Monday, January 08, 2018

Will Self-Driving Cars Usher in a Transportation Utopia or Dystopia?

Innovation visionaries say electric, self-driving, shared cars will soon revolutionize the way humans move about.  But experts caution that unless this paradigm shift is guided by sound public policies, the future of transportation could lead to more pollution, more emissions, and more gridlock.

Sitting in a Self-Driving Car (Credit: Volvo) Click to Enlarge.
The news sounds almost too good to be true.

“How the U.S. Transportation System Can Save $1 Trillion, 2 Billion Barrels of Oil, and 1 Gigaton of Carbon Emissions Annually,” proclaimed the headline of an article published by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmentally minded, innovation-focused Boulder, Colorado think tank.  The institute’s prescription is a technological trifecta:  electric, autonomous, shared cars.

Propelled by the ongoing digitization of just about everything, notably including cars, the thinking trumpeted in that 2015 article has been percolating in the transportation sector for the last several years⁠.  All three components of this vision are already expanding.  Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are slowly growing and should increase greatly as EVs become cheaper to own than combustion-engine cars — something that Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts believe will happen by 2024⁠.

Automated cars, often referred to as “autonomous vehicles” (AVs) — whose passengers determine their routes without having to drive them — are being widely developed and tested, and probably will be used commercially in controlled settings within a few years.  Lyft, Uber, and others have introduced ride-sharing, in which customers agree to travel with strangers in return for reduced fares.  Put all three concepts together in one vehicle, posit that within a few decades this shared EV-AV technology will take over the nation’s automobile fleet, and the outcome seems environmentally irresistible, verging on fantastical.

But it’s equally plausible that the vision may turn out to be a mirage.  Automated vehicles may eventually be widely adopted, but if the fleet is not electrified using renewable energy, or car sharing fails to take off, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution could actually increase.  A study last year by University of California, Davis researchers projected that if vehicles are automated but not electrified or shared, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector would go up 50 percent by 2050 compared to business as usual.  But if shared, electrified, automated vehicles flourish, greenhouse gas emissions could plunge by 80 percent, the study concluded.

“We’ve learned enough to know the future of [EVs and AVs] could be utopia or dystopia for the environment,” Christopher Grundler, then head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said in 2016⁠.

Advocates of the shared EV-AV concept see single-file lines of self-driving trucks traveling down highways in “platoons,” each separated by no more than a few yards, achieving reductions in aerodynamic drag as high as 55 percent. that result in significantly lowered fuel consumption.  Traffic congestion would fall away, as cars drive closely to one another without danger of colliding, circulate smoothly without aid of traffic lights and signs, and carry the number of passengers that matches their size.  “Right-sizing” alone could cut vehicle energy consumption nearly in half⁠, and eliminating congestion could decrease it by another 2 to 4 percent⁠.

As envisioned by champions of the shared EV-AV idea, passengers would take advantage of their liberation from driving by turning automated vehicles into moving offices, bedrooms, or dens, eliminating the wasted time of commuting.  People with disabilities and the elderly would no longer be constrained by an inability to drive.  Car accidents, which each year cause 1.2 million deaths globaly⁠, would drop by as much as 90 percent⁠, since automated cars, unlike humans, don’t fall asleep, exchange texts and emails, or operate while drunk or drugged.

The need for parking places and parking garages would plummet, as driverless cars go somewhere else instead of parking.  Because roughly 80 percent of toxic air pollutants are released in the first five minutes⁠ of driving, the resulting reduction in cold starts would cause a huge drop in air pollution.  In a place like Los Angeles, now home to 18.6 million parking places⁠ — three per car — the decline of parking would usher in vast land use opportunities that could change the nature of the city.

Most heartening of all, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which in 2016 surpassed the power sector as the United States’ biggest emitter of CO2⁠, would drop precipitously, and air pollution would decline.

Daniel Sperling, director of the University of California, Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, is one of the chief proponents of the shared-EV-AV vision.  Because of it, he writes in his book, Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future (to be published in March), “For the first time in half a century, real transformative innovations are coming to our world of passenger transportation — with the promise of huge energy, environmental, and social benefits.”   A 2016 Rocky Mountain Institute report predicts that as a result of these developments, “peak car ownership will occur around 2020⁠ and will drop quickly after that.”

Of the many ways this vision could fail to reach fruition, one stands out:  It requires a paradigm shift, delivering sharp blows to the predominant car culture and its corollary, private car ownership.  For it to work, many Americans must give up owning cars and instead rely on companies such as Lyft and Uber that offer “mobility services.”  The money such car travelers could save might induce them to do that:  by 2030, they could be paying an estimated $4,000 per year less⁠ for transportation than private car owners, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. 

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