Self-drive vehicles will improve safety, reduce emissions and make traffic a thing of the pass

Oct 2014

Ground transportation could be on the brink of a revolution bringing with it social, environmental, safety and health benefits. That revolution is the self-drive car – especially in conjunction with battery power!

Elements of self-drive technology have been around since the 1980s. We have all experienced cruise-control! Increasingly car manufacturers such as Mercedes, BMW and Volvo are integrating more and more self-drive abilities in cars -  such as automatic parking, dystronic systems and safe distance and lane-change warnings. But this isn’t cutting-edge or what the real idea of self-drive vehicles are about.

The real benefits are in complete self-driving technology – cars that actually drive themselves with no human intervention.

Google has been testing such technology for several years now in California. A Toyota Prius with radar-looking equipment atop its roof has become quite an iconic symbol of this tech. In May, Google announced that it has built its own fully self-drive vehicle without steering wheel or pedals. The company intends to pilot the cars in California over the next few years to test their feasibility.

Volvo is researching another form of self-drive technology – where cars lock into lane behind other cars releasing a driver’s need to handle the steering wheel. The company is pledging to have self-driving passenger cars on sale by 2017.

Governments are also beginning to realise the potential; funding research, considering infrastructure needs and regulatory frameworks necessary for this new development in transport.

This week the State of California issued its first 29 permits to three companies to test self-driving cars on public roads. Permits were given to Google for testing 25 adapted Toyota Lexus SUVs, while Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen AG’s Audi where given a permit each.

In the UK, business secretary, Vince Cable, announced in August that a £10m fund will be made available for driverless car researchers in the UK.

This is only the beginning. Self-drive technology will happen and, other than safety and alleviating congestion, help reduce environmental impacts of the transportation sector.

Up to now sustainable transportation has comprised a combination of improved urban planning, greater use of public transport, campaigns to encourage walking and cycling, car sharing, regulating for better fuel efficiency and reduced exhaust emissions. A transportation system based on self-drive vehicles won’t necessarily negate all these efforts but it will require a rethink.

Being a new technology that is not as yet mainstream, little research has been done on how self-drive cars could potentially reduce emissions, change the way we drive, car ownership and how we work. But indications, and theory, suggest that it will have many positive benefits.

One benefit could be a result of the increased safety that self-drive cars will offer. Significant reduction in crashes could lead to the creation of lighter-weight cars, thus resulting in substantial fuel consumption savings. According to an article in Yale Environment 360 one could imagine self-drive cars being 20% lighter which could mean a 20% drop in emissions   such as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and PM10s which cause respiratory illnesses.

Another study from the University of Texas looking at the benefits of substituting car ownership with a “shared autonomous taxi” model found that there would be ‘beneficial energy use and emissions outcomes for all emissions”’. Additionally, the study indicated that ‘reduced parking needs could lead to further emission reductions, along with congestion improvements’. (They quoted a study by Shoup (2007) which estimated that an ‘average of 30% of traffic in central business districts is generated by vehicles seeking to find a parking space close to their occupants’ final destination‘).

But such savings aren’t really enough in the grand scheme of climate change and health costs caused by air pollution. Ultimately the combustion engine needs to go. A combination of self-drive cars and trucks along with electric power would transform our transport network. Safer, quieter, smoother and zero local air pollution!

Currently there are only 500,000 plug-in electric passenger cars and utility vans in the world, up from more than 180,000 units in 2012, and led by the United States with 250,000 cars. Norway has the most in relation to its population, becoming the first country where over 1 in every 100 passenger cars on the roads is a plug-in electric. A multi-government forum, Electric Vehicle Initiative, involving 15 member governments including the EU, USA and India aims to have 20 million electric cars in stock by 2020. This is still only 2% of all cars!

Progress is slow but if we are determined, creative and open-minded enough, self-drive technology in conjunction with electric power could seriously transform our whole transport system; reducing pollution, improving the quality of transport and even changing the way we work. In my books it can’t happen soon enough!

By Philippa Shepherd