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Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala is an American journalist based in Morocco. She completed her undergraduate coursework at the University of Texas at Austin (Hook’em) and reports on…

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Are Driverless Cars Messing With Texas?

Earlier this month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott approved a law that would allow the entire state to serve as a testing ground for driverless cars. This initiative—though reflective of the reductionist regulatory environment boasted by the Lone Star State’s Republican leadership—undermines the state’s existing energy sector.

The new law is a bid to attract investments from companies in Silicon Valley, Detroit, and other cities building the next generation of mass market vehicles. For an auto-piloted car to hit Texas roads, it will need to pass all the same measures of fitness as any other insured car, while fulfilling an additional caveat: carrying a recording device to monitor the car’s operations.

Texas is mostly flat, topographically speaking. Its boring geography has bred long, empty, multi-lane highways with 70 mph speed limits that link disparate towns. Compared to Washington—another state preparing to sign a bill that would allow robocar testing on its roads—Texas roads allow smooth and stable surfaces for emergent auto-drive technologies.

So far, tech-hub Austin and business-savvy Dallas have both allowed autonomous vehicle testing, with little incident, paving the way for the bill to flit through the Texas legislature, with a House approval vote of 31-0 and a Senate approval of 137-1.

But Texas, the largest state in the contiguous United States, faces stiff competition from other desert and agricultural states, as well as those with vastly different terrains. Arizona has served as a home for Waymo, Uber, and GM for years. In 2017 alone, 33 states introduced legislation that would make some room for the driverless-cars.

The act of allowing the testing of auto-pilot AI itself does not threaten the dominance of gas-guzzling vehicles. After all, not all autonomous cars will be sold by Tesla, a visionary tech company leading all things electric in the automobile industry. But the cars’ presence will breed familiarity amongst consumers, which will make the idea of purchasing such a vehicle, or hailing a ride on one, a much more palatable idea. This idea threatens to move up the peak oil schedule, as outlined by scientist Seth Miller’s recent viral Medium post “This is How Big Oil Will Die.” Related: Oil Prices Inch Higher As Saudi Crude Oil Loadings Drop

Miller’s theory reveals the socioeconomic costs of self-driving cars as it relates to the cost of owning a car. Remove the cost of paying a human to drive a taxi—which is the most significant part of any cab fare—and hired cars instantly become cheap enough to justify selling off privately owned cars and jumping on the proverbial bandwagon.

This automobile order is alive and well in cities with strong public transportation options such as New York, as well as in countries with powerful hired car networks such as Morocco. In the latter, it makes financial sense to live without the hassle of maintaining a car, which eats up cash in gas and maintenance.

Upper-middle class families that can now afford to own two cars will likely be able to make do with just one. An intelligent AI will be able to schedule dropping off one or both of its overlords to work, after making sure the children reach school bright and early. Parking costs could cease to be an issue, because the car makes its way home after picking up the groceries through Walmart Store Pickup or countless other comparable services.

Tanking car ownership rates translates into lower oil consumption, as intense carpools organized by hyper-efficient computer algorithms reduce redundant drives even more. Each individual car might use more gasoline, but the rise of highly fuel-efficient cars and mass-market electric cars will fight the rising petrol costs and spur peak oil.

This means Texas’ new bill allowing autonomous vehicle testing is counterproductive to the state’s current energy empire, spanning large cities and remote geological formations. Houston, the nation’s oil capital, stands to lose from Abbott’s new deal. But if not Texas, tech companies will find other states that are more hospitable towards their headless vehicles. It’s a losing race. Might as well come out ahead in the next round.

By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com

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