Self-driving cars are set to revolutionize the transportation industry. Alongside this, the advent of autonomous vehicles will also surely impact the environment – but whether the impact is positive or negative still remains to be seen.

Today, climate change is a very real and looming threat. As global temperatures rise, so does the risk of issues that will affect our health, like the spread of disease and water contamination. Unfortunately, human activity is the main cause of climate change, with Blue & Green Tomorrow citing transportation as “one of the highest contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions and pollution.”

One advancement is set to change the face of transportation as we know it: autonomous vehicles. Will self-driving cars further exacerbate the problem of climate change? Or can they help benefit the future of our environment? Let’s take a look:

Self-driving cars or Autonomous vehicles are programmed to be more fuel-efficient
Self-driving cars or Autonomous vehicles are programmed to be more fuel-efficient than older human-driven cars.

Will Self-driving cars cause increased car use and increased emissions?

Like many other industries, transportation is being transformed by artificial intelligence (AI). As stated in an infographic by Ohio University:

“Uses for artificial intelligence extends beyond autonomous aircraft, cars, trucks, and trains. AI can be used to analyze commuter behavior, sentiment, suggestions, and commuting patterns, all of which can help predict accidents, alert emergency medical professionals, provide real-time feedback to drivers, and adjust shipping routes to simplify distribution networks. Travel is expected to become smoother, more efficient, and more enjoyable with the support of AI tools.”

While there’s no doubt that AI can protect our environment in many ways, its use in autonomous vehicles does have a downside: increased fuel emissions.

Increased automation leads to unprecedented ease of travel, which in turn could significantly increase the number of miles traveled by vehicles. It would also simplify car travel, enabling consumers to drive more frequently and for longer periods of time. Thus, commuters might be willing to travel much further to get to their desired destination. Additionally, since self-driving cars are able to travel faster than regular vehicles due to being controlled by a computer, their fuel efficiency could also decrease – as fuel economy usually decreases at over 50 miles per hour.

More cars on the road also lead to more congestion, and in turn, increased fossil fuel consumption. All of this could lead to an aggregate increase in energy consumption and emissions, potentially causing severe harm to the environment. In fact, researchers from the University of Michigan who studied self-driving cars state that “Backfire – a net rise in energy consumption – is a distinct possibility if we don’t develop better efficiencies, policies, and applications.”

The potential for saving energy

On the flip side, the article on Blue & Green Tom self-driving cars has the potential to reduce energy consumption by 90%. One of the reasons for this is the ability of autonomous vehicles to greatly decrease collisions. Autonomous vehicles negate the need for a human driver, thereby removing human error when it comes to safety. AI is also less prone to collisions with other objects on the road, such as cyclists and pedestrians. Because the frequency of car crashes would decrease, there will be a decrease in the production and manufacturing of safety equipment and vehicle testing – thus benefiting the environment.

In addition, autonomous vehicles are programmed to be more fuel-efficient than older human-driven cars. As opposed to human drivers, who often stop and start more than necessary and burn through fuel, self-driving cars can be programmed to always operate at maximum fuel efficiency. Of course, one must consider that the true benefits of this fuel efficiency might be negated if we end up increasing car travel due to the ease of autonomous vehicles.

That being said, self-driving cars do have major potential to save energy, especially in the hands of environmentally conscious folk who would not abuse this technology. Paired with government intervention, the possibility for reduced energy consumption by way of self-driving vehicles becomes very real – but that first step on behalf of the authorities is necessary to guarantee a positive impact.

With the introduction of this new type of vehicle, legislators will need to formulate new environmental policies to limit pollution. For instance, how far should a vehicle be able to travel without a passenger? Limiting this could reduce fuel consumption. With policies like this in place, more consumers will be able to reduce their energy consumption as a result of driving, thus constructively impacting environmental health.

All in all, self-driving cars do have the potential to benefit our environment – but only when used correctly. Even though we may not be in the driver’s seat when it comes to autonomous vehicles, we still hold the decision-making power in regard to their environmental impact. Ultimately, whether self-driving cars benefit or hurt the environment depends entirely on us humans.

Frankie Wallace

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