Self-driving cars will be a potent weapon to combat climate change

Although world leaders have reached a ‘historic’ agreement on climate change at the Paris Summit, good solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions remain hard to find. Fortunately – and counter-intuitively – self-driving cars have the potential to significantly reduce the ecological footprint of transportation:

The transportation sector is a major polluter and it is the economic sector with the biggest net effect on climate change. While some other sectors (such as industry and power generation) emit more greenhouse gases, these industries also emit other substances that lead to cooling (aerosols of sulfate, nitrate and others).

Of course, self-driving cars will not reduce the number of trips or kilometers traveled. On the contrary: self-driving cars have the potential to significantly lower the total cost per kilometer traveled and are thus likely to induce people to make more trips. As we have shown in other papers, self-driving taxis and buses will emerge rapidly and offer mobility services for local and long distance traffic with great convenience and at extremely competitive prices because they can achieve much higher utilization rates than private cars (which stand idle more than 94% of the time), and because autonomous fleet vehicles will be engineered for the minimization of total cost of ownership and for the maximization of useful life.

Most urban self-driving taxis will be fully electric for reasons that are not primarily environmental but that are still good for the environment: Electric motors offer safety advantages (they can be used for emergency braking and to some degree for emergency steering). They are also much more durable (an electric motor easily lasts 1 million kilometers), less expensive and less complex than conventional engines. In addition self-driving taxis that operate in local traffic will not need huge battery packs when average trip sizes rarely exceed 15 kilometers and when they can drive themselves to the next high efficiency charging station as needed. Their batteries won’t be sized to last a whole day; they will need to be just large enough to service a little more than the trips of the morning peak – after which they can recharge.

There can be no doubt that self-driving taxis and buses will change the nature of urban mobility. Much more short-distance travel than today will occur in small, lightweight, extremely energy efficient self-driving taxis. Although this may lead to a certain increase in total miles traveled, the following effects combine to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. Self-driving taxis will be mostly electric which reduces carbon emissions (approximately 25% less emissions compared to internal combustion engine)
  2. Self-driving urban taxis will be smaller and much lighter than the average car which further reduces energy consumption per kilometer
  3. Self-driving taxis reduce demand for private cars and therefore reduce the sizable greenhouse gas emissions during vehicle manufacturing which are typically more than 10% of total life-cycle emissions of a car. According to some estimates, a self-driving car-sharing vehicle or taxi can eliminate 7 to 10 private cars. What a potential for greenhouse gas reduction in auto manufacturing!
  4. Self-driving taxis facilitate multi-modal travel (taking an autonomous taxi to the train or bus station, continuing with bus or train, using an autonomous taxi for local transport at the destination)
  5. Self-driving taxis facilitate ride sharing especially during peak hours and on certain routes.

On the other hand, the effect of self-driving taxis on public transport is not yet clear. There is both the risk that some local trips which are taken by public bus today will migrate to self-driving taxis and the opportunity to capture a much larger share of the mobility demands with self-driving scheduled and on-demand buses and mini-buses – potentially in multi modal combinations. The potential benefits are large and there will certainly be a place for efficient self-driving mobility services using self-driving buses and mini-buses. Concerns that new mobility solutions centered around self-driving taxis and mini-buses will be less environmentally efficient than current scheduled buses are not warranted because today’s scheduled buses are not very good for the environment during off-peak hours when they travel near-empty.

The currently most overlooked aspect of self-driving vehicles is their effect on medium and long-distance travel in areas with sufficient population densities. Whereas today many people choose their own vehicle for distances between 100km and 500km self-driving taxis and self-driving buses make it much easier to provide excellent, extremely cost efficient long distance mobility services. When urban taxis at both origin and destination guarantee painless individual personal mobility and when small or medium-size autonomous buses provide long distance travel at extremely low rates which are much lower than the cost of traveling in a private car, then greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced very significantly. Although only a small percentage of all trips are more than 100km in length, these trips represent a large share of the total distance traveled in private cars and therefore have a large and easily overlooked potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The big advantage of self-driving car technology is that it can accomplish several benefits at the same time: It increases the options for individual mobility and lowers the cost of individual mobility because of new driverless mobility services which through increased sharing, more efficient use and quicker adoption of alternative fuels reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Nobody will have to abandon their cherished car but the joint actions of the large group of less or only moderately affluent consumers who value the flexibility and cost-saving associated with self-driving mobility services will inexorably lead to a reduction of greenhouse car emissions. It is time for the political leaders searching for solutions to combat climate change to take notice!