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Driverless cars might not be a reality for everyone, yet, but they are at least a few years away. A big concern with these vehicles is how they will fare when stuck in traffic, with sudden or prolonged stops, for example. A new study reportedly underscores how they’ll impact the environment, showing that nearly one-third of people would choose an autonomous vehicle as a regular transportation option, which means that could make emissions go up as demand for these kinds of cars rises.
To get a handle on how driverless cars might change our energy system, Wissam Kontar, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author of the study, and his team wanted to gauge how much people would prefer to take them over other options. In a survey, the researchers asked respondents living in Madison, Wisconsin, their preferences for getting around town, and gave them four different choices: a privately owned car, an autonomous vehicle taxi operating like Uber and Lyft, a bus, and a bike.
The researchers also designed the survey to reflect different types of considerations, like factoring in the length of the trip, the distance of walking to a bus stop, and what the weather’s like. In the survey, participants were shown examples of different trips within the city, and different information with each transit option, including waiting time, cost, walking time to a pickup point or bus station, and parking ease.
When it comes to convenience, it depends on whether you value the cost or the duration of the trip to make those decisions. In the case of autonomous vehicles, one of the key differences between what their future service could look like and the current ridesharing options is the cost of labor. According to economists, autonomous vehicles could be a lot cheaper than hailing a taxi or an Uber without a human driver in the seat. This is, of course, great news for riders, especially now that costs for Uber and Lyft have gone up because of the lack of drivers. However, this would be pretty disastrous for the thousands of drivers, who already have mounting issues regarding worker classification and pay with the ridesharing companies.
Kontar reportedly said the study incorporated this potential lower cost into the analysis, which gives autonomous vehicles an advantage compared to present-day taxis and rideshare cars. This was shown in the overall results.
In the scenarios, the majority of choices were split between using a personal vehicle (32%) and an autonomous one (31%). Bikes won about 21% of the time, while buses scored a measly 16%. The results were surprising, given that Madison is a city with what Kontar describes as a robust bus system, where in a population of just under 260,000, nearly 55,000 people rode the bus each weekday before the pandemic, and a bike-riding culture in the summers. Madison is, of course, way smaller than, say, Los Angeles. But if a city that has a healthy public transit and bike use caved to the aforementioned vehicles, how would this exercise fare in a car-dependent city like LA?
The preference for personal and autonomous rideshare vehicles, Kontar’s team considers, could mean dirtier air and more greenhouse gas emissions. Per the story, more gas-powered autonomous vehicles on the road and fewer riders in buses could boost energy use from transportation in the city by almost 6%, as public transit use decreases. This would correlate with a 5.7% rise in greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, emissions of harmful particulate matter, sulfur, and nitrogen oxide from more cars on the road could also all increase between around 6% and 7%.
The solution that the research team provides is that all self-driving cars put on the roads be electric, though they caution that vehicle electrification needs to come with sweeping reform of our electricity system. While electrifying autonomous vehicles would help reduce emissions from more cars on the road and harmful particulate matter tied to them, loading up a fossil-fuel-powered electric grid like Wisconsin’s with more demand could have adverse impacts.
However, in order to help the U.S. meet its climate goals, EV implementation isn’t enough: people must drive less altogether. Transportation contributes the largest share of carbon emissions in the country, and electrification is a critical requisite to a carbon-free future — but not the sole remedy. Even under the most ambitious EV adoption scenarios, we must still reduce driving.Per an analysis done by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the U.S. transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43% by 2030 in order to align with 1.5oC climate goals, which require that we put 70 million EVs on the road and reduce per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20% in the next nine years.
In order to reduce car dependency and make decarbonization far easier, it’s crucial to enhance transit, biking and walking — as well as building more housing closer to jobs, schools, groceries, and other necessities. Unlike electrification, these strategies could be implemented without having to rely on the American car buyer, the compliance of reluctant automakers, or the long timeframe required to overhaul the national fleet. Not to mention they’d also bring meaningful co-benefits, including saving people money on transportation, improving safety and public health, and reducing barriers to economic mobility to those who can’t afford to drive.