Driverless cars could be a solution to climate change—but two major things have to happen
Driverless vehicle use worldwide could lower traffic congestion and emissions contributing to climate change by 50 percent or more in 2050, according to a 2017 report led by global transport expert Lewis Fulton at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis (ITS-Davis).
In the ideal driverless future, parking lots and driveways are converted to housing, cafes, open space and gardens. Roads are safer—robots don’t eat, drink, text or sleep—and seniors, people with disabilities and even children have far greater mobility. Drunk drivers cease to be a problem, and transportation cost is a fraction of what it once was. People can work, sleep or watch a movie while in transit.
But for this scenario to work, something major has to happen: Large numbers of people have to give up their cars and start sharing rides.
Fulton’s analysis found little societal or environmental benefit from driverless vehicles unless they are both electric and shared.
“All the futuristic automotive technology being developed could make our cities more livable and the air more breathable,” Fulton said. “But only if we take sharing seriously.”
That’s because cars would become a service rather than something people own. Pooling services and app-based, ride-sharing companies could expand to accommodate multiple riders in one vehicle, whether a car, van, small shuttle or bus. These services eventually would become driverless.
– Dan Sperling
Experts at ITS-Davis are working with auto manufacturers, policymakers, ride-sharing providers and others worldwide to provide guidance on how governments and communities can reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of driverless cars.
Ride-sharing company Lyft expects driverless vehicles to account for most of its rides within five years. Some transportation experts are more conservative, estimating that widespread adoption of sit-back-and-take-a-nap driverless vehicles will likely take another 20 to 40 years. But most agree it’s a matter of when, not if.
“A future with driverless cars is inevitable because it will be cheap, safe and people will want it,” said ITS-Davis director Dan Sperling. “Most of the technology is already here. Now we want to make sure, before we get too far, that these driverless cars are powered by electricity and used for pooling services, not individually owned.”
In 2016, ITS-Davis launched its “3 Revolutions” policy initiative, which lays the scientific foundation for a future with driverless vehicles embracing all of the characteristics—driverless, electric and shared mobility—needed for the greatest environmental and public benefit.
– Dan Sperling
If these three revolutions do not happen concurrently, pollution and traffic are expected to get worse with driverless cars. Without pooling, the UC Davis report estimates vehicle use would increase 15 to 20 percent by 2050, turning the dream into a nightmare.
In this scenario, sprawl would continue to grow as people seek more affordable housing in the suburbs or countryside, since they’ll be able to work or sleep in the car on their commute. They may give up public transportation in favor of ride-hailing—a trend already starting in places like New York City and San Francisco, according to a recent study by former UC Davis transportation researcher Regina Clewlow.
Carbon dioxide emissions will increase if the vehicles are not electric. And emissions growth may be heightened by personally owned “zombie” cars roaming city streets as their owners work, eat or play and avoid the hassle and expense of urban parking.
“Left to the market and individual choice, the likely outcome is more vehicles, more driving and a slow transition to electric cars,” Sperling wrote in the book “3 Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future,” which publishes in March 2018.
So, what’s involved with sharing a driverless vehicle?
First, driverless vehicles would not be owned by individuals, but rather by ride-sharing providers, who operate and dispatch a fleet of them. Consumers could summon them on demand, much as millions of people do now when they hail a ride through mobile apps, but they’d likely be sharing the ride with multiple occupants, including strangers.
“When people share rides, it allows them to be served by a smaller number of vehicles; it can help relieve traffic and potentially make transportation more affordable for everyone,” said Emily Castor, senior director of transportation policy at Lyft.
– Dan Sperling
Historically, Americans haven’t been great at sharing cars. Carpooling peaked during the 1970s energy crisis, then dropped to 9 percent in 2014 from 20 percent in 1980.
Even in California, where there’s a strong commitment to slashing greenhouse gas emissions, efforts to limit driving or make it more expensive or inconvenient can be highly controversial. For example, suggestions of gas tax hikes or “road diets” often produce public backlash.
The question, then, is at what point might Americans, and drivers worldwide, be willing to give up even one of their cars and share a vehicle with strangers that’s driven by no one?
“We want to encourage people to buy electric, but more importantly, we want them to share rides and give up their own cars,” Sperling said. “You don’t have to be a scientist to know that’s a tough sell everywhere, not just in this country.”
Before people can be convinced of the need to share driverless rides, they’ll have to be willing to take their first ride in one, as Sperling points out in the “3 Revolutions” book .
A 2016 survey by the Insurance Information Institute found 55 percent of respondents would not ride in an autonomous vehicle. A recent Pew Research Trust poll showed 87 percent of U.S. adults favored a requirement that all driverless cars have a human in the driver’s seat to take control if needed.
Yet a 2016 survey by the Boston Consulting Group and World Economic Forum found consumers were willing to ride in driverless cars if it meant they could multitask and avoid the search for parking.
To help guide the driverless vehicle revolution toward the maximum public benefit, ITS-Davis developed a wide range of actions policymakers at all levels of government can consider. Such recommendations aim at incentivizing travelers, automakers and mobility services to design and encourage the use of electric vehicles and carpooling over individual car ownership.
The incentives include tax credits for ride-sharing companies with high occupancy levels, tax reductions for individuals and companies who use their vehicles for pooling and state subsidies for low-income travelers using pooled services.
Local leaders also could provide special parking privileges for pooled cars and introduce shared mobility lanes. Federal policies regulating fuel economy could award extra credit to automakers that sell vehicles for pooling services. And cities could be redesigned with less parking. A parking garage in Los Angeles with an eye on a driverless future is currently being designed to eventually serve different uses, such as offices, shops or gyms.
“Everyone doesn’t necessarily have to switch,” Sperling said. “The role of policy is to make it more compelling to do what’s best for society.”
Places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic congestion has risen 80 percent since 2010, and Los Angeles County, where more than 14 percent of the land mass is devoted to parking lots, are strong candidates for early forays into shared, electric, driverless transportation.
– Lewis Fulton
Millennials are likely to be early adopters, as well.
Studies over the past six years show younger travelers tend to postpone getting a driver’s license, often choose not to own a car, and—even if they own a vehicle—drive less than earlier generations.
In a 2015 study led by ITS-Davis research engineer Giovanni Circella, Californians born between 1981 and 1997 were more likely to use emerging transportation and app-based ride-sharing services than older generations. They were more inclined to multitask while traveling and had a stronger commitment to the environment. And compared to Gen Xers, millennials are less opposed to higher gas taxes as a means of providing better funding for public transportation.
“Maybe even millennials are too old for this,” Fulton said. “But if you grew up in a world where you were used to calling Uber a lot, you might decide you’ll never want to buy a car. But once you have it, it’s harder to give it up.”