Podcast Transcript: The True Cost of Going Electric

By youheng.dong

What does the phrase “electric vehicles” bring to mind for you? How can we reap the benefits of EV integration beyond climate benefits? How will autonomous vehicles impact personal data privacy? How will the switch to EV impact economies  and societies that rely on fossil fuels?

Liz Gerber is the Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy and Innovator-in-residence at the University of Michigan, and Founder of ViewPoint Educational Technologies. Liz joins Jen Bradford today to discuss the massive open online course – People, Technology, and the Future of Mobility – a new course taught at the university.

On this episode of the Innovation in the Classroom, Jen and Liz will discuss:

  • The new MOOC course that Liz will be teaching
  • Benefits of partnering with Siemens to get Industry insights
  • The need for policy changes to facilitate the transition to EV
  • How autonomous vehicles make driving safer
  • Personal data privacy concerns
  • How diversion from gas vehicles and fossil fuel to EV will impact different economies and societies
  • How technology and electrification innovation will open up new jobs and opportunities

Within the university, we have so much but we don’t have the industry perspective that Siemens has that really helps us better see where is this industry heading in the future.

– Liz Gerber

Tune into the full episode to learn more about the new online course and how switching to EV will affect our future habits, economies, and societies. To learn more about Liz’s People, Technology, and the Future of Mobility course, visit the Michigan Online Future of Work Academy. Stay tuned to Innovation In The Classroom and subscribe to the series.

Podcast Transcript

Dora Smith: Welcome to Innovation In The Classroom by the Siemens Empowers Education Team. I’m Dora Smith. Today, Jim Bradford takes us first spin in an electric vehicle with Liz Gerber.

Jen Bradford: What does the phrase “electric vehicles” bring to mind for you? We’ve come a long way from how we once thought of EVs: a futuristic technology flying high above a cityscape. Today, most of us have a sense that electric vehicles may just be a key factor in helping to free ourselves from our reliance on fossil fuels. Many of us are more excited, still, at the prospect of self-driving cars as the wave of the future. But bringing those ideas to reality is actually far more complex than it might seem.

Liz Gerber: While these technologies have the potential to greatly improve mobility, and greatly improve the quality of life for so many people, they’re not sufficient. The technology alone is not going to bring those benefits, people are going to have to make decisions that ensure that the benefits from electrification and autonomous vehicles are widely felt, and that the drawbacks, the downsides that any new technology is going to bring forward are managed in a way that they’re minimized so that big harms are not made to vulnerable groups.

Jen Bradford: Liz Gerber is the Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy and Innovator-in-residence at the University of Michigan, and Founder of ViewPoint Educational Technologies. She’s joining me today to discuss the massive open online course—also known as a MOOC—that she’ll soon be teaching. The course aims to integrate an understanding of the technical aspect of electric vehicles with an exploration of possible solutions to the technology’s lesser discussed impacts. Liz is working in collaboration with Siemens and the University of Michigan to facilitate People, Technology, and the Future of Mobility, a new course that may just help solve many of the societal, social, and economic complications that have arisen around EVs. I asked her to tell me a bit more about the course.

Liz Gerber: The course, on one level, is about technology, and in particular, two of the major technologies that are transforming the mobility sector: electrification and thinking about both how are we electrifying vehicles, but then also, what does a massive increase in electric vehicles mean for how we generate electricity? So, we’re also looking at technologies on the electricity-generating side. And then, second, automation of vehicles, and looking at both what is going on within vehicles as we move towards driverless vehicles, but then also what’s going on in the infrastructure and what are the set of technologies that are going to support autonomous vehicles. 

Jen Bradford: But beyond the standard study of the electrification and automation of vehicles, the course also aims to add another lens by exploring the framework needed to make sure the benefits of the tech are widely felt. 

Liz Gerber: The course lays out the technologies, electrification, and automation. But then for each of those things, both about what are some of the industry perspectives? How is the industry thinking about what is going to happen with mobility once these technologies are fully deployed? And then thinking about other stakeholders like the government? What are governments going to have to do in order to ensure that social benefits from the technologies are widely felt? And then finally, for each of the technologies, a set of academic experts who study social science and the social impacts of technology. 

Jen Bradford: I asked what that exploration might look like within the context of the MOOC course.  

Liz Gerber: On the electrification side, we’re talking to folks who are thinking about what are some of the environmental impacts, the economic impacts on different kinds of groups, the health impacts of moving from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. And then on the automation side, on the automation part of the course, same structure. We’re going to talk first about basic engineering, the technology, then what are some of the industry perspectives. And of course, our colleagues at Siemens are very much involved in that and are prominently shown in the content. And then we’re going to talk about what governments going to have to do in order to deploy autonomous vehicles. And then what are some of the social impacts of vehicle automation — things like risk and safety, things like economics, things like urban planning and land use? And what are some of those important implications of that technology? So, in both cases, the technologies, although there’s overlap between them, a lot of the implications are very different so we’re thinking about them as two separate technologies. Of course, they’re not separate. Most of the electric vehicles of the future are going to have high levels of automation, and autonomous vehicles of the future are almost certainly going to be electric. But we’re looking at those technologies separately, just for the purposes of the course, so we can really think through what are the unique properties of those technologies and how are people going to be affected by them. 

