Google currently holds the most important piece of the energy revolution; and it has nothing to do with the company’s wind interest boondoggles. It doesn’t even have anything to do with green technology, per se. The revolution won’t come from a wind turbine or a solar panel, the revolution will come from a self-driving automobile.
This probably seems counter-intuitive. Won’t people travel more when they don’t have to stay awake to ensure that their vehicle doesn’t veer off the highway? Maybe, but there are reasons to expect otherwise. This is primarily because, in the age of mass electronics, a self-driving car has much broader implications than the mere ability to take a nap as the car makes the trek from New York to Chicago.
A car that can drive itself doesn’t need any passenger at all. In other words, the world’s motorists will be able to send their cars to the store to pick up grocery orders without having to travel with them. Do you live in New York City and not have a place to park outside your apartment? No longer a problem: Instead, why not just leave it at a discount parking-garage two miles away — or even let it double at night, and when you are at the office, as a taxi cab. You can call the car on your iPhone and tell it to pick you up at any time you want.
This might not seem like it's saving energy, but then again, once we have taken this step, why should Americans bother owning cars at all? And I am not just referring to Americans in New York City or Washington who already share a bench with the opossums on the subway trains in order to save a couple of bucks. I am talking about people in places like Intercourse, Alabama and Goobertown, Arizona. When you can have a car delivered to your door any time you want — maybe for $2.50 a ride — and you don’t have to deal with taking out loans to buy it, registering it, paying for its insurance, worrying about it breaking down and telling the kids that, if they ever steal it, you will neuter them; not owning a car begins to seem like a pretty good deal.
Imagine how much energy can be saved by renting instead of owning. Approximately 70% of college students bring their cars to school with them, but once cars respond to “here” as devoutly as the most loyal golden retriever, no one will ever need to make a car “sit.” People might conserve costs and energy by pooling shopping lists together; it probably won’t be long until someone creates a social network where three or four commuters, who share a route to work but have never met, can rent a car for five days a week.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Driverless cars probably won’t run on the same fuels as your parents’ Lincoln Continental or Buick Saber. For all the talk of electronic cars, the only people who have bought a Tesla are people who have done so due to conscience. Who really wants to be limited to traveling 400 miles without having to recharge the car for four hours? Refueling a conventional car only takes five minutes. This might change when travelers no longer own the vehicle they travel in and, therefore, have no reason to stay with it. Instead, gas stations could be replaced by recharging checkpoints where car rental services could provide a sort of pony-express: Leave the car recharging for the next customer; take the car that the last customer left four hours ago.
This isn’t to say that driverless cars will eliminate pollution over night. The electricity that will run them comes from somewhere and, as the demand for it increases, that somewhere will most likely be a coal-fueled power-plant. But before making policies for implementing a “green agenda” — the sort of policies for which companies with names like Solyndra and Satcon are the public face — we have to understand that the world of tomorrow is going to be nothing like the rise-in-the-suburbs-and-commute-to-the-city experience that defines contemporary life. At the very least, we can be grateful that we might never have to find another parking space.