The Environmental Impact of Driverless Cars
According to University of Texas professor Chandra Bhat, driverless cars may be bad for the environment. To be fair, that has as much to do with headline writers as it does with what Bhat himself has to say in the interview which is more wide-ranging.
On the environmental front, Bhat’s prediction has three components:
- People will start to want a more comfortable or productive workspace in their cars if they’re spending that time relaxing or working instead of driving. This would undo and perhaps reverse the slow and steady progress towards smaller vehicles.
- Since driving will be a less frustrating experience, people will be willing to work further away from home.
- Driverless cars would negate the advantages of public transportation. This one he only hints at.
I think this takes a shorter view of the opportunities that driverless cars represent. As the notion evolves, I think that robocars would actually change the dynamics of car ownership. Most specifically, a lot of people wouldn’t need to own one. Instead it would be Zipcar writ large, except that instead of having to find an available car, the car you need will be able to drive to your curb.
I’d argue that this would more likely enable cars to get smaller, generally, rather than larger. As it stands, we tend to drive cars with excess capacity for those rare times when we need said capacity. All of my cars have had room for four or five even though the vast majority of the time it’s only had one or two people in it. Almost always one until we had the baby. But it sucks to need space and not have it, so you get the larger model. Right now we have a Subaru Forester when for the most part the Camry suits out needs. But the Forester is very helpful for those times when we need the capacity. But if I could call that capacity to my curb whenever I needed it, we could probably do without it. And if I don’t want to own a car, I can get the equivalent of a golf cart for many trips.
More broadly than myself, the vast majority of pickups would become unnecessary. A large number of SUV’s would as well. If we had enough rent-a-rides out there, most vans would become unnecessary as well. We could adjust the vehicle size to our needs rather than having such persistent over-capacity. The economic advantages of small cars wouldn’t change. The big difference would be those who prefer smaller cars because they don’t like driving and parking larger vehicles. I actually fall into this category, but I don’t think it’s all that common. For most people, the equivalent of a passenger’s seat is fine most of the time.
The biggest danger to the environment is, interestingly enough, the logistical improvements. I almost wrote “gas won’t be any cheaper” in the previous paragraph, but it could in the sense that these vehicles will be inherently more fuel efficient and therefore you run into the issue of losing fuel economy gains by driving/riding more miles. This leads into Bhat’s second rationale, which is commute distances.
If robocars can get you there faster, you could well be content having a job further away from work if for no other reason than that it doesn’t take you more time. That you will be able to spend that time relaxing is an added benefit, though it’s one that is easily overstated. If you have a family, time in the car is time away from that family.
A shift away from public transportation would likely occur. Given that we’re talking about the USA, though, it’s not as though public transportation is heavily used anyway. Unlike others, I’m not hugely optimistic that it really will be on any large scale. This is probably why Bhat didn’t emphasize this point.
On the other hand, it would actually capture not only the psychological benefits of public transportation, but also many of the environmental benefits. With cars being on call, we could greatly reduce the amount of parking space required. This would, in turn, make for a greater walking experience. While this wouldn’t do anything to improve the walkability of suburbs with big lawns and whatnot, it might make them less desirable because living near commercial centers would mean a lot less walking along parking lots.
This is all longer term stuff, of course. It would probably take time, or an economic shift or struggle, to make these changes more likely. But I think the environmental impact of robocars would on the net be positive. It’s only a loss if you envision a green future that I think, owing to the most likely circumstances that would necessitate it, is best out of reach.