Self-Driving Cars, Drones, And The Western Grid: What They Have In Common

Self-driving cars. Grocery deliveries by drone. A humming “Western grid” providing the cheapest, cleanest power ever. Governor Jerry Brown invoked them all during a lunch break at a special symposium in Sacramento on the future of California’s electrical grid.

At the symposium, Brown insisted that California is going to have to move toward sharing its grid with other Western states. “The efficiency of a wider grid is unmistakable,” he said. He likened a wider grid to other feats of human engineering. “We are looking at the possibility of self-driving cars, we are looking at drones delivering our groceries in the afternoon. So we are in a world of very graphic, disruptive change and I hope we can make it as harmonious and pleasant as possible.”

But not everything about self-driving cars, drones, or creating a Western grid is harmonious or pleasant. All three have in common some serious downsides.

Self-driving cars with no steering wheel or pedals have the potential to kill people. Google and other tech companies are trying to fast-track approval, arguing it’s a way to avoid traffic accidents. In fact, self-driving cars being tested now can’t handle heavy rain or snow, hand signals from a traffic cop, or communication gestures from other drivers. 

Even existing “autopilot” functions can’t always be trusted, according to Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Think Joshua Brown, who was killed on a road trip in May because he put all his faith into the technology. His autopilot didn’t notice when a tractor trailer made a left in front of the car. The car traveled under the trailer, killing Brown. 

“The ideal scenario…saving the tens of thousands of lives a year, assumes complete automation with no human engagement whatsoever,” Hart told the MIT Technology Review just a week ago. “I’m not confident that we will ever reach that point. I don’t see the ideal of complete automation coming anytime soon.” 

And ordering your groceries by drone may be tempting, but the US military kills people using drones that can’t distinguish between the enemy and civilians. A lone, deranged gunman, or a terrorist group, can already adapt the technology to purposes far from benign.

“If we combine a gun, a quadrocopter drone, a high-resolution camera, and a facial recognition algorithm that wouldn’t need to be much more advanced than the current best in class, we could in theory make a machine we can program to fly over crowds, seeking particular faces and assassinating targets on sight,” writes Anja Kaspersen, the former head of international security at the World Economic Forum. 

In 2014, Stephen Hawking and other luminaries cautioned that not thinking through how to make this new artificial intelligence reflect human values could be “potentially our worst mistake ever.”

As for the Western grid, it’s a benign-seeming, giant wholesale trading platform for electricity. California already imports and exports electricity. The Western grid is a power-grab by utilities who want to rush headlong into the arms of weak federal regulators. It doesn't matter where the electrons come from--coal or the sun. Just how California will regulate utility self-dealing between subsidiaries, not to mention rates, is a question mark at best.

This regional grid idea is nothing new. Utilities preached it like the gospel 20 years ago. We see what it got us when California Governor Pete Wilson deregulated electricity. Utilities spun off power plants. Out-of-state companies, like Enron, snapped them up and starved the state of juice, or created artificial shortages. Consumers picked up a tab in the billions by the time the fiasco was over. The reality is that consumers stand to lose much more than they gain by ceding control over their energy future. 

California produces abundant solar power. Brown’s policies setting a high bar for the state’s share of renewable energy have created hundreds of thousands of green jobs. The California Energy Commission tells us we're already producing 25 percent of our electricity from renewable sources. Why import Warren Buffet’s dirty electricity from PacifiCorp's coal plants in Utah or Wyoming? 

Brown, who regularly warns about the horrors of a warming planet, wants the people in the room to “make sure that all those who love coal and those who love the sun can sit down and work in a totally seamless web of interconnection, interaction and happiness for all.” If you buy that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

California is on the way to a clean energy future. Brown himself bragged at the symposium that he spurred utility use of batteries to store intermittent energy from wind and solar. Let’s combine our ingenuity with human values to avoid yet another destructive mistake.

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