There are a number of benefits we can expect to see with the introduction of autonomous vehicles (AVs), including more convenient transportation. One possible consequence resulting from this would be an increase in the number of miles that people drive, creating more vehicle pollution.
To avoid this outcome, experts like Dr. Dan Sperling* from the University of California, Davis, are stressing the need to incentivize low-carbon vehicles (like electric cars) and an increased number of passengers per trip (sometimes called sharing or pooling).
My colleague Abby Figueroa sat down with Dr. Sperling to discuss the future of transportation and his book Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future.
I extracted some key excerpts from the interview. You can listen to the complete interview here:
Abby Figueroa (AF): So you have a book that you’ve wrote recently, “Three Revolutions” where you talk about what needs to happen next in transportation. Let’s talk about those three revolutions. Let’s start with the first one, electric vehicles. What’s going on with electric vehicles these days?
Dan Sperling (DS): Well, electric vehicles is a fascinating topic that I’ve spent many years on. And now as was mentioned earlier, I’m a board member for the California Air Resources Board. So California is fighting with the Trump administration over electric vehicle rules but electric vehicles are here to…not only here to stay, they’re going to dominate.
There’s almost no question about it. Every car company in the world has made a major investment. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the supply chains, they’re really just waiting for policy to really push them and consumers to start buying them.
But they’re ready to go. And they’ve got the technology. So it’s really a question of how intent are we as a society in making it happen. Certainly in California, we’re really committed and we’re going to see massive introduction of electric vehicles in the coming years.
AF: So electric vehicles is the first revolution that needs to happen in transportation so that we can start reaping the benefits of reduced carbon emissions and better safety and less pollution. The second revolution you talk about in your book is automation, self-driving cars. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on in that world right now. How close are we to self-driving cars becoming a reality?
DS: Well, automation also is inevitable. It’s definitely going to happen, there’s almost no question. In this case, not just the automotive industry, but many other related companies, all the high-tech software companies, Silicon Valley companies, Google, are all making huge investments. So automation is definitely going to happen. In fact, our cars already are partly automated. Today, you can get some cars that will drive themselves on freeways right now, the Tesla, Audi, Cadillac, Mercedes.
AF: The car companies are racing forward with the technology. And the legislators and the cities are racing to try to keep up with the policies. And I think with reason people are excited and some folks are feeling more cautious and wary of it all. What’s the future looking like once we have these automation, these self-driving cars on the roads? How does that change our commute and the way we get around our communities?
DS: Well, the automated vehicles could play out in two different ways. They could be just basically superimposed on our current transportation system. In other words, we now go out and we buy our own car so now we would just go out and buy our own automated car. And so it would be the same except that it would be automated. If that were the case, that is what leads to what we sometimes call, the hell scenario…
AF: The dream or the nightmare that you called it in your book…
DS: In my book I call it, The Nightmare Scenario. And that’s because if you have an automated car, you can spend time in that car doing anything you want. You can eat, sleep, tweet, text, it can be your office. It can be your hotel room. And so you’re going to be much more willing to take long trips because you don’t mind so much being in the car. And it won’t be just being in the car more, cars will be empty part of the time. You go to a meeting, you don’t know quite when you’re gonna get out, you don’t wanna pay for parking, you just have the car circle around the block. You know, we refer to single-occupant vehicles, we’re going to have zero occupant vehicles, you know, zombie cars.
AF: That would be the nightmare scenario. That’s worse than the parking lots full of cars. It’s just cars roaming on the road with no one in them.
DS: So the other way it can play out, and that’s what we call the Heaven scenario, the dream scenario, is that these vehicles are used mostly or even totally as a mobility service, as a pooling service, meaning you take Lyft line or Uber pool and some other micro-transit companies like Via or Chariot. And you automate it and now you get rid of your cars, you don’t own cars anymore. And you just hit that button, car comes, takes you where you wanna go.
AF: Is there someone in the car with us?
DS: There’s no one in the car. And the cost is really cheap because you don’t have the driver, the automation won’t cost that much and the car will get really cheap because it’s being used so efficiently. Right now, our cars, they sit 95% of the time on average. Now we’re gonna use it 12 hours, 15 hours, 18 hours.
AF: Much more efficient.
DS: Much more efficient, so we won’t need as many. And because people are gonna pool in it, you know, there are multiple people in these cars. And these cars might not be cars like we know them now, they could get a little bigger, be more like a van, small vans. You know, probably there’ll be a differentiation of service, some people will want a more exclusive service and pay more, but the point of this is, that if we do have this pooling, that is by far the best strategy we can imagine to create a sustainable transportation system.
Because it’s cheaper, it requires less road space, less parking space, it provides more accessibility to more people, low income, physically disadvantaged, disabled.
AF: So of the three revolutions, electrification, automation/self-driving, and pooling, which one or which combination of those three are the ones that can have the best impact on our carbon emissions, the best positive climate impact?
DS: Well, if we had all electric vehicles, that would probably be the best for just reducing greenhouse gases, because there you can get, as we decarbonize our electricity system, we’re talking about a 80%, 90% reduction in greenhouse gases.
AF: And transportation is the leading cause or source of emission right now. So that’s the huge…
DS: In California, it’s over 40% of the total and nationally it’s over 30%. That’s right. So electric vehicles, if you just looked at it carbon, then electric vehicles is necessary. It’s kind of like given you have to do that. The rest of this, the pooling combined with the automation can help us reduce vehicle use. So then we can knock off another 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%.
AF: So electrification makes cars cleaner. And automation and pooling takes cars off the road.
AF: So those two things combined will help our carbon emissions again.
DS: Yeah, maybe a better way of saying it is it reduces vehicle miles traveled. It reduces vehicle use. So we’ll have less vehicles around because there’s more people in each vehicle.
AF: And they’re being more efficient. The cars aren’t parked 95% of the time.
AF: Got it. So all the three revolutions really are interconnected, if we are to get to this dream scenario?
* Dr. Daniel Sperling is Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, and founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis (ITS-Davis). He holds the transportation seat on the California Air Resources Board and served as Chair of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies in 2015-16. Among his many prizes are the 2013 Blue Planet Prize from the Asahi Glass Foundation Prize for being “a pioneer in opening up new fields of study to create more efficient, low-carbon, and environmentally beneficial transportation systems.” He served twice as lead author for the IPCC (sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize), has testified 7 times to the US Congress, authored or co-authored over 250 technical papers and 12 books, including Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future (Island Press, 2018), is widely cited in leading newspapers, been interviewed many times on NPR radio, including Science Friday, Talk of the Nation and Fresh Air, and in 2009 was featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.