Self-Driving Cars Need to be Steered in a Climate-Smart Direction

Self-Driving Cars Need to be Steered in a Climate-Smart Direction

The roving autonomous vehicles on the streets of San Francisco are one of the frequent reminders on my daily commute that our transportation system is changing. But will self-driving cars be good or bad for climate change?

Imaginations can run wild with “heaven or hell” scenarios of automated cars. Imagine zooming around uncongested roads and highways while passengers attend to their social media, relax with friends, or take in a movie in a clean, electric vehicle. Or, in the darker vision, zombie cars with no passengers are clogging roads and spewing pollution, urban sprawl is given a new life, and marginalized communities continue to lack good transportation options. As this technology comes to market, it will be up to decision makers to set us on the right course with smart policies.

Some researchers have been putting pen to paper to better understand the potential climate risks of self-driving cars (or autonomous or automated vehicles (AVs) as they are otherwise called) as well as their potential climate benefits. This research is providing important insights into the potential for building a modern transportation system that is less polluting, less congested, more equitable and more efficient than what we have today. It also highlights the significant risks of inaction and the difficulty of achieving the best outcomes. 3 Revolutions and a Multi-Modal Future: Autonomous, Electric, and Sharing Rides

Let’s start with the positive vision first. Self-driving car technologies are paired with electric vehicles, which we’ve shown have lower carbon emissions no matter where you live in the U.S. In addition, AVs usher in a new wave of transportation services—think Uber and Lyft 2.0—where rides are more convenient than individual vehicle ownership and are cost-competitive. This leads to a reduction in personal car ownership, since not owning a car is now a more viable, cheaper […]

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