Self driving cars. Who would have thought it would be a conceivable notion in our lifetime? But alas, here we are not only discussing it, but actually performing it today in cities which people live. It is an astonishing feat - one that also comes at a time when climate change is among the most widely-discussed agendas of the world. It was only then a matter of time before the two paths crossed in which we asked ourselves the million dollar question: what impact do self driving cars have on the environment?
Climate scientists routinely point to numerous offenders who account for massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Fossil fuel-reliant cars are responsible for about one fifth of carbon dioxide and other gases that seep into the U.S. environment. And while Tesla is the big player on stage for rolling out luxury electric cars, many companies before it recognized the need to develop an energy efficient vehicle that would one day operate driverlessly. While such companies have hit the ground running, using places such as Pittsburgh to test autonomous cars, researchers have been keenly taking note of the advantages and disadvantages of the new way in which we define a normal commute. Let’s explore what they’ve noted.
We can start with the most easily observed benefit of self driving cars, and that is less people! Simply put, commuters would often give their right arm if it meant not having to get behind a wheel to sit in traffic for hours, sometimes multiple times a day. If there are less humans behind the wheel, so too are there less cars. This also means less carbon emissions flowing into the atmosphere and contributing to an already dire air quality. It is astonishing to know that vehicles on the road today account for 2 billion barrels of oil usage. With fewer vehicles on the road, it’s easy to imagine a less fossil fuel dependent environment. Speaking of fuel, cars that talk to each other and communicate with traffic signals are designed to be fuel-efficient, using only what is necessary without going overboard. Driverless cars are less likely to sit idle than those driven by humans.
While fewer cars on the road won’t necessarily diminish the number of accidents, in theory it will reduce the loss of life. According to Road Crash Statistics, 1.3 million people suffer fatal car accidents each year. Death is usually highest among 15-44 year olds -- the very same demographic groups most likely to use autonomous cars. Vehicular accidents have environmental impacts too. With so many accidents taking place everyday, it is no wonder oil spills result from crashes, making the environment an indirect victim as well. Subsequently, landfills are clogged by car wreckage, especially when insurance companies deem vehicles as totalled. This impacts both soil and water and contributes air pollutants. If less individuals are on the roads, we could see less fatalities and less harm to the environment, thus potentially re-configuring these alarming statistics.
Another factor that impacts the economy is the financial independence one could gain from using autonomous cars. Companies have come up with the idea to drastically reduce car ownership in favor of a sort of taxi service. Using it as often as needed, whether to get to work or go on holiday, the cost would be built into an as-needed basis more than anything. Today, cars are parked almost 95 percent of the time. It is an argument much like cord cutters have made; why pay for something that you hardly use? If we eliminate or greatly lower the number of cars parked in driveways or garages, it not only can potentially allow you to keep more of your hard earned money in your pocket, but it can also reduce environmental impact. A win-win.
The Not So Good
For every one good, there are certainly a few not so goods. To piggyback on the argument that self driving cars could virtually eliminate car ownership, some would argue that it would in fact increase our trips overall. Ann Schlenker of Argonne National Laboratory located in Illinois studies the environmental impact of self driving vehicles. Working closely with the Department of Energy to develop solid facts about self driving vehicles and their place in our fast growing economy, Schlenker made a unique observation about how taking for granted autonomous cars can have a harmful impact on the environment. “Rather than a 30-minute commute, now you’re willing to entertain a 60-minute commute to get cheaper housing because [you] can be productive while the car takes [you] into the office.”
Our undying marriage to convenience could get the best of us. Thanks to the seamless ease of technology, “convenience” has long been taken for granted. We thrive on it, we develop more tactful ways to make both our lives and our futures convenient. But, in this quest for convenience, we may in fact cause more harm than good.
If more trips are taken, then this can only mean one thing: the total number of miles driven will likely increase. More trips results in more miles. More miles result in more carbon emissions. Unless all autonomous cars are electrical, the benefits won’t necessarily outweigh the problems. Researchers will continue their efforts to understand the long term impact of self driving vehicles on the environment. While the future is here, we still have the power to reshape it.