No longer a futuristic Silicon Valley concept cooked up in Google’s kitchen, driverless vehicles, known in the industry as autonomous vehicles or AVs, are here. Despite two recent fatal crashes involving driverless cars, experts argue that self-driving cars will eventually be safer than human-driven ones.
Nearly every major car manufacturer and tech company is working on the concept. Google’s self-driving car project, now a separate company named Waymo, tested self-driving Peterbilt Class 8 cargo trucks recently in Atlanta. Other major players including Tesla, Apple, Lyft, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mercedes, and most recently Intel, Nvidia and Amazon are actively working on self-driving cars. Increased focus on safety may slow testing and rollout, but there is little question that AVs are here to stay.
But what is not yet clear is whether driverless cars represent an environmental boon or an unforeseen emissions nightmare. According to research by the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, automated vehicles could reduce energy consumption from transportation by as much as 90 percent or increase it by more than 200 percent — diametrically opposed outcomes.
From an efficiency standpoint, many believe that programmed and predictable AVs will drive much more efficiently than humans — no speeding, harsh breaking or idling, for example — saving gas and cutting down on emissions. “Platooning” of vehicles, where they drive in tight formation to reduce drag, could add additional efficiencies, particularly for trucks. Argonne predicts additional fuel efficiencies of 8 to 15 percent from truck platooning. Although weight, electricity demand and aerodynamic drag of AVs’ sensors and computers can be a drag on energy efficiency, if self-driving cars are made more efficient overall — all electric, light weight or more aerodynamic, for example — these additional efficiencies would quickly add up.
Many assume that self-driving cars will be the next evolution of the ride-sharing movement led by the likes of Uber and Lyft. The argument here is that fleets of self-driving cars will replace individual car ownership, and car manufacturers will effectively become “mobility providers.” According to a study by the University of California, Davis, if automated vehicles are electrified and shared, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 80 percent by 2050. If they are not shared and not electrified, on the other hand, the study projected that greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector would go up by 50 percent in that same period.
The chief concern of those sounding the alarm is that driverless cars have the potential to dramatically increase vehicle miles driven, which in turn will significantly increase emissions. Driverless cars will make car ownership and “driving” possible for many people who cannot drive including the elderly, disabled individuals and possibly even youth.
Additionally, with drivers becoming passengers, travelers will be able to use driving time productively. While it is hard to argue with this benefit of AVs, the likely effect is that our tolerance for long drives will increase, including for daily commutes. Finally, given convenience akin to a personal door-to-door chauffer, something previously out of reach for the vast majority of car owners, individuals may simply elect to own a driverless car, rather than or in addition to a traditional car, meaning car ownership and use could continue to rise, rather than fall.
From today’s standpoint, either future seems equally plausible, and this has many experts concerned. The pace of technology development and the resulting culture change, the political atmosphere and resulting policy environment, human psychology and cultural norms will all play important yet unknown roles in the future of AVs and their ultimate impact on the environment.
One thing nearly all experts agree on is that the autonomous evolution is coming and we should not wade in blindly. Most technological evolutions have had profound and unexpected environmental impacts, many good but many bad, and with the reality of climate change here and worsening, this is not an evolution we can afford to get wrong.
For a detailed history of AVs from concept to today check out The Wired Guide to Self-Driving Vehicles.