Driverless cars could transform transportation. How they do it is up to us.
In a few decades, the world could be full of dense urban transit utopias, where individual car ownership is a thing of the past, bikes and public transport are preferred for most trips, and the rides people do take are in tiny, electric, incredibly-efficient taxis.
Or the driverless car could usher in a new era of urban sprawl and car use, sounding the death knell for public transport as people choose to use their own car for longer trips and tolerate longer commutes from the center of the city since they can sleep, work, or watch a movie the whole time.
And that’s an important difference when automobiles are the largest net contributor to climate change pollution. Driving is already down in the U.S., and in pretty much every European country, bikes are outselling cars. But advances in automated cars have potential to cut it even more, while increasing efficiency. But that’s not a given. Driverless cars, even electric ones, could end up reversing the downward driving trend, overtaxing roads and bridges, and spewing more carbon into the atmosphere if people opt for individual vehicles over public transportation.
Amanda Eaken, deputy director of sustainable communities at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said it was too soon to know how the technology would play out. “We’d love to see that research,” she told Climate Progress. “Would it encourage more traffic and urban sprawl? Or would it serve as such a valuable solution that people would consider selling their own cars?”
Given the so-far stellar safety record of Google’s driverless cars over hundreds of thousands of miles of testing, and multiple leading carmakers presenting their own prototypes, a driverless future seems to be mostly a question of “when?”
But though momentum is building, it is policy that will determine whether the driverless car will cut emissions, not the technology itself. And fortunately policymakers and community members have some time to figure out the right approach.
Several companies plan to sell cars with some kind of advanced automation by 2020, but fully self-driving models are still far-off, and automakers are tempering expectations. Delays are due to the high price of necessary sensors, issues of how the cars would be regulated, and unresolved questions about the balance between full automation and “driver” responsibility.
Those delays could actually be essential. Nobody knows exactly how car automation would impact the world. So far, people think they could end car-bike collisions, encourage urban sprawl, encourage urban density, raise infrastructure costs, lower infrastructure costs, improve public transportation, cut police revenues by eliminating tickets, make cars more energy-efficient, end parking, and even introduce subtle and manipulative new forms of advertising.
Such a multiplicity of possibilities seems like a sure sign that policymakers and business leaders are going to have to make some decisions about what to promote. Car ownership did not become the central tenet of U.S. transportation in a vacuum. Things like highway funding, parking mandates, and housing policy make car ownership more attractive and things like trains and streetcars less attractive.
Allowing self-driving taxis before they are cheap enough for individual ownership could get consumers loving cheaper, always-available ride service so that they don’t even think to purchase their own. Requiring that automated cars be electric could reinforce their use as short-range solutions so long-distance mass transit doesn’t lose out, increasing the climate benefit. Advertising via sponsor-preferred routes could be banned. Entirely separate infrastructure for self-driving cars could wield a lot of power in encouraging and discouraging different kinds of trips. A route might take a commuter from her home in the suburbs to the local commuter rail station, rather than all the way downtown.
Amanda Eaken at the NRDC said that with carbon-reduction frameworks like California’s SB 375 already in place, we have a model for how regulating new advances can be a part of larger climate aims. “As we consider this new technology, we have to place it within larger environmental goals, so new technology doesn’t undercut those goals,” she told Climate Progress.
Cars that don’t need a driver could be used to address many problems with our transportation system. But like any technology they are a tool to be actively wielded. They don’t come with a built-in climate-saving switch.