Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Monday, December 29, 2014
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How Self-Driving Cars Could Turn Our Roads Green 

As companies like Google and even a few car companies have invested in a future full of driverless cars, the technology looks as though it’s coming to stay.  BMW sent a self-driving car from Munich to Nuremberg at motorway speeds in 2011.  Audi, another German car manufacturer, sent their self-driving TTS Coupe on a 20km journey through the tight curves of Colorado’s Pikes Peak.

With these self-driving cars coming up on the horizon, the big question has always been about safety. But recently, concerns about energy efficiency have arisen as well, posing questions such as the effects they may have on energy, oil, and climate change.

Some studies have found that these self-driving cars could have a significant impact beyond simply making our roads safer and more convenient.

A New Standard for Fuel Efficiency

The first major finding of these studies is that these cars will be much more fuel-efficient.  Once there are no human drivers the cars will be able to bunch together and drive at steadier speeds.  Not only will this will eliminate traffic jams and accidents completely, but The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that fuel usage could be cut down 20-30% when vehicles travel closely together due to a reduction in wind drag. Those savings should only continue to rise once you factor in the effect of reducing frequent braking and accelerating associated with stop-and-roll traffic.

Another way that energy efficiency will be boosted is through lighter cars.  Since these vehicles aren’t prone to crashing, automakers can cut down on a significant portion of their weight by removing parts of the frame that only serve to add extra protection in case of a crash.

You may assume that this will be due to innovations in carbon composites that we may see by the time autonomous vehicles can be seen from any street corner, but the majority of this weight shedding will come as another result of accident reduction.  Since collisions won’t be a concern anymore, these driverless cars don’t need all of the extra bulk that’s there for protection and energy efficiency could be doubled.  

Smarter Driving Habits

Putting the actual mechanics of the car aside, there are plenty of problematic driving habits that humans espouse that autonomous cars will make a thing of the past. For example, we may use Google Maps to find the most efficient route to reach our favorite downtown restaurant, but will proceed to spend 20 additional minutes circling city blocks looking for an open parking lot.

Not surprisingly, a study done by MIT found that around 40 percent of fuel usage is spent looking for parking.  Because autonomous vehicles will communicate with one another to coordinate in times of heavy traffic, it stands to reason that they will be able to find the best parking lots without wasting so much fuel.

Another way that these self-driving cars will supposedly benefit the environment is through boosting the appeal of walking and biking.  Since the roads will be much safer with the driverless cars, it will be less dangerous for bikers to share the road.

Lastly, it is believed that city living will become more appealing due to reduced congestion on the streets.  And since cities tend to be more energy-efficient than the suburbs, energy usage could be reduced greatly if more people opt to go urban. But on the flipside, if longer commutes from the city limits to people’s jobs in the center of town are cut down, we could see the opposite effect, which brings us to point out that factors point to energy savings.

Putting More Cars on the Road

While driverless cars could improve the environmental situation on a car-by-car basis, a societal shift toward autonomous vehicle adoption could have big impacts on how we view transportation at large, possibly negating the energy-efficiency savings that each car offers.

With driverless cars, we could see a huge increase in people riding in them.  Now there are stipulations on people who cannot drive.  Brad Plumer states that everyone under 16 years old, disabled people, the elderly, people intoxicated or on medications, people who are asleep, etc. will now be able to ride in these vehicles.  With the driverless cars, any of these people could safely be on the road, thus increasing the amount of cars on the road.  Not only would this congest the roads but it would make this idea a lot less energy efficient. 

Another problem associated with this is that the convenience of driverless cars could cause public transportation to lose its appeal. The same people who cannot drive rely on these types of transportation to get around. 

If driverless cars catch on then buses and trains could lose popularity in areas where commuters opt for public transportation out of convenience, rather than for monetary concerns.  Once again, this will increase the amount of traffic on the roads and higher energy demands. 

That being said, it is yet to be seen whether legislation would allow for the underage, elderly, and those who may be under the influence of alcohol or medications to be in an autonomous vehicle unaccompanied, given that they are still in no position to take over the car in case of a malfunction.

Still, it’s unlikely that any of these concerns will restrict the technology’s progress.  The number of autonomous cars on the road will ultimately be decided on based on the cars’ price tag, which may mean that driverless cars could bring major energy savings—at least for the time being.

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