Will Self-Driving Cars Be Green? Exploring the Environmental Impacts

Reader Contribution by Haden Kirkpatrick and Esurance
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It’s no secret that cars are one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas-driven climate change. Given that fact, in the past five years, there’s been a significant push from automakers to make cars more efficient. But during that same time period, there’ve also huge advances made in semi-autonomous and autonomous tech.

This technology gives us a taste of what will come in the future. But while these innovations bring with them substantial safety improvements, how much impact will they have on the amount of energy consumed by cars?

This question is now being studied in earnest. The list of companies who are chasing self-driving dreams has grown from the famous Google SUVs just five years ago. But with many local governments beginning to implement regulations around self-driving cars, car manufacturers few places to test them on real roads.

And until more “real-life” tests can be performed, it will be difficult to gauge how much impact — if any — self-driving cars will have on the environment. However, thanks to several states introducing legislation friendly to self-driving cars, new studies are looking to answer just that.

What Makes a Car Self-Driving?

Self-driving cars (or fully autonomous cars) are more than just vehicles that can keep themselves in a lane or stop with traffic. This technology (known as semi-autonomous) already exists today – Tesla’s AutoPilot and Honda Sensing, for example. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) considers this “Partial Automation.”

The next phase is “Conditional Automation,” where a driver needs to be in the car, but the car does most of the driving on its own. The final phase is “Full Automation,” in which vehicles are completely self-driving. No driver presence is required, and the vehicle manages all driving functions.

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Autonomous Vehicles and the Environment

When considering the way self-driving cars will impact the environment, we have to first look at the way they will change driving. The NHTSA estimates that Americans spent almost 7 billion hours stuck in traffic during 2014, a number which has likely only increased.

Self-driving cars use connected technology to manage traffic congestion, reducing or eliminating the time we spend idling in gridlock. The NHTSA also reports that 94 percent of serious crashes are due to human error. In addition to saving lives, self-driving cars could reduce the waste byproduct these collisions send to landfills.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), there are several other ways self-driving vehicles could impact the environment.

  • Because self-driving cars tend to crash less, vehicles can become much lighter as some older safety technology is removed, potentially reducing energy consumption by as much as 40 percent.
  • They last longer, decreasing the environmental impact of producing a new car.
  • NREL estimates a 12 to 20 percent decrease in vehicle use thanks to increased occupancy.
  • Self-driving cars are capable of driving much more efficiently than human drivers, which could result in a 10 to 25 percent reduction in energy use (again, according to the NREL).

However, the NREL report also raises some concerns about potential negative environmental impacts. Self-driving cars make it possible for older generations and people with prohibitive disabilities to drive. While improved mobility will open opportunities for these groups, it will also mean more people — and vehicles — will be on the roadways.

Self-driving cars might also mean that people will drive more often and for longer periods of time. Combining these factors could cause a 50 percent increase in usage as well as a significant increase in energy consumption. Highly efficient routing and highway driving will likely increase the average speed at which vehicles travel. Over 50 mph, drag forces on a vehicle cause it to burn more fuel, and the faster the speed, the more energy is used.

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Texas Helps Lead the Way with Green Autonomous Vehicles

In 2017, Texas was one of 10 states chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation to be designated a national Automated Vehicle (AV) Proving Ground, allowing researchers and manufacturers an open place to test self-driving vehicles.

This is a big deal because it gives researchers and innovators alike a chance to review impacts automation may have on the environment. In Texas, several universities and organizations have formed a partnership with a focus on studying and proving these effects.

There are already real-world results coming out of these proving grounds. In July 2016, TTI — along with federal and state transportation authorities — released the results of tests with self-driving tech and truck platooning. Using a partially autonomous truck, they were able to determine that this method of transportation reduced fuel consumption by 12 percent.

How, you ask? By maximizing the drafting effect, fuel consumption is lowered. This results in fewer carbon emissions and reduced operating costs. With a highly efficient, fully self-driving truck, truck platooning could have big impacts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption in the long run.

In addition to Texas, nine other locations across the United States were chosen for testing. A proving ground in Pittsburg is being used by companies like Uber. In Michigan, the home of the automobile in North America, a 335-acre proving ground was built to explore and certify self-driving vehicles. There are additional proving grounds in Wisconsin, California, Iowa and Central Florida. Plus, there’s a proving ground located at the U.S. Army Aberdeen base with a focus on self-driving military technology.

These spaces provide a varied environment for researchers to study the ways self-driving cars will change the industry and become more environmentally-friendly. Many of the proving grounds are still in their infancy, with testing only just beginning.

Ultimately, the effects may only be clear once self-driving cars become more common and theories like platooning are tested on real streets and highways. Until then, the results of testing at U.S. proving grounds — and others like them around the world — will give us a glimpse at how self-driving cars will impact the environment.

Haden Kirkpatrick is the director of marketing strategy and innovation at Esurance, where he is responsible for all initiatives related to product and service innovation. Haden is an innovator who is constantly thinking about how technology — including autonomous cars — will impact the insurance industry. He is also a mobile guru, aspiring yogi and mixed martial artist. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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