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Could self-driving cars help the environment?

Ethan Elkind, director, Climate Program at Berkeley Law | April 11, 2012

As companies like Google pioneer technologies to allow cars to drive themselves, futurists have been imagining a world where autonomous vehicles rule the roadway. Using computer programs, map data, complex sensors, and soon the ability to “see” all vehicles within miles, these cars hold the promise of averting the vast majority of car accidents caused by human error, while passengers in the driver’s seat can nap, work, and do anything but concentrate on driving.  The future is here to some extent: self-parking technologies are already in use with more coming soon, and Google’s autonomous car program has made internet waves (video here), sparking enabling legislation in Nevada and a bill in California. In another few decades, we may have a driving revolution on our hands (and the idea of dying in a car accident may seem as foreign to our grandchildren as dying of small pox).

But what could this technology mean for the environment?  We know that cars are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution.  Self-driving vehicles hold the potential to reduce these emissions by driving more efficiently, including the possibility of not having to stop at intersections or even red lights as cars seamlessly avoid each other.  Vehicles may also be able to tailgate like train cars, adding more capacity and enabling efficient speeds for existing roads and highways.  Cars may also become extremely lightweight and fuel efficient, as consumers no longer need heavy cars to survive collisions.

But as this video suggests, overall vehicle miles traveled may increase as driving becomes possible for those currently unable to drive, such as the elderly, the physically disabled or impaired, and of course the inebriated. Self-driving vehicles may also out-compete public transit for those who can afford to drive, as their cars would provide the same benefits as transit (such as the ability to work while commuting) without the hassles.  In addition, self-driving vehicles may clog the road as households share vehicles that drive themselves around to pick up multiple people, such as spouses driving the same car to work at different times.

At this point, proponents of self-driving cars are more interested in issues like insurance liability than environmental law. And the technology still requires more research and development.  But as the cars become more common, policy makers and clean air advocates could benefit from studying the impacts of these cars to see how they might mitigate our pressing air pollution problems.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Could self-driving cars help the environment?

  1. Autonomous car era is seeking to amend a solitary revolution. The exploration of newness is the stepping milestone for advancing the industry innovation. The technology supports in terms of safety realms. Thanks for the great share.

  2. Hi Ethan, thanks for your great article, I lover cars, I like to drive them all the way, and also like you, I’m also very interested in the environment, It is important to all of us. I like your article as well as how you mentioned it. keep writing

  3. I would love to see these cars more in numbers. I’ve got one question though; you said that during the crossing these cars are capable of avoiding the collisions & we may not need the red lights. What if there are lots of cars by the crossing at the same time?

  4. Thanks for the insights, Ethan. I never thought about it this way. I think you are absolutely right. I am a driving instructor and I can tell you that there are lots of people who don’t drive because either they are afraid of driving or they just don’t have the time to learn it.
    But if and when we will have access to self driving cars, it will skyrocket the amount of cars on the road because lazy and rich kids will most likely misuse this technology as they do with everything else.

    Hope government has some plans regarding this issue.

  5. Self-driving cars are a good topic. I don’t know if self-driving cars could help the environment but maybe they could help in safety terms! 🙂


  6. Humans get lost, get stuck in traffic, and struggle to find parking. Autonomous vehicles would drive better, and save fuel doing it. Autonomous cars can “flock”, drafting behind one another to reduce drag, and there’s the possibility of automatic carpooling in a fleet scenario, which could significantly reduce the number of vehicles needed, and the total fuel consumption.

  7. Ethan, I accept the auto business will push forward with this innovation toward self-driving vehicles. These autos will be the leap forward, and hint at decreased air contamination and gas discharges.

    The issue we see at this time is the unfathomable measure of thorough testing and government approbations that are restricted organizations to push ahead with these ventures. I accept Google’s self-driving auto has finished the four-year testing information and are currently working with arrangement producers for a support.

    Aside from the holding up procedure, it will be fascinating to see what’s to come affect these auto will have, and on being eco-accommodating, as well as on security for the travelers. I viewed your film too and do concur there are such a large number of additional profits that could fathom countless issues.

  8. I don’t think the advent of the self-driving car is necessarily going to reduce transport’s impact on the environment; there are other technological advancements that are much more likely to help.

    If more and more drivers switched to stop/start engines, and more cost-effective all-electric cars with improved range, this would surely have a much bigger impact. I know the self-driving technology is still young, but it is always going to err on the side of caution, which from what I’ve seen means longer journey times and therefore more pollution – and that’s even before all the people who can’t drive, and now don’t have to, take the roads.

    The scenarios you mentioned, where there could be an environmental benefit, I think are still a long way off. Of course, combining self-drive and energy-saving technology (an all-electric self-driving car?) may be the answer to the environment question.

  9. We live in a world of adaption and constant change. Sounds pretty good to avoid car accidents and any kind of driving disorder, but driving would not be the same, at least for people my generation that learned to drive manually.

    Everything is in evolution. Smart cars need smarter people!

  10. Ethan, I believe the automotive industry will push forward with this technology in self-driving vehicles. These cars will be the breakthrough and show signs of reduced air pollution and gas emissions. The problem we see right now is the vast amount of rigorous testing and government approvals that are limited companies to move forward with these projects. I believe Google’s self-driving car has completed the four-year testing data and are in the process of working with policy makers for an approval. Aside from the waiting process, it will be interesting to see the future impact these car will have, and not just on being eco-friendly, but as on safety for the passengers. I watched your video as well and do agree there are so many more benefits that could solve a vast number of current issues.

  11. I would love to see these cars more in numbers. I’ve got one question though; you said that during the crossing these cars are capable of avoiding the collisions & we may not need the red lights. What if there are lots of cars by the crossing at the same time?
    Anyways, it will be great to see more of these smart cars.

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