It’s fun to imagine a future full of driverless cars, where your morning commute could be spent reading a book instead of fighting traffic. But the benefits to autonomous vehicles go far beyond personal comfort. Experts say they’ll make big changes to road safety and city designs, to name just two. And now, research from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has added another benefit: they could slash greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by as much as 90 percent.
Just The Right Size
According to the analysis, which was published in the journal Nature, mile-for-mile emissions from an electric autonomous taxi in 2030 would be up to 82 percent lower than a privately owned hybrid car in the same year. When you compare it to a 2014 gas-powered car, the reduction is as high as 90 percent. Oil consumption, for its part, could be reduced entirely.
This isn’t just a matter of electric vehicles creating less pollution than hybrid or gasoline-powered cars. There are a number of other elements that come into play to create this sizeable difference. The “taxi” part of the equation, for example. Sharing an autonomous vehicle among many passengers instead of using one car per household “seemed to be the biggest lever that pointed to lower energy use per mile,” study coauthor Jeffery Greenblatt said in a press release. There’s also the idea of “right-sizing,” or the fact that autonomous taxis of different sizes could be dispatched depending on the needs of the passengers. Instead of everyone riding in a four-person car, a single passenger with a backpack would ride in a smaller vehicle than a family of four with luggage. Smaller vehicles mean, you guessed it, reduced emissions.
But How Much Would It Cost?
Okay, so the experts also estimate that an all-electric driverless car would cost $150,000 up front (though another study suggests that autonomy will only add $5,000 to a car’s sticker price by 2030). But here’s the thing: privately owned cars are only driven 12,000 miles per year on average. Taxis, on the other hand, cover 40,000–70,000 miles per year. Factor in the lower per-mile cost of fuel, and an electric autonomous taxi ends up being way more cost-effective than a private hybrid or gas car.
So would everyone have to get rid of their personal cars? Not even. According to the press release, the scientists calculated that “if five percent of 2030 vehicle sales (about 800,000 vehicles) were shifted to autonomous taxis, it would save about 7 million barrels of oil per year and reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by between 2.1 and 2.4 million metric tons of CO2 per year, equal to the emissions savings from more than 1,000 two-megawatt wind turbines.” More and more, it’s looking like the future of driving is autonomous, and that’s good news for everyone.