Get Excited for the Surprising Environmental Upshot to Driverless Cars

Self-driving taxis won’t just change how we get around, they’ll change how we interact with our planet—for the better.

image via (cc) flickr user smoothgroover22

While once strictly the purview of science fiction, driverless cars are poised to become a major factor for the transportation industry in the coming years. And while we’re probably not quite ready to see nobody behind the wheel of the vehicle next to us just yet, the steady drip-drip of updates from high-profile autonomous automobile projects should be enough to get us comfortable with at least the basic idea that, yes, we’ll likely be sharing our roads with self-driving robotic cars in the not-too-distant future. For those out there that believe the thought of a driverless car is not the most appealing highway prospect, however, there’s some recently released good news that should make even the most ardently pro-human drivers think twice before pooh-poohing autonomous vehicles.

A new report published this week by University of California-Berkeley scientists Jeffery Greenblatt and Samveg Saxena indicates that, should fleets of self-driving, electric taxis hit the streets and replace everyone’s current batch of gasoline-powered vehicles, the result would be an astonishing 90 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions, and a near 100 percent drop in oil usage. In their paper, “Autonomous taxis could greatly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions of US light-duty vehicles,” the duo wrote:

Here we estimate 2014 and 2030 greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and costs of autonomous taxis (ATs), a class of fully autonomous shared AVs likely to gain rapid early market share, through three synergistic effects: (1) future decreases in electricity GHG emissions intensity, (2) smaller vehicle sizes resulting from trip-specific AT deployment, and (3) higher annual vehicle-miles travelled (VMT), increasing high-efficiency (especially battery-electric) vehicle cost-effectiveness. Combined, these factors could result in decreased US per-mile GHG emissions in 2030 per AT deployed of 87–94% below current conventionally driven vehicles (CDVs), and 63–82% below projected 2030 hybrid vehicles, without including other energy-saving benefits of AVs.

In other words, by extrapolating out the expected increases in autonomous vehicle efficiency, Greenblatt and Saxena believe that some of the most harmful effects of our country’s car culture could be almost entirely eliminated with the introduction of an automated, self-driving fleet of taxicabs.

A large portion of the calculated environmental benefits is the result of “Right Sizing,” explains a release announcing the Greenblatt and Saxena’s findings. The term describes the matching of appropriately-sized automated taxis to a customer’s particular needs. For instance, a couple needing a ride home after a date would require a much smaller vehicle than a family of five headed to the airport. An automated, self-driving taxi fleet able to automatically maximize their efficiency in this regard would go a long way toward curbing extraneous greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption. And while costs associated with these forms of (not-yet commercially available) autonomous vehicles are often in the several-hundred-thousand dollar range, the researchers point out that:

“[...] an autonomous taxi using today's technology would still be cheaper than an ordinary taxi not simply due to its greater energy efficiency, but also due to the fact that no operator would be required. By 2030, autonomous taxis could be far cheaper than their driven counterparts.”

In fact, should just five percent of the cars sold in 2030 be part of an autonomous taxi fleet, Greenblatt and Saxena estimate it would save seven million barrels of oil per year, and drop carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions by over two million metric tons.

The widespread commercial adoption of autonomous cars is still likely a number of years away, so don’t hold your breath for that self-driving ride just yet. But if Greenblatt and Saxena’s research is correct, that smart-car future is one in which we may all end up breathing just a little easier in the long run.

[via spectrum]