The Road Less Traveled
The Great Green Promise of the Driverless Car

Being whisked from point A to point B in a robot-chauffeured vehicle has some obvious attractions: one can imagine reading, chatting, working, or even sleeping during the daily commute. Alternatively, picture retiring for the night in a sleeper car in one city, and waking up well-rested at your destination hundreds of miles away. Then too are the safety benefits sure to come from replacing the most unreliable part of the car—the driver—with a networked computer capable of syncing its speed with its fellow vehicles on the highway. The technology threatens to make a fundamental part of the modern human experience so much smarter, which, as Popular Science reports, could also yield extraordinary green benefits:

If a fleet of autonomous electric taxis were to replace everyone’s gas-powered, personal cars, we could see more than a 90 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and almost 100 percent decrease in oil consumption from cars, all while saving money in the long run. Right now that may seem like a long shot, but a study earlier this year said that 44 percent of Americans would consider buying a driverless car in the next 10 years, even if it would cost $5,000 more. […]

A fleet about 15 percent of the size of all private cars could service the same population, if scheduled correctly, estimated Greenblatt. But the real savings would be found in the operating cost. Even when estimating that an electric, driverless car would cost $150,000 up front, researchers say that a car that could drive 24/7, not require a salary and use no gasoline would pay for itself before five years. The paper says that price will drop drastically, citing an IHS study that says autonomy will only add around $5,000 to a car’s current sticker price by 2030.

The idea behind the green potential of driverless cars can be distilled to this: today, most cars spend most of their lifetimes parked somewhere, waiting to be used for that commute or errand. Driverless cars could shake up the entire car ownership paradigm by allowing people to access cars on demand. Replacing the gas-powered fleet that crowds today’s streets with one composed of electric vehicles would further reduce emissions.

Of course, electric cars have so far failed to live up to the hefty expectations piled atop them by greens selling their utopian future, in large part thanks to their limited battery lives. The driverless green dream will rely on advances in storage technology and the build-out of charging infrastructure just as much as it will need the onboard systems that will actually be maneuvering these vehicles.

We’re not there yet, but as the pace of technological change accelerates, we may be closer than you think. Uber has managed to upend the taxi industry with a simple on-demand app system. Imagine the disruption a driverless car revolution might bring.

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