How Self-Driving Cars Are Ushering in the Third Industrial Revolution

In VICE's latest feature-length documentary, 'The Third Industrial Revolution: A Story for Our Human Family,' social and economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin explains why we must rethink productivity in order to survive.

Alexis Chemblette

Alexis Chemblette

Image via Getty

On Monday, January 9, VICE joined city officials, entrepreneurs, and leaders in the tech and automotive industries for Ford's City of the Future Symposium. The event, held as part of the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, focused on the future of transportation and our ongoing transition to a carbon-free economy. 

At this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford unveiled its latest pre-collision assist-equipped F-150 truck, along with an eight-city expansion of its newly acquired ride-sharing service, Chariot. Following the presentation, Ford played host to a day's worth of conversation—from innovators, entrepreneurs, journalists, and city officials—about what exactly the "city of the future" looks like, concluding with a preview of VICE's newest feature-length documentary, The Third Industrial Revolution: A Story for the Human Family. The film, which pulls inspiration from economist Jeremy Rifkin's 2011 book of the same name, features Rifkin laying out both his new economic vision and the means to deploy it. Like the first and second industrial revolutions before it, he explains, the Third Industrial Revolution will unfold when three technologies emerge and converge: new communication, new sources of energy, and new modes of mobility—"a new infrastructure that fundamentally changes the way we manage, power, and move economic life."

In the film, Rifkin rebukes 200 years of classic economic theory and suggests that our outdated models ignore the laws of energy that govern economic activity. The extraction of fossil fuels and depletion of fertile land have shaped decades of economic growth, he says, but our biosphere's inability to absorb human activity, combined with the exhaustion of natural resources, are now forcing us to rethink productivity.

Above all, Rifkin argues that the world needs to be off carbon in the next four decades to curb the worst effects of climate change and eventual human extinction. Countless research scientists agree that wind, water, and solar sources can supply 100 percent of the world's energy. A recent study by the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration concludes that wind and solar can account for 60 percent of America's energy by 2030.

"We have millions of people now producing their own renewable energy at zero marginal cost," Rifkin explained onstage on Monday. "Once you get rid of the fixed costs, [natural energy] is practically free. In 18 months a solar watt will cost just 35 cents."

So then the question becomes, how do we make such a monumental shift happen?

Rifkin says that the US energy transition—which is years, if not decades, behind both China and Germany—is the product of failed public policy and political will. Even with the resources to execute a plan, there also needs to be a coherent campaign to get public sentiment and understanding onboard. "The Obama administration has invested billions in a green economy, but America doesn't have a green economy because it didn't have a vision," Rifkin said. In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein also contends that the biggest obstacles  to a green economy are social and political: "It takes more than will; it requires a profound ideological shift."

Rifkin, who served as a special advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel when she fought to wean Germany off nuclear power, cited the country as a leader in ushering in the Third Industrial Revolution. While Merkel's energy policies have garnered some criticism, solar and wind now power 32 percent of Germany's electricity, and the country is aiming to be on 100 percent renewable power by 2040. Rifkin notes that governments that formerly subsidized inefficient and expensive alternative energy sources are now reaping the benefits as infrastructure catches up to technology.

The City of the Future symposium repeatedly highlighted the role of green and smart cities in building a new, carbon-free economy. Currently, metropolitan areas contribute  70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it's predicted that the number of cities in the world will double by 2050. Last year, Paris experienced its worst pollution peak in a decade, forcing Mayor Anne Hidalgo to introduce alternate traffic measures. Oslo plans to ban cars from its city center by 2019. But Simon Tricker, founder of Urban Tide—a smart city initiative based in the UK—says that if self-driving electric cars become commonplace by 2030, cities will be able to reduce their emissions by 90 percent without impairing the quality of life of their inhabitants.

"Autonomous vehicles will be on the roads and running," asserted Ford's executive chairman, William Clay Ford, on Monday, "and this will give us back green space in our cities." In this vision of the future, autonomous cars wouldn't have to park on the street, and therefore, those lanes could be used for bicycles or transformed into green spaces within the urban core. In addition to investing in autonomous cars, Ford's smart city plan will include ride-sharing programs and data collection tools. 

This vision of the future sounds enticing, but with an economy that has so long depended on fossil fuel and manufacturing, it is easy to wonder how the US market would respond to this drastic shift. Rifkin eased concerns about a shrinking workforce as a result of this pivot, arguing that millions of unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers will be needed to build the infrastructure required for what comes next—namely, to assemble wind turbines, install solar panels, manufacture charging stations, and digitalize our electric grid.

"Human beings, not robots, will move this smart world," he said. "In the north of France, we have trained thousands of coal miners to retrofit buildings and not dig coal. The alternative is to go back to a Second Industrial Revolution economy with fossil fuels and no jobs."

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