced by elaborate jitney systems that spend a great deal of time making empty runs. Once again, self-drivers would add precision and efficiency to the system.

Mass public transit  the possibility of a whole new personal mobility system: At the end point of this new technology is the vision of a whole new transportation system where far fewer vehicles would be needed to get people where they want to go. Driving this vision is the statistic that the average car is parked 90 percent of the time. If these vehicles could be put to more efficient use — something along the lines of bike-sharing on city streets  then the need for vehicles might be drastically reduced. Particularly in urban settings, more efficient matching of vehicles and passengers would cut down on the need for street parking. Uber, the San Francisco company that matches passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire, is now operating in 200 cities in 42 countries around the globe. The fuel savings it creates through matching efficiency are phenomenal.

Much of the fruits of these innovations are still in the future, but don’t put it past innovators like Google to make it happen quickly. In 2012 the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles issued the country’s first license to a Toyota Prius modified with Google technology. Florida and Michigan have also issued permits for road testing. Next January, Google will launch 200 gumdrop-shaped vehicles completely void of steering wheel, brake and gas pedal that will begin cruising the streets of Mountain View, Calif., in an experiment supervised by the California DMV.

The future may be closer than we think.

Ruminations on oil donations, foreign nations and replacement fuels

The “Old Gray Lady,” The New York Times, did it again….its recent article indicating the extent of government funds from foreign countries supporting so-called independent think tanks and universities in the U.S. was enlightening and was also clearly in the public interest. Most of us policy wonks suspected or knew what the Times indicated on September 7. “More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities…” The money is transforming the once-staid, think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign government’s lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom — some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government that is financing the research.” In this context, NATO, European, Middle East and Asian nations (e.g., Norway, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Japan, etc.) have been visible funders according to the Times and other media..

Before readers become holier than thou about the perception of perversion in foreign governments that link their support to what they want done regarding research and lobbying (implicit, if not explicit), they should know that the grant system in the U.S., in general, is not free of, at times, donor efforts to influence and/or sometimes pressure, whether it involves foreign governments, all levels of government in the U.S, business or foundation grants. Both have been and will remain the way of doing business.

I suspect attempts to influence or pressure research institutions or scholars are sometimes worse in social science research than in the sciences or engineering, where data, analysis and results can often claim at least some visible and quantifiable correlation or causation relationships. A donor’s ideological commitments also may predetermine and lessen the need for donors to try to negotiate the outcomes of grants or gifts. Not many liberal academics will apply for research money from the Koch Family Foundations, not many conservatives will likely go to the George Soros Open Society Foundations (OSF) for money.

Life is complicated for donors and recipients. Free speech and the free flow of ideas are embedded in the U.S. creed and the nation’s constitution. Truth in advertising in research grants and their products, a mythological spin-off, is often muted by the overwhelming influence and importance of money and the need for it, in light of fund shortages. However, the American public, for the most part, cannot easily separate the respected status of the Brookings Institution, the University of California, the Center For Global Development, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, etc. from their willingness to accept what seem clearly donor advocacy grants and subsequently to participate in what appears, to many, to be advocacy research and lobbying. The involved leaders, not always the researchers, of recipient institutions will deny the fact that research money sometimes comes with a price concerning legal, moral and often spoken words in grantor testimonials or contracts concerning obligations to search for the truth and increase wisdom concerning policy and program options.

Oil and oil-related companies and Middle Eastern nations seem now to be among the biggest givers and perhaps receive the biggest “take back” benefits. They fund schools and centers as well as analyses in and at major universities and independent think tanks, both within and outside universities. They have also funded “independent” scholars, chairs and specific RFPs (Request for Proposals) describing general and sometimes relatively specific areas of energy or transportation and fuel-related research. Significant oil and foreign money for policy-related research is also funded through third-party groups, which often mask the source of donations. Donors, understandably, expect benefits from supported research — at least consistency with and, in some cases, advocacy for their economic, social welfare and environmental objectives.

Perhaps one of the more egregious relationships concerning policy or program research involved the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), generally a mouthpiece of and also funded by the oil and automotive industry. Its relatively recent study debunking of E15 reflected the views of their sponsors — again the oil and auto industries. It indicated that E15 significantly harmed engines of many vehicle classes. The study was legitimately criticized by the EPA and others concerning methodology and content. Indeed, it and its implications concerning use of E15, was refuted in part or whole by the EPA’s more extensive analyses, by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and by other respected groups and individuals, some even associated with the auto industry. CRC’s efforts stimulated analyses and similar findings by groups like AAA— again based on even weaker methodology and unknown funding (likely mostly membership dues). Critics have pointed to AAA’s tenuous policy links to members and its long-time support by and of the auto and oil industries. Remember, more cars result in more gasoline use and increased ownership secures more AAA memberships.

Forget the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the proponents and critics of research concerning E15, or for that matter E85. At most times, policy choices and behavior are not based on perfection concerning data and analysis.

What concerns me the most is the predominance of oil and its friends’ money and the lack of transparency concerning funding sources and grant and gift requirements or constraints — both informal and formal.

Like the Times, I am also concerned about the dividing line between education and lobbying concerning grants and gifts provided by oil companies and, foreign nations. Lobbyists are required to register as such. Most think tanks and universities do not see themselves as lobbyists and do not register.

Industry, some foundation and even government-supported research grants sometime come with strings attached. Even if they didn’t, the results of paid research into complex issues are generally not conclusive and can be helpful in stimulating dialogue, if it’s matched by research initiatives funded by donors with different perceptions. Bad, or mediocre research funded by advocates, like speech, shouldn’t be countered by censorship, but by efforts to execute better research and by initiatives to provide to policymakers and the public with countervailing views and analysis to generate dialogue and debate.

I am not a purist. There is no chance in hell that the basic system of what I call advocacy grants and gifts now in existence will end. But public policymakers should insist on transparency as to funding sources and research methodology. Key advocacy studies likely to affect public sentiment and decision maker views concerning replacement fuels and gasoline should be granted, at least some form of even informal refereed reviews. If I could figure out an easy way to do it, I would define alternatives that would provide some reasonable equivalency concerning research funding. They would assure Americans that all key replacement fuel options are examined fully and are compared to gasoline. The research on replacement fuels should not be submerged by foreign nation or internal U.S. oil interest funding. But I don’t get paid enough nor am I smart enough to think this one through, at least until the next column. Maybe you can help me? Paraphrasing my favorite oil scholar, Socrates, unexamined studies funded without independent review, only by the oil industry or its Middle East friends and colleagues, are often not worth having or debating. Peace.