What will autonomous vehicles mean for sustainability?

Sensemaking / What will autonomous vehicles mean for sustainability?

Driverless vehicles are poised to remake transportation, the urban landscape and employment. What else might their mainstreaming bring?

By Jacob Park / 27 Feb 2017

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are rapidly approaching the mainstream, with the pace at which the technology is being developed and implemented continuing to surpass expectations. In the past month alone, two self-driving electric buses began service in Paris, shuttling passengers between the Lyon and Austerlitz train stations. Uber added Tempe, Arizona to the list of cities where riders can hail a self-driving car. And Elon Musk announced that he expects the Tesla to achieve “full self-driving capability” within the next three to six months.

So, other than being cool, why does this matter? How might driverless cars and other types of autonomous vehicles help us transition to a more sustainable world?

The most widely discussed benefit would come from improved safety. Roughly 33,000 people a year die from traffic accidents in the US and even a 90% adoption rate of driverless cars could translate into 22,000 lives and $350 billion saved annually.

Another opportunity would come from significantly improving fuel efficiency thanks to algorithms for more efficient driving and the possibility of deploying lighter weight vehicles due to reduced collision risk. One projection estimates that a transition to electric, driverless taxis could reduce emissions per mile by as much as 94% by 2030.

If a fleet model is adopted—with vehicles owned by a municipality or business and deployed like taxis—the high prevalence of ridesharing could reduce the number of cars needed in urban areas by 80%. This could vastly reduce the need for parking spots—there are currently more than 1 billion in the US alone—freeing up that land for other uses, such as bike lanes, parklets, or pedestrian malls. It would also be a time saver, as urban drivers spend as much as 30-60% of their time looking for parking. Fleet owners are also more likely than individual owners to transition to electric vehicles, given the long-term cost savings.

Finally, autonomous vehicles could have a range of other benefits. For example, they could improve accessibility for the elderly, the handicapped, and youth—making mobility universally available. They might free drivers to engage in other pursuits like work or entertainment. And they could help solve the “last mile” problem for the delivery of goods and services.

The benefits could be enormous. However, there are potential drawbacks as well.

For starters, what will be the impact on employment? There are currently 234,000 taxi drivers in the United States and 3.5 million truck drivers. What would be the impact on middle-class America if those jobs were to disappear?

Image: Map of the Most Common Job in Every State in 2014, accessed at NPR.

There’s also the possibility that if mobility become an inexpensive on-demand service, people might end up using more of it than they do now. If access to a driverless car were as cheap and easy as a Spotify subscription, might this discourage people from walking and biking—and encourage them to needlessly use the service?

Autonomous vehicles could also be dangerous. Hackers have already demonstrated their ability to commandeer an internet-connected car remotely, and it’s only a matter of time before a driverless car or truck is used as a weapon, whether against its occupants or innocent bystanders. Even if this happens only rarely, it could generate significant fear and resistance.

So what’s likely to happen?

Despite the exciting headlines, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how this will all play out.

First, the technology will have to be significantly improved. Truly autonomous vehicles, capable of navigating in all conditions with zero human intervention, do not yet exist. The progress made so far has been impressive, but a long tail of difficult challenges remain to be solved to make vehicles capable of responding to the nearly infinite variety of unusual circumstances that humans can react to instinctively. Depending on whom you talk to, this could take years…or decades.

A related problem pertains to the ethics that are encoded into the vehicle’s software. How does the vehicle choose when faced with a situation in which it risks harming either the driver or an innocent pedestrian? The so-called “trolley problem” is an age old ethical conundrum that will now need to be written into code—and litigated in the courts.

How will consumers react? Urbanites living in crowded cities and used to taking an Uber or Lyft may welcome driverless cars. It’s less clear whether they will make as much sense in rural America. What are the implications if adoption patterns differ widely depending on location? What happens to traffic at the messy interface between a place with mostly human drivers and a place with autonomous vehicles?

Relatedly, we’re likely to face a situation where different jurisdictions impose different rules and regulations on autonomous vehicles. The resulting patchwork could prove extremely onerous for vehicle manufacturers and owners.

Finally, assuming that autonomous vehicles are widely adopted—are we likely to see the fleet ownership or individual ownership prevail? Or some mix of both? Traditional carmakers are currently promoting a model of individual ownership, in which autonomy would essentially be a souped-up version of cruise control. Technology companies like Uber and Apple are more interested in a ridesharing, fleet-ownership model. The battle between these two paradigms is likely to intensify in the coming years, and whichever prevails will have enormous implications for sustainability—with the fleet model much more likely to deliver on the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Although much uncertainty remains, autonomous vehicles have the potential to radically change how people move around, the shape of our cities, the amount of carbon pollution in the air, and the nature of work, among other things. Now is the time for policymakers, businesses, technologists, and citizens to start exploring the different possibilities in detail—and charting a path towards a better future. 

Are you interested in joing the conversation about the future of autonomous vehicles? We'd love to hear from you. To learn more, please get in touch with Jacob Park.

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