In the midst of the ongoing pandemic and election craziness you might have missed two amazing things that happened recently that portend a brighter future.
1. Waymo Driverless Taxis
Waymo is the autonomous vehicle division of Alphabet (Google). They’ve logged millions of driverless miles in the various iterations of their cars over the past five years. On October 8th, Waymo began a driverless taxi service in a 100-square mile section of the Phoenix metropolitan area.
The service works similar to Uber and Lyft. Using a smartphone app you merely summon a Waymo taxi, you get in and it takes you to your destination. All without a human driver. There’s nobody in the driver’s seat! To use the service you must be a member of Waymo One.
Why is this a big deal? It demonstrates the amazing progress autonomous driving technology has made in the past five years. Driverless vehicles will be game changers. Currently, cars are parked 95% of the time — the average car is only driven six hours per week. Source. Imagine not owning your own car. Instead, there are fleets of driverless cars roaming at all times. Using an app, you merely summon one which will take you to work, school, shopping or whatever. It’s similar to what we experience now with Uber and Lyft and the promise of using their technology platforms with autonomous cars is part of of their business plans.
Driverless cars likely will have huge second order consequences, including:
- greatly reduced number of auto accidents and deaths
- big changes to the auto insurance market
- massive changes to real estate — imagine little or no need for parking lots, parking garages or parking spaces
- fewer or no traffic jams (because computer controlled cars drive differently than humans)
Here’s a great article on the second order consequences of electric and autonomous vehicles from Ben Evans, a partner at the venture capital firm Andreasson Horowitz: Cars and second order consequences
Here’s a video from Waymo about how the technology works and what it’s like to ride in one of their cars:
2. Nuclear Fusion Reactors
“Fusion offers the possibility of unlimited, carbon-free electrical power. It is the same natural process that powers our sun and other stars.” Source. Colloquially referred to as a “star in a jar”, fusion reactors have been just out of reach for decades. A previous IFOD dived into how nuclear fusion reactors might work, how they differ from regular nuclear fission reactors, and some of the challenges. Here’s that IFOD: Nuclear Fusion: A Star in a Jar. It’s a pretty good IFOD.
The biggest roadblock to date for fusion reactors is the ability to produce more energy than is consumed. The recent good news is that a new player in the nuclear fusion game, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, has a prototype design that has been confirmed by scientists at MIT as being theoretically able to produce more energy output than consumed in producing the fusion. According to a physicist at University of California, “MIT’s publication marks an important milestone on the road to the study of burning plasmas and the first demonstration of net energy production from controlled fusion, and I applaud the authors for putting this work out for all to see.” Source.
Ironically, one of the challenges posed by the Commonwealth design is that it might generate too much net energy for the reactor to contain. The reactor is projected to produce twice as much energy as it consumes and theoretically could produce 10x more.
Read more: MIT News