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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

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