In the hundred-plus years since the birth of the automobile, the basic premise has remained remarkably similar. Yes, today’s cars deliver better performance, offer advanced luxury features and are far more convenient to use compared to a Ford Model T, but the vehicle’s basic layout and operation haven’t changed, until now.
With the introduction of two technologies, the automobile is on the cusp of a revolution. Self-driving cars and the electric drivetrain are poised to change the average driver’s experience behind the wheel forever. We often think of the advances made in emissions technology as a matter of course when it comes to autonomous vehicles, but can we be so sure? Are autonomous cars necessarily clean cars?
No Easy Answer
We don’t know. Stop reading now if you were looking for a definitive statement. If, however, you’re interested in the “why,” the factors that will make or break the environmental impact of self-driving cars are fascinating in their own right.
The reason we don’t know is that autonomous cars haven’t hit the market yet. It cannot be said with certainty how they will be received and how driving habits will change once they become more commonplace. It’s a great example of how the transition to autonomous cars isn’t just about technology, but infrastructure and lifestyle as well.
It’s About Usage
Automakers already have access to technologies that allow them to build fuel-efficient vehicles, so self-driving cars can be clean from a statistical standpoint, but if there are more cars on the road, emissions won’t go down.
However, self-driving cars will undoubtedly become popular for ride-sharing companies. Google, Uber and Lyft are already huge proponents of the technology, and as more people take advantage of the cheap trips they can get when there’s no driver on the clock, fewer commuters will ride alone. That could result in lower emissions overall.
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Self-Driving Cars Are Smarter
Even in a situation where there is an increase in the number of cars on the road, a highway full of self-driving cars could potentially reduce emissions. Using network technology to communicate with one-another, these cars wouldn’t suffer from the chaos normal humans do when navigating in traffic.
Rather than weaving in and out of lanes, speeding up and slowing down in an attempt to survive the morning drive, autonomous vehicles would operate harmoniously. That would result in significant fuel savings and much lower emissions.
Platooning is the same thing NASCAR drivers do when they tuck in behind another car to avoid wind resistance. In racing, it’s called drafting, and if you’re not attempting 200mph, it’s an excellent way to save fuel. Platooning takes drafting to the next level by packing groups of cars together on the highway. Not smart when human error is a factor, but with self-driving cars, it’s not.
The Role of Big Government
The transition to driverless cars won’t happen overnight. Even as we are watching the first autonomous vehicles hit the road, the network technologies needed for a fully autonomous roadway are still years off.
Maximizing the efficiency of the system will take planning, which is why lawmakers need to start thinking now about how these technologies can be rolled out. Setting expectations now will help the system develop into one that saves the environment, rather than harms it more.
Whether this will happen is up to voters and government representatives. Countries like Singapore and China are already developing plans to ensure self-driving cars are used responsibly and don’t contribute to an already worsening pollution situation. It’s an example we all should follow.