Will self-driving cars be better for the environment?

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Will self-driving cars mean a decrease in carbon emissions overall?

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Automated vehicles could boost fuel efficiency by “platooning,” or following each other closely to reduce drag. Photo of automated Ford Fusion Hybrid research vehicles courtesy of the Ford Motor Company Media Center.
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Autonomous vehicles – or, self-driving cars as many people know them – look to be part of our driving future.

The benefits of this new mode of transport, particularly if adopted as shared transport could be many – more mobility options for non-drivers, less cars on the road, more efficient use of energy when driving, less need for car parks – to name a few.

With the majority of such vehicles being developed powered by an electric or hybrid drivechain, the question has been raised – and studied – as to whether these vehicles will in fact mean a decrease in carbon emissions overall.

As 95% of car travel by Australians could be in autonomous EVs by 2030, according to Sydney’s EnergyLab – this is a question worth considering.

“It’s not immediately obvious that autonomous vehicles are important clean energy technology,” EnergyLab’s James Tilbury tells RenewEconomy.

There are many factors at play, and not all related to the most immediately apparent reason, that possible fuel savings may be made due to more efficient driving by the car’s computer.

For example, there is the additional load of computing power and data transmission drawing extra electricity from the car’s battery.

Also to consider is the lifecycle of the added computing and sensing components themselves, such as cameras, LiDAR sensors, and GPS navigation systems.

One recent report looked at car components specific to AV technology, as published by the University of Michigan earlier this year.

This study looked at the tradeoffs between increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by CAVs (connected and autonomous vehicles), and the potential improvements in energy usage – considering factors such as power consumption, weight, drag, and data transmission.

The report also took into account possible improvements in efficiency due to eco-driving and ‘platooning’ (where AV cars travel together closely and safely for better aerodynamics).

Overall, their study was positive, citing a net result of a 9% reduction in the use of energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, the impact of additional car components are not the only consideration.

Other reports and papers suggest that to what extent autonomous electric cars on our roads are adopted either personally, or under a shared “transport-as-a-service” (TaaS) model also has significant bearing.

This is both in regard to the energy embodied in the manufacture of such vehicles and also the increased (or net decreased) emissions from the use of autonomous shared transport.

One study by the The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a part of the US Department of Energy, undertook to assess some of the advantages, effects and impacts of widespread implementation of autonomous EVs.

It suggested at the time (some 5 years ago now) that while fuel savings could be up to 90%, there could be increased energy impacts of up to 250% in a scenario where more and more people took advantage of the self-driving transport options.

Five years on and figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) still suggest that the adoption of autonomous vehicles could lead to more energy consumption due to increased use of transport – for example by those hitherto dependent on other humans to get from A to B such as children and the elderly.

A report released late last month week by the World Economic Forum (WEF) also supports this.

In a three-year collaboration with the City of Boston it was shown that while the numbers of cars on roads would decrease by 15% and travel time would improve by 4% on average, actual travel miles as a result of the introduction of shared AVs would be increased by 16%, with more congestion in CBD areas.

What would this look like in Australia?

“TaaS might be so cheap that in certain circumstances people stop using personal transport, particularly in urban areas,” says Tilbury.

He also admits, however, an uptake of shared AVs could result in worse traffic in some areas.

“But on the other hand if autonomous vehicles induce so much traffic we end up with even worse traffic conditions, in CBD areas in particular, people could use public transport,” he adds.

Because the cost of autonomous electric transport could be as low as 50c/km, it would indeed make it a more affordable, attractive transport option for most people than maintaining their old internal combustion engine vehicles.

For as long as autonomous AVs are powered by coal-generated electricity – and this will continue to be the case in Australia for the foreseeable future – can we really consider this new mode of transport a clean alternative?

As a cheaper alternative, widespread uptake of shared autonomous EVs could drive a complete transition to renewable energy, and for this reason, Tilbury says the long view must be taken.

“For us, the key question is whether the technology will help society get to a point where 100% of our energy needs are coming from clean, renewable sources. Electric vehicles definitely fall into that category for us because their storage and flexible demand capacity will make it easier to accommodate increasing levels of intermittent renewable energy generation,” he says.

It is for this very reason – because a shared autonomous future mobility can be a potential accelerator of EV uptake – that AVs can be considered cleantech too.

