Autonomous Vehicles: Can They Improve Safety and Accelerate Environmental Progress?

Are autonomous vehicles the “next big thing” to transform our transportation system? If so, how soon, and what are the consequences for both safety and environmental values? Federal oversight agencies are focusing on safety first, but they can do more than one thing at a time.

Consistent with the Obama Administration’s overall climate change policy solutions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should assess ways in which autonomous vehicle use can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution. This should be a “both-and”: the technological advances that are spurring the development of autonomous vehicles can create opportunities to both reduce fatalities on roadways and reduce pollution that harms our health and environment.

If federal policies are crafted with a broader view to address climate change solutions, driverless cars can significantly help the United States to reach the greenhouse gas pollution reduction goals set at the United Nations COP21 meeting in Paris, where the United States pledged to achieve a 28% domestic reduction in GHGs by 2025. The new vehicle technologies developed and deployed here can also be transferred and exported to advance global climate change solutions. From the perspective of climate change science, it doesn’t matter for the atmosphere whether carbon pollution comes from Indiana, India or Indonesia.

Transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas pollution. Promoting the development of driverless cars that include an emphasis on vehicles with zero or low carbon emissions is an important climate change solution.

Autonomous vehicle technologies can be deployed in ways that increase fuel efficiency, thereby reducing pollution by:

  • Optimizing driving efficiency – for example, through smooth acceleration – which has been shown to cut emissions as much as 60%. AVs can be programmed, in effect, to reduce “heavy-footed” driving.
  • “Platooning” – where a group of vehicles follows each other very closely on a highway – can increase fuel efficiency by 5%-20%. By leveraging vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology, platooning can precede the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.
  • Alleviating congestion, especially in city centers, by enabling freer-flowing traffic and less start-and-stop driving that burns more fuel and creates more pollution.
  • If driverless cars prove as safe as developers claim, then smaller, lighter, more efficient vehicles become more possible.

This is not, however, a one-way street.

Adding more driverless vehicles on the highways also presents the risk of reversing decades of policy work intended to reduce vehicle miles travelled (VMT). The ease of being able to read a book, chat with friends and family, or snooze while sitting in the driver’s seat of a driverless car could facilitate longer commutes, more vehicles and more congestion on the highways, more exurban sprawl, and more VMT. Unless there are accompanying fuel efficiency improvements through better vehicle technologies that substantially reduce pollution, there is a risk of moving backward (or at least not moving as far forward) in achieving greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Therefore, progress on implementing the Phase 2 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to achieve much higher fleet fuel efficiency should go hand-in-hand with federal policy to advance autonomous vehicle use.

These opportunities and challenges are ripe for discussion. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced in mid-January that NHTSA intends to work with automakers and state governments to remove barriers by developing prototype laws and regulations. While the initial US DOT and NHTSA discussions are focused on setting safety standards, the agencies should also engage the US EPA and infuse climate change considerations into the discussions and resulting guidelines over the next six months.

NHTSA’s recent draft Technical Assessment Report on the CAFE standards does include a request for comments on greenhouse gas pollution impacts of autonomous vehicles. That is a step in the right direction for devising the best policy roadmap for incorporating autonomous vehicles into our national transportation system in a way that improves both safety and environmental quality for us all.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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