Jen Bradford: So what, then, does she see as the benefit of partnering with a company like Siemens for this sort of project? 

Liz Gerber: Unlike the courses that somebody like me—a regular professor at a university—typically teaches, we are trying to speak to a much broader pool of learners, a much broader audience with this course. So, to have a partner like Siemens who represents; in fact, many of the learners that we’re trying to reach in this are people that Siemens may also either interact with as customers, as staff, as people that work for Siemens. So, I really see this partnership as providing really important information about the broader set of people that might be interested in the kinds of technologies that we’re talking about in the course and as a channel to reaching that broader audience outside of the walls of the University of Michigan. I think it’s really valuable to notice the breadth of Siemens’ work across technologies and your ability to be on the cutting edge of lots of different kinds of technologies, and so you make such a great partner to the university broadly. 

Jen Bradford: And with combined expertise in social science, technology, and mobility, Liz’s collaboration with Siemens and U of M goes far beyond the sum of its parts. And with combined expertise in social science, technology and mobility, Liz’s collaboration with Siemens, and the University of Michigan goes far beyond the sum of its parts.

Liz Gerber: I’m the people-person by training. I study social science: how people interact, how they make decisions, how they engage with the public, and so on. So, I really very much see myself as bringing the people part to the equation. I teach in a school of public policy, which is, by definition, very interdisciplinary. So, we have people like me in political science, economics, and sociology. But then we’ve also got a lot of other faculty in other disciplines, including engineering. So, there’s obviously a very natural nexus between things like transportation policy, which really draws on my academic training in public policy and political science, and the technologies that governments are regulating in the policies. So, my school—the school of public policy—is really kind of an interesting microcosm because my colleagues are both social scientists and physical scientists and engineers. So, I’m accustomed to speaking with and collaborating with engineers. The University of Michigan, of course, has a lot of engineering talent and people working on the technology part of the equation. And I really see Siemens as bringing the future of mobility piece into the conversation. 

Jen Bradford: Although the course drew some initial skepticism about its combined approach, the ability to examine the topic from so many different perspectives can’t be underestimated. 

Liz Gerber: I think that none of us has the whole package in the same way that we can bring it all together and make the collaboration, like any good collaboration, more than just 1/3 plus 1/3 plus 1/3. It really is the whole package when we all come together, so it’s really exciting for me. And again, within the university, we have so much but we don’t have the industry perspective that Siemens has that really helps us better see where is this industry heading in the future. 

Jen Bradford: Understanding and taking into account all of the many moving parts is the only way to reap EV technology’s full potential. One of the most lauded benefits of EV integration is its obvious climate benefits. But without considering those outside factors, we could find ourselves right back where we started. 

Liz Gerber: A lot of the climate policy that, not just this administration, but around the world, that governments are trying to achieve climate goals. A transition to largely electric vehicles is front and center, it’s one of the most important features of those policies. However, if we don’t convert our electricity-generating systems to renewables and other less carbon-based technologies, we’re not going to get those benefits. So, that’s an example where people have to make decisions about “Okay, we’re supporting this transition to electric vehicles, but it’s not enough just to have the electric vehicle technology. There are a lot of other decisions that have to be made in order to achieve those environmental benefits.” So, converting our electricity-generating systems, sometimes we don’t think about that as part of the transition to electric vehicles. We don’t think of that necessarily as a mobility technology, but it absolutely is. It’s necessary in order to get the benefits from electric vehicles in terms of environmental impact.

Jen Bradford: As with any emerging technology, concerns grow in a number of different areas. Data security is also a huge source of apprehension when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

Liz Gerber: Privacy is a really big issue. So, on the one hand, autonomous vehicles operate on data, they require data to know where they are, there are all sorts of sensors on vehicles, there will be sensors in the infrastructure. Going forward, we’re starting to see more and more of that. So, a lot of data is generated, and that data helps autonomous vehicles drive, know where they are, know where other vehicles are, know where other obstacles are, and know what the rules of the road are. And to be able to function in a driverless mode, they need that data. However, if we think about that data, we have to immediately start worrying about privacy. Because of course, if my car knows where I am, so does everybody else, anybody that has access to that data.

Jen Bradford: And such access can work as a double-edged sword. 

Liz Gerber: We want people to know where other people are, that’s how the whole system works. But when we start thinking about people who are vulnerable to predators of different sorts, whether that be financial people that want to know where you are financially so that they can prey on you through your credit cards or through your other information, they know your shopping patterns, they know where you’re going. If we know where children are, does that make them less safe? Perhaps, depends on who has that information. So, there’s this real tension between wanting to make sure that data are available to support connected and autonomous vehicles because the vehicles need that data to operate safely. But by having all that information out there, people may become vulnerable to others who might use that information for nefarious purposes. 

