Any idea that simplifies life as much as possible is one that will soon find itself on the fast track to actualisation, and today everyone is excited about the “driverless car”. This idea has overtaken the Hybrid Car as the car of the future and there is a rush to successfully produce autonomous cars with predictions of market availability being as early as 2020.
There are three points of interest when considering the autonomous car- its economic potential, its environmental impact and its safety potential. The argument for driverless cars is first and foremost one of safety as currently there are an estimated 1.2 million fatalities globally, and the driverless car is poised to save 10 million lives per decade . But, in an age where reducing emissions is a necessity, what about sustainability? CO2 emissions and fuel inefficiency make today’s cars an environmental liability. The transport sector accounted for 26 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US in 2014 and makes up around one-fifth of emissions in the EU. Autonomous cars could also play a big role in bringing these figures down.
Today’s cars can be described as automatic, with functions such as auto parking and autopilot, lending serious credibility to a completely autonomous car becoming ready for use in the next decade or so. Economically and environmentally, the fuel-saving potential of autonomous cars is astronomical. Technology to reduce fuel usage already exists and, in the autonomous car, this would significantly improve across the board. The expectation is that “if only 10 percent of the cars on the road were self-driving, 102 million gallons (or 386 million liters) of gasoline would be spared.” This is done through many different ways, for instance, if the autonomous car already has parking information, thus drastically reducing the amount of time and fuel spent searching for a parking space. Alternatively, the concept of platooning, where cars follow each other at a constant speed and distance which is near impossible for human drivers to do, saves 4.5 per cent of fuel for the lead car and 10 per cent for those that follow. Maximising fuel efficiency may go some ways towards reducing transport’s environmental impact however, as Dr Gregory Offer from the Imperial College London stated in 2014, the real, concrete way for this technology to have a major impact is to focus on developing autonomous electric vehicles.
Robo-taxis are also another way of reducing carbon emissions because they would provide a seamless transportation service similar to public transportation. The hope is that the added option of such a mode of transportation would significantly reduce the car ownership culture and so reduce emissions. Again electric vehicles look set to create the biggest splash here. According to a 2015 study by Berkeley Lab “per-mile greenhouse gas emissions of an electric vehicle deployed as a self-driving, or autonomous, taxi in 2030 would be 63 to 82 per cent lower than a projected 2030 hybrid vehicle driven as a privately owned car and 90 per cent lower than a 2014 gasoline-powered private vehicle.”
As the situation stands, Google is at the forefront currently testing a driverless car that is powered by electric batteries. There are valid concerns about the affordability of autonomous cars as well as about whether such technology might encourage more people to use cars instead of public transport. Still, the potential to minimise transport’s impact on the environment and the possibility to reduce the use of cars that rely on fossil fuels make this a very exciting possibility.