Sustainability, Drop-in Innovation, and the Self-Driving Car


Most environmentalists might be more excited about the bicycle on the right, but Google’s self-driving car may well have more potential to enact real sustainability.

In transition studies we like to talk about what we call “drop-in innovations”. What this refers to, roughly, is a radical new technology that can be easily implemented without difficult modifications to existing social and technical structures. Smartphones are a good example of a drop innovation: The infrastructure and social practices associated with cell phones already existed, and so iPhone, Blackberry, and Android phones were easily accepted, allowing them to be the catalyst for some pretty major social and technical changes.

Existing infrastructure and social practices constitute a major stumbling block for many sustainable technology schemes, so the concept of drop-in innovations is very important in sustainability. If you want to use a new technology to change the way human society interacts with the natural world, then you will have an easier time accomplishing your goals if your new technology can be simply purchased off the shelf  without requiring any major changes as a prerequisite for its use.

With that in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to the self-driving car. Many will likely be skeptical of Google’s latest innovation, pointing out, for example, that we already have self-driving cars called buses. But I think this criticism misses the point. Buses are going to have a very hard time changing peoples’ travel habits because they come with a lot of social, political, financial and infrastructural baggage. The same thing goes for trains, which will require massive infrastructural investment in order to compete with cars.

The self-driving car, however, has an advantage over these other means of transportation. So long as self-driving cars are legalized (and it looks like they will be), there is nothing stopping a few pioneering travelers from buying them. These people would be able to travel with all the convenience that attracts people to cars, and they would pay no infrastructural or financial penalty for their choice.

Once self-driving cars catch on, however, there are a huge number of ways they could be made greener. They could be fitted with electric motors, for starters, but if we think beyond that, we can imagine even more exciting possibilities. Suppose, for example, that some enterprising taxi firms start running self-driving electric cars that can be called to pick up passengers using a smartphone app. Such a system would require no drivers and thus be extremely cheap to operate, and would free travelers from the hassles of parking, refueling, or maintenance. A fleet of such cars could form long trains on highways, in which they could draft off each-other and save enormous amounts of energy-something that would be highly unsafe with human drivers. They could constantly circulate, or automatically return to out-of-the-way garages, thereby freeing up a great deal of urban space otherwise used for parking.

This is all very speculative, of course. But it’s an important example of the power that a drop-in innovation can have. Radical system change is undoubtedly far more exciting than such incremental and uncertain improvements, but it’s also a lot more difficult. I’d love to see cities of the future that are criss-crossed with electric trams and cycle lanes, but there are a lot of physical, political, social, technical, and financial barriers in the way of that. The only major obstacles I can see in the way of the system of automated vehicles I have just described are driving schools and cabbies-not exactly groups who wield enormous political influence.

There seems to be a lot of optimism about the future right now. With projects such as spacex, the hyperloop, the oculus rift, and google glass, it seems like we may finally be moving towards the future that was imagined in 1990s films. Environmentalists should seize on this trend to find promising new technologies that can save the world, rather than stubbornly insisting on pre-established visions.