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Will Driverless Cars Reduce Emissions?

By Chris Neiger - May 6, 2016 at 7:23PM

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Of course, and probably not -- It appears no one knows for sure.

If you do a quick Google search for driverless cars and emissions, you're bound to find a host of research and articles that say -- sometimes in the same story -- how driverless cars will, both massively reduce carbon emissions, and increase them. 

For example, one report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California found that we could reduce emissions by 90% if we replaced all of our vehicles with autonomous taxis (which is not all that surprising). 

And yet, another study published by the University of Leeds, University of Washington and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in the journal Transportation Research Part A, said automated cars could also cause us to use them much more, and actually increase energy consumption by up to 60%.

So, which is it? Likely, a bit of both. The problem is that in order to know how much driverless cars will effect emissions, we need to know exactly how we'll use autonomous vehicles -- and that's going to take a while to figure out. 

Why emissions may decrease
Those who believe driverless cars will drastically reduce emissions cite a few key points. Namely, increased car efficiency (lighter and smaller vehicles), fewer cars on the road, and reduced fuel usage.

IHS Automotive estimates that by 2050, driverless cars will be everywhere. And right now, about 40% of gasoline usage in congested areas comes from drivers trying to find a parking spot, according to some MIT research. Driverless cars could eliminate that by simply dropping us off where we need to be, picking someone else up right away, and forgoing the parking altogether. 

Additionally, many people believe we may not want to own cars anymore because we'll be able to share rides more easily with others, which will reduce the number of cars on the road and, thus, reduce emissions. 

How this is possible
We're certainly getting closer to driverless cars. Tesla Motors' (TSLA -6.42%) Autopilot system can already drive itself on freeways and pull in and out of parking spots on its own. And Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the company will have fully autonomous systems available in just two years.

The technology in cars will make them much safer, reducing accident deaths by up to 30,000 every year in the U.S. To get there, NIVIDA (NVDA -2.51%) and others are creating autonomous technology that uses on-board, artificially intelligent computers to process tens of thousands of data points per second. 

NVIDIA's Drive PX 2 autonomous computer is already being tested by 50 automakers, and it's one of the most advanced systems currently available. This technology will make cars so safe and easy to use that we could end up driving more than we do now.

Why emissions could increase
And that's why some research shows that autonomous cars will increase our usage, and push emissions up. 

It won't just be that we'll be more willing to take a longer commute, but also that people who don't drive now -- like elderly and disabled passengers -- will now (thankfully) be able to get around more often. This too could contribute to increased energy usage by 2% to 10%, according to the study in Transportation Research Part A.

Even if autonomous cars are much more efficient, there's not a hard and fast rule that everyone will stop buying their own cars and simply share them. Sharing a car might be as fun as sharing a bus ride, subway, or taxi. After a long day at work, a passenger may not want to step into an autonomous car that just dropped off someone finishing up the last leg of a 12-hour road trip. 

We might all have autonomous cars by 2050, everyone using them to drive further than we ever used to drive before. And this would increase emissions at the same time, because it's simply so convenient to do so. 

Some Foolish thoughts
What much of the research shows is that it's simply too early to tell how we'll use driverless cars to make any concrete predictions. But one thing that could certainly help lower emissions would be implementing all-electric driverless vehicles. Clearly, having fleets of zero-emissions vehicles carting us around would result in a huge reduction in carbon emissions. With Tesla already a leader in both electric vehicles and semi-autonomous technology, it'll be interesting to see what the company could bring about. 

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