There are a number of ways that autonomous vehicles can reduce pollution, from increased ride-sharing to better traffic coordination on U.S. roads.
But environmental advocates warn that decreasing greenhouse gas emissions can only be achieved if driverless cars are rolled out alongside a smart, public policy approach.
“It will be important for us and policymakers to move very quickly in thinking about what the policy steps are to lead us to the ‘heaven scenario,’” Tony Dutzik, a senior policy analyst at the Frontier Group, said during a webinar discussion on Monday.
The White House has been making an aggressive push to help bring self-driving cars to market, with transportation officials hailing the technology’s ability to save lives, enhance mobility and reduce fuel use.
Dutzik said driverless cars can help decrease greenhouse gas emissions “if they enable us to think differently about how we use vehicles.”
One of those new lines of thinking includes more ride-sharing programs across cities and communities. Uber has already started using semi-autonomous vehicles in its fleets in Pittsburgh, while Lyft hopes to test driverless cars to transport passengers by next year.
Ride-hailing companies have been excited by the prospect of self-driving cars, in part because it removes the cost of the driver.
Dutzik said the increased prevalence of ride-hailing and ride-sharing services will help people “feel free to live without their vehicles,” with expanded transportation options taking the pressure off consumers to own a car.
Driverless vehicles can also help reduce fuel use by spurring the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.
Tesla, a pioneer in the electric vehicle movement, has hinted at plans to launch its own autonomous ride-sharing network. The company envisions a world in which a Tesla car can “generate income for you while you're at work or on vacation,” according to the automaker’s latest master plan.
Autonomous vehicles also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by improving congestion. Driverless cars will have the ability to deploy “platooning” technology, which allows automated vehicles to travel close together at high speeds in order to mitigate traffic.
But the promise of pollution reduction in the self-driving car era is not guaranteed, industry experts say.
For one thing, there could be numerous regulatory roadblocks. The Competitive Enterprise Institute recently published a report examining every state-level “following too closely” driving law, which would restrict platooning.
Dutzik also warned that driverless cars can actually “move us in the wrong direction” if the technology makes driving cheaper and easier, and thus encourages people to live farther away from where they need to go.
Frontier Group is out with a new report outlining the “50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation,” which includes recommendations aimed at fostering innovation for new and emerging transportation options.
The report suggests policies such as eliminating excessive taxes on ride-sharing, allowing commuter benefits to apply to shared mobility services and revisiting existing laws to ensure that new transportation technologies like self-driving cars can thrive.
“Our daily commutes are cooking the planet, but they don't have to,” said Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America’s Global Warming Solutions campaign. “We have the technology and skilled workforce to build cleaner cars and the tools to give Americans cleaner choices for getting from point A to point B.”