TILL and the future of Suburban Transportation

On Thursday the 17th the Unitarian Church and ITC4 hosted TILL (Todays Industrial Living Landscape) to give a talk about the future of suburban transportation.

The talk began with Barlow grad Olivia Greenspan giving a brief introduction. She then handed the mic over to Jane Philbrick who briefly discussed the trends (economic and cultural) of the local area, and  the country as a whole. Some of her points included the idea that the younger generation tends to follow the cultural trends of society, and tend to live in more urbanized areas. She pointed out data suggesting that  66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands (up from 55% in 2014) while 73% of global millennials are willing to pay more for a sustainable brand (up from 50% in 2014.) She compared this to the cultural trend of the use of the IPhone, and apps. Younger generations tend to be the ones that start the trends to push the innovation of technology (think of any parent asking their kid how to zoom in on the phone.) However, the median age in most suburban communities is 48. So how does this relate to the topic of the evening, that is, the challenges of energy efficient suburban transportation?  The idea appears to be that in order to push the trend of the electric vehicles, thought to be one solution to this problem, locally, the town needs to attract  younger people, as presumably they would be more willing to embrace a new trend, like say buying electric cars And while currently that is occurring, she pointed that suburban communities are becoming younger. Slowly.

The next speaker was Alex Clark. Professor Clark is a researcher at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government and the 2016-17 Henry Fellow at Harvard University. His principal field of interest is international climate and energy policy, and his current research focuses on the electrification of transport. He gave a very well spoken explanation on some of the challenges e-cars face and the attributes that would need to improve to address these challenges, including lowering cost and increasing convenience. For example, he stated that E-cars needed frequent recharges which leads to both an overall increase in cost and also is inconvenient. However, Tesla has had some success in this area in recent years. He talked about the expense of battery installation, particularly the expensive cost of home battery installation and the resultant increase in home electricity bill. The cost of the equipment for a new Tesla Powerwall 2.0 battery is $5,500, which includes a built-in inverter and twice the storage capacity of the original Powerwall battery. In order to install the battery, you would have also needed a separate, specially made inverter that can communicate between your solar panel system, your battery, and the electric grid. This cost does not include the cost of labor for the actual installation. Which is typically around $800 according to the Tesla website. He explained that with these challenges it is important to keep in mind the advancements Tesla is making in improving some of these problems. He also discussed the future of E-Cars and some potentially controversial ideas around using government to promote electric cars via legislation (Supporting  politicians who support government funding toward E-Car transportation innovation would be an example, of this, however the potential problems with this approach were not addressed. For example the potential moral hazard involved in creating incentives to encourage giving government favors to particular business interests, even if ostensibly “green” business interests in exchange for political support, can readily be seen as potentially leading to political graft and corruption)

Michael Lin, also a Barlow alum, then took the stage to talk about the future of transportation in regards to Autonomous vehicles. Michael Lin is a third year Computer Science Major attending the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. He currently leads the Telemetry team of Georgia Tech’s Solar Racing team, which designs, builds and races solar-powered automobiles. He discussed the rising issue of congested roadways, and mentioned one that hits home, the Merritt Parkway. This is where the use of autonomous vehicles can come into play. His vision is that there needs to be a cultural wave causing the use of autonomous cars. He thinks this would benefit  the environment and  meet  the shifting needs of the culture. He sees this as consistent with the  “on demand” type of society we are becoming. This of this as part of the App downloading, social media, one click culture. He imagines that  with autonomous cars, it is possible  people would not necessarily own a car, but rather subscribe to a service in which people would share an autonomous ride with an unmanned vehicle . . Similar to Uber, but with no driver. This would cut down on the amount of cars on the road. It would also increase the amount of space available for use. Instead of cars needing to be parked outside of work, school, or stores, the cars would continue driving paths until they would be placed out of the town or city where they would be parked. Lin would go on to talk about how this autonomous vehicle technology would not only change the future of transportation, but also change the way people do shopping, make deliveries, etc. By cutting down on the amount of cars on the road it would thus decrease the amount of green house gas emissions into the air and in turn help the climate. Some concerns for this type of transportation were brought up in both the discussion between Lin and Clark as well as in the Q and A. Including what the effect would be on the economy if delivery services, logistics companies, are replaced by essentially robot cars? What implications would a ride sharing service have on people’s security? It is hard to imagine how the autonomous car halls the 3 kids to their soccer game or carts the groceries for a family of 5. It might work well for a 28-year-old single millennial though, but probably not ready for prime time until it is given a little more thought.

Olivia Greenspan closed the talk by saying that it is important that small communities like this one talk about these technological advancements and move forward to create societal and cultural trends. That informing people about both the values and challenges in regards to E-Cars and Autonomous cars is essential in order to head start the process of economic and technological advancement; and that this would also help the environment. She thanked all who came and ended the talk.

I took some time to consider the idea of use of E-cars and autonomous vehicles and if people are willing to pay for them, then they seem like a potentially useful product and I am for the development of such vehicles. (Not sure the likelihood of that, but we can leave this aside) However, currently there are still many cost, convenience, and technological concerns. But as Clark said, there is current research in improving these problems. While I do see a potential future in autonomous vehicles alone, the idea of ride sharing seems inconvenient and in many cases completely incompatible with the way individuals who are not single use their car. I wondered how this kind of thing would work for a family taking a trip to Costco to load up for the next month, or even a weekly trip to the grocery store to get more then a few tiny packages? Or what about the family that wants to load up the minivan with luggage and sand toys to take a trip to the beach? It seems that while an autonomous car might work in some situations, this kind of public transport by robo-car has a lot of work to make it widely accepted. Perhaps it can fill a certain niche however. Nonetheless as Jane Philbrick mentioned afterward in the Q and A, this would be a completely new wave of technological and cultural advancement, comparing it to the IPhone and app download world, which people could not foresee twenty years ago.

The first step to getting there is talking about it. That’s what TILL did on Thursdaynight.