Handing Over the Wheel to Autopilots and Self-Driving Cars

Driverless cars and autopilots make driving more efficient and therefore more environmentally friendly.

Imagine: you’re zooming down a coastal highway at 75 miles per hour, hugging the curves, keeping an eye on the car in front of you. And while you’re navigating this thrilling road, you’re completely relaxed, because your car is doing half the work. It stays squarely in the middle of the lane, slows down just enough as it approaches a bend in the road, and keeps a safe distance from the car ahead.

Last week, Volkswagen introduced its temporary autopilot program, which does just that. It uses radars, lasers, and ultrasound to support a human driver’s decisions and help keep driving safer and more efficient.

The TAP system still requires the car’s driver to pay attention and control the machine. It can be overridden at any time. That’s comforting to drivers who grew up fetishizing the importance of cars, driving, and control on the road. But last week Nevada also propagated the United States’ first regulations for driverless cars. As drivers, we’re trained to keep our attention on the road at all times and to maintain control. But sooner rather than later, we might not be paying attention at all: Driving down coastal highways, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the view.

Driverless cars and autopilots can also make driving more environmentally friendly. As hybrid cars inundate the market, they’re improving gas mileage by giving drivers real-time feedback about how much fuel they're using. Early Prius owners began watching their efficiency stats closely and spreading the gospel about feathering the gas pedal. (For those not in the know, it’s possible to maintain speed without pressing uniformly on the gas pedal, and letting up the pressure intermittently, which saves fuel.) More recent hybrids have turned fuel efficiency into a game of sorts: The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid’s dashboard displays a flowering plant that grows more blooms the more efficiently the car is driven.

But well-intentioned drivers are still less efficient that machines. If cars could electronically regulate following distance, more of them could fit on existing roads, which could mean less need for highway infrastructure. To the extent that autopilots eliminate human error, they can also minimize accidents.

More efficient driving behavior could save tens of millions of tons of carbon each year. In 2010, a group of climate scientists published a report on potential actions for emission reductions that individuals could take. The researchers found that the “reasonably achievable” emissions reductions from efficient driving behavior outranked all but four other types of actions they studied. But the gap between the “reasonably achievable” reductions and potential emission reductions was also one of the largest.

Even the most efficient, self-driving electronic car will use more energy than taking a train or a bus. But it’ll be hard to give up cars altogether, and the more we’re willing to hand over the wheel to our autopilot, the better we can feel about driving at all.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Trey Ratcliff


When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less

At this point most reasonable people agree that climate change is a serious problem. And while a lot of good people are working on solutions, and we're all chipping in by using fewer plastic bags, it's also helpful to understand where the leading causes of the issue stem from. The list of 20 leading emitters of carbon dioxide by The Guardian newspaper does just that.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via International Labour Organization / Flickr and Michael Moore / Facebook

Before the release of "The Joker" there was a glut of stories in the media about the film's potential to incite violence.

The FBI issued a warning, saying the film may inspire violence from a group known as the Clowncels, a subgroup of the involuntarily celibate or Incel community.

Incels an online subculture who believe they are unable to attract a sexual partner. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in its list of hate groups.

Keep Reading Show less