Industry giants like Uber, Google, and Tesla are all investing massive amounts into autonomous vehicles. In the next decade, self-driving cars could completely populate our roads. No doubt, they’re the future of transportation. But as cars and trucks account for one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, the advent of autonomous vehicles potentially has huge environmental consequences.
Autonomous Vehicles More Sustainable on a Unit Basis
Autonomous cars are free of human errors, including accelerating too quickly or braking unnecessarily, and are programmed to take the most efficient routes. Thus, a single self-driving car should almost always be more sustainable than a regular car on a per-unit basis.
Tesla, for example, is one of the front runners in the autonomous car market and only builds electric cars.
Autonomous Vehicles May Cause Public Transport Opt-Outs
Of course, if autonomous cars became widely available, more people would choose to drive or use ride-hailing services. If people could sleep or work while their personal cars drove to them to work, many people may opt out of public transportation. Even if self-driving cars are more sustainable than regular cars, a large influx of vehicles on the road could greatly increase emissions.
Yet, autonomous cars could also lower emissions by reducing congestion. Autonomous cars could be programmed to interact with other cars to make routes more efficient. So, if every car on the road were autonomous, traffic congestion could dramatically decrease. Some have also suggested that self-driving cars could drive close together in packs to reduce air resistance. This ‘platoon’ driving could reduce vehicle energy consumption by as much as 25%.
Autonomous Vehicles Would Promote Ridesharing, Reduce Emissions
Furthermore, autonomous cars may also promote ridesharing. Ride-hailing apps like Uber could have fleets of self-driving cars picking up groups of people around the clock. And cutting out labor costs could dramatically reduce ride-hailing costs in the long run. Around three-quarters of commuters drive to work alone, so increasing ride-sharing could dramatically lower the number of cars on the road, as well as emissions.
Since autonomous cars wouldn’t need to park and wait for you to return, carpooling also becomes far more viable. A group of four people could take a single car that takes each of them to their respective offices. Individual car ownership may even decline in favor of neighborhood cars.
Consumers and Regulators Should Play a Role in Emissions Reductions
Regulations on ride-hailing apps could be vital to preventing excess emissions. If ride-hailing services were required or incentivized to use fuel-efficient and electric fleets, emissions could be dramatically reduced.
Furthermore, consumer trends play a big role in the environmental impact of autonomous vehicles. If many individuals opt for neighborhood cars, carpooling, or ride-sharing services, autonomous vehicles could actually reduce the number of cars on the road.
Regardless of their environmental impact, autonomous cars are the future. From an economic and safety perspective, the transition is inevitable. It’s up to governments, industry leaders, and individuals to ensure that autonomous cars reduce overall emissions.