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How Computer Geeks can Save the Planet
Why are Robocars (autonomous computer driven vehicles for ordinary roads) the best shot for computer people to make a difference in the world -- both saving lives and making a really meaningful dent in oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions?
Computer nerds -- and I'm one of them -- often work for the chance to make a difference. And our inventions, from PCs to games to the internet itself, have made a big difference. Is it possible to make one that's even bigger?
Robocars are essentially a computer project. There's lots of cool automotive engineering to be done, but the real wizardry will come from hardware and even moreso from software.
The hardware needed includes cheap, powerful sensors, faster processors and specialized hardware for machine vision and pattern recognition. The software needs to drive all that, and combine machine vision, awareness and navigation with many other factors to produce the solution.
It's an Artificial Intelligence (AI) problem, but it's what is sometimes called a "weak AI" problem. It doesn't need a self-aware human equivalent being. It needs the more basic tools we're already getting good at. It's the sort of problem skilled computer wizards were born to solve.
I don't see a lot of other computer engineering projects that could have this effect on the world. Full AI would, but it's much further down the pipeline; it would also solve the robocar problem after all. Nanotech would have a bigger effect too, though like Full human level AI, it would have both good and bad consequences.
This project seems to offer the greatest good combined with the highest near-term tractability.
If this set of steps intrigued you, now start exploring the full depth of the essays on how this all happens.
Why are robocars so important to going green?
There are only a few "big" areas where serious redictions in energy usage and pollution can be made. Those big areas are personal transportation, electrical generation, agriculture and possibly building heating/cooling. While industrial energy usage is quite large, it consists of a large number of different processes for which there is no one magic bullet.
Cars are the big one. But people won't get more efficient vehicles simply because they "should" or even because the law demands it. People buy what they want. (Indeed, even while auto engineers made cars 30% more efficient since the 80s, the fleet average MPG stayed flat as people bought bigger cars with more horsepower.) In order to change cars, you must make the alternative both cheaper and better in just about every way. A bit cheaper is not enough. A bit better is not enough, except over a long time. A technology has to be marketable to win, not just workable.
Robocars offer the chance to be both much cheaper and much better. And by enabling experimental fuels, they offer a number of ways to that path.
There are a few other options -- revolutionary battery technologies, for example, or some amazing new renewable liquid fuel so good that people will switch quickly from gasoline. We should continue to work on these. But robocars will bring them about even faster by changing how people buy and hire cars.