Weekly Brief: Auto Industry Should Use Hurricane Florence to Mend Its Ways

Storms lashing the world and Andrew Tolve tries to shoulder some of the blame.

As Hurricane Florence unleashed chaos on the Carolina coast last week, I felt a strange mix of sadness and complicity. Sadness because Carolina is a place that I love – I was married there and have spent many fond memories from the Blue Ridge Mountains down to those beautiful coastlands that are currently underwater.

Also, complicity because the superstorm that is wreaking this havoc is partly our fault according to many climate scientists. For hundreds of years we have pumped greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere through both industry and farming, with oblivion at first, then dismissively, greed and, most recently, lots of procrastination and delays to do anything substantial about it. The result is a world that is hotter and more volatile than it otherwise would be, full of fire, floods and superstorms whose scale is without precedent in modern times. It falls on all of us to bear the consequences.

Naturally, those of us in the auto industry don’t deserve all of the blame but we deserve plenty of it. Vehicle emissions now top the greenhouse tables in America and the transportation industry has dethroned the energy sector for the ignominious gold medal in the race to pollute the planet. We have known about this for a long time, yet some carmakers continue to be more interested in maximizing profit than in seeking proactive solutions. Let us not forget about Volkswagen’s seedy diesel-emissions scandal, which now appears to be more common practice than isolated incident, as more allegations emerge about Daimler’s similar malfeasance. [Worth noting that even with cheat devices, most diesel motors still produce less greenhouse gasses than gasoline engine – Ed]

The good news is that being a part of the problem also means that we’re on the front lines of being part of the solution, if we so choose. Last week my colleague Nathan Eddy reported on a new autonomous electric vehicle from Volvo that can hook up to existing trailers, thereby turning our diesel-burning big rigs of today into self-driving zero-emissions eTrucks of tomorrow. Hyundai plans to introduce a fuel cell electric truck in 2019. Tesla is working on the all-electric Tesla Semi. The more we research and develop solutions like these, the cheaper and more attractive they will become, the more they’ll be adopted and the less we’ll pollute the planet in aggregate, or so we are told assuming that future electric energy production is not as dependent on fossil fuels as it is today.

In addition to finding alternative ways to propel a vehicle, we also have the opportunity to pioneer whole new approaches to transportation. Every hurricane that hits the US now brings with it stories of gridlock and gas stations running out of fuel as millions of drivers attempt to flee – mostly in private vehicles. Fast forward a decade, when the majority of US cities are now projected to swell with about a million additional residents apiece and imagine the levels of gridlock and gas shortages then. Even that doesn’t broach the fact that many lower income families and senior citizens don’t own cars or can’t drive them, which makes fleeing a hurricane on short notice nearly impossible.

This is why the work that carmakers and tech start-ups are doing around shared mobility and autonomous vehicles is so critical. Instead of a sea of private cars choking up city streets and polluting the environment, a world where shared vehicles that drive themselves and eliminate traffic (not to mention most road deaths) is now possible. Senior citizens will be just as mobile as the rest of us. So, too, will the blind and other people whose handicaps or income levels preclude them from owning or driving a vehicle. If this sounds overly idyllic, that’s because it is. There’s a lot of hard work that must be done before we can realize it but it is possible and it just may be necessary to prevent a dystopian future that’s starting to feel more and more like reality.

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