Autonomous Cars and the American Culture

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Autonomous cars are, in my mind, a futuristic idea that isn’t anywhere near completion.  However, according to an article in the National Journal, automakers believe these cars will be on the road as early as 2018.  From this article they describe several different aspects of why autonomous cars will improve our lives.  The three main areas which were focused on were safety, efficiency, and cost savings.  Some benefits of autonomous cars are city planning efficiency and drunk driving reduction.  Automakers also believe that these cars will “safely drive just feet from each other, quadrupling highway capacity.”

With all of this new technology available in cars I question how the American culture will respond to these autonomous cars.  One aspect of these cars is the information sharing that they provide.  To drive efficiently and safely these cars must communicate with each other and with a computer system run by the company.  In a post NSA scandal society where privacy protection is a hot topic of debate I don’t see the American public loving the idea of their information being shared.  Although, with such features as automatic crash report data and cars that can sense when the driving is experiencing a heart attack the benefits may outweigh the cost.

Driving is also an experience that many Americans love to do.  Cursing down an open highway with the windows day is a classic subject in American culture that is engrained in our music, movies, and television.  I believe that at first these autonomous cars will face a lot of resistance due to this social experience that we all cherish.  However, if autonomous cars allow us to do homework or answer emails on our long commutes to jobs then maybe the American public would be okay with losing some of the driving time that we love.  The future of cars could be autonomous automobiles and while at first I believe the American public will resist this change, eventually the benefits will push our resistance to the side.


Chasing the Dream of Half-Price Gasoline from Natural Gas

Over the past decade, the petroleum industry has developed new techniques for extracting natural gas from rock through processes known as fracking and horizontal drilling. Basically, gas and oil that is trapped in layers of rock below the water table have been inaccessible to oil companies until recently. The oil companies now can drill vertically and then horizontally into rock, making an L shape drilling path from the surface to the rock below. What flows from these paths is natural gas, not oil (although some oil can be extracted through this method). But now a California company is working on a process could allow natural gas (largely used for heating our homes) into gasoline (to power cars, trucks and so on):

At a pilot plant in Menlo Park, California, a technician pours white pellets into a steel tube and then taps it with a wrench to make sure they settle together. He closes the tube, and oxygen and methane—the main ingredient of natural gas—flow in. Seconds later, water and ethylene, the world’s largest commodity chemical, flow out. Another simple step converts the ethylene into gasoline . . . f Siluria really can make cheap gasoline from natural gas it will have achieved something that has eluded the world’s top chemists and oil and gas companies for decades. Indeed, finding an inexpensive and direct way to upgrade natural gas into more valuable and useful chemicals and fuels could finally mean a cheap replacement for petroleum.

If this process is successful, gas prices could come down. Way down, and stay down, which might mean that alternative fuels like battery power and CNG might be less attractive to consumers looking to save money when fueling their cars.

Of course, there’s a downside here. More fossil fuels burned means that more emissions go into the atmosphere, which may be contributing to global warming. So for environmentalists, this might be seen as a step backwards rather than a step forwards when it comes to transforming the ways we power vehicles in the 21st century. Fracking too, has come under fire from green activists, so a breakthrough here would certainly mean more fracking.