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How Driverless Cars Will Impact the Environment


By Scott Huntington

When hybrid cars first came onto the scene and were promoted as a potential solution to climate change, the world took notice. It seemed developed nations were finally going to be able to curb their carbon emissions and enter a new paradigm of eco-friendly road technology.

Despite the hype surrounding hybrid vehicles and what they represented — something that attracted a wide variety of comments from both sides of the fence and a great many debates — the real-world application of these vehicles required humans to adopt the design and function of the vehicles in question.

Hybrid cars were not something everybody wanted, and now in 2015, there is a new contender in a service that people have praised in recent times. We’re of course talking about “driverless cars."

Are driverless cars going to provide solutions?

Across the U.K. and the U.S. in particular, driverless cars have surged in popularity due to companies such as Google and Uber entering the ring in attempts to corner the market. But what does this really mean for the environment? And are automated cars actually going to have any impact at all in the medium- to long-term?

A concern is whether driverless car development companies are going to rely on fossil fuel-driven technology such as combustion engines or make the effort to switch to automated electric vehicles. Dr. Gregory Offer from Imperial College London believes this is the only way the technology can maximize its economic and environmental benefits.

The facts and figures of the situation

For some perspective, if only 10 percent of the cars on the road were self-driving, 102 million gallons (or 386 million liters) of gasoline would be spared. This represents a significant improvement over the current status quo and is a big step toward embracing a non-destructive energy sources.

If that figure were to rise to 20 percent, an impressive 724 million gallons (or 2.7 billion liters) of fuel would be saved. This creates a causal link and would put the global economy on track toward a better future.

One of the features that many are looking forward to is the ability for these driverless cars to drop passengers off and then park themselves. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, it’s their driving efficiency that may prove to be the tipping point as 20 to 30 percent of fuel usage could be eliminated without the need to find parking. However, this advantage also presents a problem.

Assuming the world becomes highly autonomous and driverless vehicles become ubiquitous, they may also become passenger-less. In light of this, those same positive statistics relating to optimized efficiency can be used to present a solid argument.

Effects on the demand for energy

Another concern is driverless cars may cause a surge in people’s demand for energy as more will have access to the technology. It then follows that more people would be inclined to drive and forego public transport as an alternative.

As a matter of human priorities, Don MacKenzie, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington and someone who has analyzed automated driving pathways with colleagues from the University of Leeds in the U.K. and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab, believes that such factors could lead to a 160 percent increase in our need to travel by car.

With such considerations being given less time as opposed to the benefits, driverless cars may not present the best way forward. And it will be some time before any actual environmental impact is known, and by then it may be too late to turn back.

The future of the environment and driverless cars

While driverless cars certainly present many positives, they’re not going to solve all our problems. In this way, driverless vehicles herald a greater shift in societal innovation more than they are a technological revolution.

And while this technology may certainly improve our lives to no end, autonomous vehicles should not be touted as a solution to any impending energy crisis just yet, as the prevailing opinion among skeptics is that they will not save us from ourselves. Here’s hoping that technological advances will help the driverless car become a better answer to environmental concerns.

Image credit: GmanViz, Flickr

Scott Huntington is a writer and blogger. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington

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