What Will Driverless Cars Do To The Climate?

A Formidable Challenge for Policymakers and Modelers

Google self-driving cars
Google’s Autonomous Cars: Get In

It’s no longer a question of whether driverless cars will appear on the market; it’s when and how many. The answers so far seem to be: 1) soon; and 2) lots. German automakers are so confident of this that they are already negotiating with Nokia to compete to Google’s self-driving cars. For Legal Planet, that means we should start thinking about how this would affect, well, the planet — specifically emissions from vehicle miles traveled. And that presents quite a formidable challenge to think through. (UPDATE: Great minds think alike. Ethan Elkind considered this issue three years ago in Legal Planet, with observations that are complementary to this post. Check out Ethan’s take here.).

Consider: I drive about 6 miles to work at UCLA every day. If driverless cars become the norm, will that reduce or increase emissions?

1) Increase. Why? Well, my car will drive me to work, then go home, then come back, then drive me back. I won’t want to pay for parking. That means doubling the emissions.

2) Decrease. But if that’s true, then it means that we will need less parking. And if that is true, we can use the massive amounts of land currently devoted to parking for development, meaning that there will be more dense urban form, and less vehicle miles traveled because you won’t need to go so far and it will be easier to use transit.

3) Increase. But maybe if driverless cars become the norm, then people will drive more because it will be more pleasant. People hate driving in no small part because they hate fighting through traffic and it is wasted, unproductive time. Now, people will be more inclined to “drive” because it will be so much easier.

4) Decrease. But if driverless cars become so convenient, then maybe people won’t need their own cars at all. It will be one massive Uber and Lyft-fest. If that is true, then there will be fewer cars, and the fleets will be more easily updated due to higher demand. Or to put it another way, I will go to and from work, but there won’t be any more trips because I will be using an available (and thus different) car each way.

As you can see, there are about a million different moves that can be made here, each of which not only involves several assumptions about how human behavior may or may not change, but also rests upon policy choices (most of which we can really conceive of yet) and in any event will require turning around the Massive Aircraft Carrier That Is Policymaking In The United States.

In all, it seems to me somewhat of a combination between Sisyphus and Yogi Berra. As to the former, policymakers and modelers will have to get to work, even though they understand that events will pass them by and result in things that they couldn’t have imagined. As to the latter, we should remember Yogi’s epigram: “the art of prediction is very unpredictable, particularly when it pertains to the future.”

Yogi Berra

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “What Will Driverless Cars Do To The Climate?”

  1. I wouldn’t send mine home, I’d send it to the nearest 2-hour parking zone and have it move itself accordingly.

    I just saw where there are more bicycles than people in the Netherlands.
    So why not cars too?
    Useful for multiple simultaneous errands or shuttling different kids to different places.
    Great for showing off … especially if running on renewable power.
    If I was running for office or selling something, I’d have a few extras driving themselves around with advertising.

    I bet formation driving on the freeway would become popular, like formation flying in the air.
    If you were a moralist, you could slow down traffic with an impassable “V” formation (and not risk being shot in rage because your cars would be empty). Protest “marches,” anyone?

    Or you could do that if you were a rich person and wanted the freeway more open for you when you get on in front of the formation.

    Oh, can each of my drone cars have some aerial drones please?

  2. The formation driving on the freeway is not so far from one of the possibilities Google is working with. The Computer Science Museum in Mountain View has a display devoted to Google’s work on driverless cars, and one of the possibilities discussed is the idea that your car will navigate solo to, say, a freeway on-ramp, at which point it will ‘lock on’ to a train of cars, perhaps following a heavier vehicle. That prevents crashes (because a number of vehicles are all moving synchronously), and I think has some energy savings potentials (using slipstreams from the heavier vehicles, or something? I forget). You ‘detach’ when you reach your pre-programmed off-ramp. So you could add that to the ‘savings’ column. Maybe.

    1. I’ve heard of that “train of cars” idea. What I think it might do is kill high speed trains.

      I imagine a dedicated highway lane just for driverless cars to drive either connected or within inches of each other, going 100 mph or faster. The reduced drive time and the fact that passengers could use their time to would slash demand for high speed trains.

      OTOH, it would also slash demand for plane flights of say 500 miles or less.

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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