Self-Driving Cars – Good for the Environment?

ITS International Magazine published an article earlier this year about whether driverless cars will increase reliance on roads. The article indicates a handful of researchers believe that driverless vehicles could actually result in higher car usage, in turn reducing or eliminating potential energy savings and environmental benefits.

It seems there are many negative predictions about driverless cars, and less focus on the positive benefits of this coming technology. Why is that? Perhaps some might be jealous of the technology being developed by Google, Audi, Ford, GM, Uber, Lyft, and on and on.

There are multiple efficient benefits of self-driving cars, including:

1.       Computer directed driving styles, resulting in a reduction in energy use;

2.       Improved traffic flow and reduced traffic jams due to coordination between vehicles, also reducing energy use;

3.       Automated vehicles will drive close together, which will create aerodynamic savings and reduce energy use;

4.       Reduced crash risk means cars can be lighter since crashes will be fewer and farther between, which will help to save energy; and,

5.       Ultimately, less emphasis high performance automobiles, which will also cut energy usage.

The study from the University of Leeds, University of Washington, and Oakridge National Laboratory indicate that the very attractiveness of self-driving technology could reduce or even outweigh the efficiency gains. The report goes on to indicate that individuals who previously took alternative transport, such as trains or planes, may decide to drive. It will be much easier and less of a hassle to use a self-driving car than to get on a plane with all of the challenges and security issues that have resulted from terrorism threats.

The report further indicates that technology could allow vehicles to move independently between different users and, therefore, not only increase sharing, but make it easier for users to match trips to car types.

As I have written about previously, while it is expected that the number of vehicles will decrease, in all likelihood, vehicle miles traveled will increase. With the reduction in the number of vehicles, there will likely be a reduction in the demand for parking spaces.

The positives – reductions in energy usage, costs, and accidents far outweigh the negatives – the higher vehicle miles traveled, in my opinion.

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