Jen Bradford: With all of the different perspectives gathered together for this course, there have also been quite a few surprises. 

Liz Gerber: The privacy issue I had thought about but hadn’t really appreciated the volume of that, the magnitude of that issue, and all of the legal considerations around data, both how it’s used and by whom it’s used, and what rights do consumers have to opt-out of data sharing and that sort of thing. It’s unresolved. We don’t know how it’s all going to work out and whether both legislatures around the world and courts around the world are going to decide cases, because there will be cases that come up in terms of challenges to the use of data or the withholding of data. Another set of issues that I hadn’t really fully appreciated is around risk and insurance; what are the potential offsetting pros and cons? For example, autonomous vehicles are safer because they don’t do things like text while they’re driving as people do. They’re not distracted in the same ways; they drop their phone and they’ve got to– cars don’t do that, but people do. They’re not intoxicated when they’re driving, so on and so forth. So, on the one hand, autonomous vehicles maybe much safer. On the other hand, people have to program the vehicles to make interesting decisions. 

Imagine you’re watching a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks, straight towards five workers. You happen to be standing next to a switch that will divert the trolley onto a second track. Here’s the problem: that track has a worker on it, too — but just one. What do you do? Do you sacrifice one person to save five? This is the trolley problem, a version of an ethical dilemma that philosopher Philippa Foot devised in 1967.

Liz Gerber: There’s going to be a problem either way. The trolley is going too fast to stop, so the driver has to decide, “Do I do harm to this person or group or this other person or group?” You can imagine that situation on a large scale in autonomous vehicles because if there’s a pedestrian that’s jaywalking and an autonomous vehicle is going to hit them or turn and run into a group of people standing by the side of the road, who aren’t jaywalking, and maybe hurt them but maybe not. How do you make that decision?

Jen Bradford: Of course, these kinds of split-second, morally-complex decisions are made thousands of times a day by human drivers. But what happens when the driver of the car is a pre-programmed computer? 

Liz Gerber: There are all these really challenging moral and ethical issues that come up. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I started talking to folks about this course, and how challenging those human social dimensions of autonomous vehicles are. It’s not just teaching a car how to drive.

Jen Bradford: Another overlooked variable is how the transition from fossil fuels will affect local economies. 

Liz Gerber: There are many communities that are completely dependent, whose economies are completely dependent on the oil and gas industry. What happens to those communities if we no longer use oil and gas in our vehicles? If we make a huge diversion away from internal combustion engine vehicles and to electric vehicles, what happens to those communities? And it’s not just the individual jobs—the people that work in the oil wells—but it’s everybody else. It’s the grocery stores where they shop, it’s the auto-insurance companies that depend on them for their business, it’s all the services, it’s real estate, it’s everything in those communities, it’s government that get tax dollars. So, there are huge economic disruptions that need to be considered. Now, it’s not to say that there are no potential benefits for those communities. In many cases, these are dirty jobs, and if people make good decisions about how do we transition these industries, there are many, many new jobs that are being opened up by these technologies: jobs in producing electricity, in developing materials and components for electric vehicles, in computer programming at all levels from the most basic all the way to the most technical, in supporting autonomous vehicles. So, it’s not to say that these jobs are gone and nothing will ever come good to these communities, but decisions have to be made to help transition these local economies as well. So, I didn’t appreciate the volume of people that are affected, that are currently employed in the oil and gas industry right now, and what the huge economic impacts are going to be, and the real challenges and opportunities that exist in converting those economies away from extraction industries to something in the future. If you build a public transit system, people still have to get from their homes to the transit system, and from the endpoint, the drop-off to wherever they’re going to their workplace, or business, or whatever. Autonomous vehicles are really starting to be seen as that missing link in these transportation systems. 

Jen Bradford: Looking forward, it seems inevitable that electric vehicles will be the key player in the future of transit. But even with the predicted proliferation of EVs, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for our current transportation problem.

Liz Gerber: Some of the experts from Siemens, actually, that have contributed to the course are talking about not just vehicles, personal transportation—cars and light trucks—but also how some of these technologies are playing out in other transportation and mobility sectors like aviation, maritime shipping, rail, and so on. So, those transportation sectors have different challenges and different opportunities. So, it’s true that these technologies are developing not in a linear way, but you’ve got discoveries, and then they build on each other, and then you’ve got new discoveries and you go in different directions. But that’s also happening across the whole sector where we’ve got different challenges associated with electric airplanes than with electric automobiles. So, you have the technologies developing on different branches across the broad transportation and mobility sector. It’s really cool to watch.

Dora Smith: To learn more about Liz’s course, People, Technology, and the Future of Mobility, visit the Michigan Online Future of Work Academy. There, you can subscribe for updates and be notified when enrollment opens.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at