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10 Comments
  1. MaxG 5 months ago

    The ‘fuel’ gauge in an EV shows the total battery capacity and use per 100km including all on board electronics.
    An automated car uses less fuel than a driver; if I drive on Lidar and let the car control the throttle, I use less than pushing the pedal myself.

  2. Keith Altmann 5 months ago

    I am somewhat more skeptical of the future of EV’s as shown in this article. My reasons are that there is no assessment of life-cycle costs or emissions provided. if we adopt the basis that we are seeking to provide a sustainable future for at least some coming generations, we need to consider life-cycle impacts as a means of forward planning, especially on a planet that cannot support the current population for very long at current lifestyle demands. At a recent Engineers Australia event three transport experts converged on the view in large metropolitan areas we must maximise use of public transport, active transport (walking, bike riding) over and above more provision for cars. That was taking the long view – market driven responses are more frequently short-term and myopic and do not see limits that are being approached. Yes EV’s will be better than FF cars but I think their benefits are overstated as part of a tractor to a more sustainable future. They may be part of a transition, but no more than that.

    • Damon Schultz 5 months ago

      It’s hard to stay positive when we see the massive freeway building going on in our major metros, Keith — with public transport investment barely keeping up (Melbourne) and not even that (Sydney).

      • MaxG 5 months ago

        Which goes with what I have been saying for yonks: no foresight in AU politics!
        Same old bulldust going… same building codes, same energy policy (or one at all); same investment in non-social infrastructure.
        Btu I recon the self-driving EV will reduce car ownership, hence, their numbers, creating a private (rather than what it should be: public) transport system, the pollies could never dream of, let alone achieve.

      • Keith Altmann 4 months ago

        Agree. Freeways are not a metro solution. Engineers Australia Sustainable Engineering Society (Vic) held an event in May on moving people in metro areas. The consensus from 3 speakers was priority should be public transport, active transport for people movement and no more radial freeways. A recent US study also just released showed freeways showed no economic benefit to metro scale cities. The event speaker who had to address the future of the car in metro areas did not dispute the need to avoid freeways as a solution.

    • Carl Raymond S 4 months ago

      Electric autonomous bus. The lines are blurred. People will use cars, as they have always done, until the roads choke. Only then will they notice the bus with its deficated lane and rejoin society.

  3. Ian 5 months ago

    AV ≠ EV. EV{BEV,PHEV}. ICE can be AV ; EV can or can not be AV. Just to clarify the definitions.

  4. Arnold Garnsey 5 months ago

    The reference to computing heavy power consumption is very real but the advances in efficiency that will flow into these vehicles will be substantial. A lot of the extra data from cell towers or micro cells should also benefit from the ongoing reductions in power requirements. It may take some while for the refinements to prove. in the meantime I don’t see any turning back from the inevitable new way.

  5. DugS 4 months ago

    This strikes me as an insufficiently imaginative discussion piece and sounds similar to the pre internet days discussing whether anyone other than computer geeks will be interested.
    Fully autonomous personal transport will be owned and run by corporations not individuals. This is the only way TaaS can get to be cheaper per kilometer than private or public owned because it takes advantage of cheap energy sources, maximises the asset usage and centrally controls dispatch and down time of vehicles over the web. The first two or three corporations who actually succeed in developing level 5 vehicle autonomy will command the market and effectively take control over how it works and what it looks like. This is why vast amounts of money are being invested in this technology, winner takes all. Electric vehicles will be the only option, you can forget ICE autonomy. EV’s are vastly superior to ICE in the most important way to a business, cost. They are easier to maintain, cost less to make, their energy source is ubiquitous, and have the happy coincidence of being far less destructive to the environment. It is so compelling as to be inevitable.
    As for our electricity coming from coal fired power plants for ‘the foreseeable future’ I suggest a deeper investigation will reveal this to be less than 10 years. The escalating urgency of mitigating climate change will force a price on carbon and with the advances in clean energy technology the fossil fuel industry will collapse. This will have nothing to do with the availability of coal or the life of a power station, they will simply be obsolete and rightly viewed as anachronisms in their own life time. The only argument will be who pays for all those stranded assets.

    • Carl Raymond S 4 months ago

      Spot on.
      Additionally the discussion factors the cost of sensors and CPUs – insignificant the moment you save the production cost of an entire car. Autonomy reduces the fleet to between a quarter and a ninth of current size.
      And there wont be an ICE among them – simply not competitive.

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