Self-Driving Cars and SRI

Photo by Chase Lewis

Photo by Chase Lewis

SRI investors like electric cars for obvious environmental reasons. Many have flocked to Tesla*, for example, despite some of its current cash flow statistics that might frighten some more conservative non-SRI investors. These Tesla fans might well be motivated by the company’s electric car models, but their investments are also supporting another fast-developing, and proliferating, technology – namely cars that drive themselves.

Tesla has been working on self-driving technology based on cameras and optical imaging systems for years, and its latest Autopilot technology is currently employed in its Models S and X, as well as being available in the newer Model 3. And this might raise a different question for the cadre of SRI Tesla investors – is investing specifically in self-driving technology socially responsible?

An answer to that would probably be framed along the following lines. First, if the self-driving technology is employed in less polluting electric and hybrid cars, and second, if self-driving cars are proving to be safer than cars driven by humans, then SRI investors would probably feel comfortable, even excited, about investing in this technology.

Regarding the first condition, Tesla certainly isn’t the only car maker developing electric (and/or hybrid) and self-driving technology together. General Motors has been testing its autonomous Chevy Bolt (using Lidar imaging technology) in the busy streets of San Francisco at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, and also plans to launch a ride-hailing pilot program next year. Waymo (part of the corporate family that includes Google) is definitely a leader in this space, and it recently announced a deal to buy 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs, with an eye to operating a pilot program of driverless vans in Phoenix, AZ next year. Mercedes, BMW, and Toyota are also in the mix.

What about safety? Are self-driving cars safer than cars driven by humans? At first blush, the answer might seem obvious. After all, 94 percent of crashes involve some form of driver error or impairment immediately before impact. Self-driving cars, by contrast, don’t text, take drugs, drink alcohol, get angry, frustrated, enraged, or old (nix that – they will get old too!). And although most won’t admit it, many humans turn out to be lousy drivers even when they aren’t otherwise distracted or impaired. On the other hand, recent highly publicized accidents involving self-driving cars, such as the recent Uber robot car that ran down a woman pedestrian walking her bicycle, seem to suggest that the technology isn’t quite safe enough yet.

Ultimately, if your SRI instincts and fact gathering convince you that, yes, you’d like to be an investor in self-driving cars, you’re faced immediately with another dilemma. There is Tesla, of course. Financially, pretty risky, but…..  What about the other options? The list of possibilities is growing very fast now – Toyota, Mercedes, Honda, General Motors, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, and others. But don’t all of these mainline car companies produce more and more of those larger-every-year, gas guzzling SUVs as well? And wait, Audi is owned by Volkswagen, whose recent not-so-clean diesel scandal is now infamous.

Enter share owner advocacy. SRI investors might well consider owning the stock of some of these mainline auto companies with a view toward sponsoring or participating in initiatives that encourage them to continue to place more of their resources into further developing self-driving technology. But given how many car companies are already developing it, and how fast they are doing so, that might not even be necessary.

Of course, some of us who have been driving cars and enjoying it for many years, even if we are SRI investors, might not relish the foreseeable end of our driving careers. But who said SRI was simple?    


*Mention of specific companies is not intended and does not constitute a recommendation to invest. Consult your financial advisor.