Can Germany, a country of the auto, transform itself into a place of sustainable transportation? And is the IAA really about the future, or is it one more “greenwashed” party for the dinosaurs that run on fossil fuels? From EVs and batteries to self-driving cars, join us as we speed around the world.
Our first stop is Nairobi, where electric-vehicle startup ARV Ride has launched a fleet of all-electric two- and three-wheeled motorbikes for UberEats. The company is also building a charging network “fed by thermal energy generated from volcanic heat along East Africa’s tectonic rift,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and hopes its project will serve as a springboard for the adoption of EVs throughout Africa. Why is this important? In cities clogged with traffic, where the roads are full of holes or are difficult for full-sized vehicles to navigate, small electric vehicles are poised to succeed rapidly, taking off in much the same way that cellular networks eclipsed copper landlines in hard-to-reach corners of the globe.
Next, let’s visit Carson City, Nevada, where the engineer called the “brains behind Tesla” is working to solve the environmental disaster wrought by the mining, manufacture, and disposal of EV batteries and the materials that make them. The goal? A fully circular economy, where materials now mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Australia, and Chile can be sourced instead from used scooter batteries, laptops, cell phones—and even used e-bikes and electric buses, thanks to partnerships with Specialized and bus-manufacturer Proterra. As Patrick McGee and Henry Sanderson explain in the Financial Times, “The concept is being embraced by some of the world’s largest companies, including Apple, whose chief executive Tim Cook set an objective ‘not to have to remove anything from the earth to make the new iPhones’ as part of its pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2030.”
Over at the University of Seoul and at the University of Texas, Austin, meanwhile, researchers have developed ways to manufacture cathodes without cobalt—and without the dire human rights issues surrounding cobalt mines—that achieve the same energy densities as traditional lithium-ion batteries.
Already driving an electric car? Let’s cruise through the United Kingdom, where Royal Dutch Shell is offering to install 50,000 charging stations, with a goal of adding one or two DC charging outlets at each of its 500 British petrol stations, putting it on track to control one-third of the market. DC charging stations, or DCFCs, are considered superchargers, mainlining direct current from the power grid at rates that can fully power your EV in about 20 to 30 minutes.
But will your EV be able to plug in? Drive on over to central Colorado, where a small-town mayor has taken on the fight to make all charging plugs the same: “If you can only charge at specific places, it divides that kind of world up in a really awkward way.” The EV charging network in the U.S. and Canada is a complicated patchwork of Tesla-only outlets and membership-based charging stations for everyone else, which poses a problem for the expected boom in charger installations. As Aaron Gordon puts it in VICE: "The big question facing the EV industry, which will have huge ramifications for EV users in the next decade and beyond, is whether the end result will be an open access charging landscape or a series of walled gardens. Will you be able to pull into any EV charging station and “fill up” in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable price? Or will more chargers than not be closed off unless you’re driving a specific car brand?
In Europe, the situation is slightly less complicated—newer model Teslas can plug into the standard CCS connector—but the network is still far from standardized.
A truly autonomous ride
“Your car begins to represent life,” writes Diana Athill in her memoir about aging, Somewhere Towards the End. “You hobble towards it, you ease your unwieldy body laboriously into the driver’s seat—and lo! you are back to normal. Off you whiz just like everyone else, restored to freedom.” For those of us with mobility impairments, a car can mean the difference between isolation and connection, self-sufficiency and unemployment, even disease and health. Which makes it all the more important that self-driving cars be designed with accessibility in mind.
So let’s take a quick detour to Maine, where the VEMI Lab has created an Autonomous Vehicle Assistant that uses everything from a user’s smartphone to augmented reality and haptic feedback to aid passengers on their journey, potentially allowing them to travel independently no matter what their hearing, vision, or mobility is like.
“In some ways, equipping ridesharing fleets with standard accessibility hardware and software such as wheelchair spaces, and safety belts and a selection of both audio and visual interfaces, is the simpler side of the accessibility equation,” writes Gus Alexiou in Forbes. “Far greater complexity lies in enabling the onboard AI to possess sufficient situational awareness to adapt to a rapidly-changing dynamic environment, especially for passengers likely to require additional levels of information due to sensory impairment and where safety is at stake.”
Crowdsourcing the drive
But where does AI get all that situational awareness? Increasingly, from places like Venezuela—and countries all across the Global South—where workers earn as little as U.S. $1 an hour. As Vittoria Elliott explains in Rest of World, anything from individual drops of rain to a broken traffic light can confuse the algorithms powering self-driving cars. The task of identifying and labelling every piece of data that a car’s sensors take in—including those individual drops of rain—falls to an army of remote workers. In countries like Venezuela, where high inflation puts a premium on U.S. dollars, tech companies have been able to recruit large numbers of workers quickly.
According to Rest of World, the most important innovation to come out of this moment isn’t the autonomous cars themselves but the vast labor pool the industry accidentally helped create. Some of the workers who spoke to Rest of World said they also trained artificial intelligence for medical technology, smart home devices, and even garbage sorting.
More jobs throughout the world is, in many ways, a good thing. But as more people enter this workforce, there’s already evidence that pay rates are dropping quickly. The worker in Venezuela interviewed by Elliott decided to leave the country after his earnings fell by almost 90 percent.