Are Autonomous Vehicles Relevant to Decarbonization?

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A sleek black pod pulls up to the curb. You and your friends slide into the back seat. The vehicle glides back into traffic, and the camera zooms out to reveal a gorgeous San Francisco sunset. The interior of your ride looks like the starship Enterprise, and a well trained robot guides you smoothly to your destination. You’re in the back of your new Cruise. Or is it a Zoox? Or a Waymo

The gold rush is back on for Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). After a couple years of lowered expectations, both Silicon Valley and Detroit seem to be regaining their enthusiasm. AV boosters frame their product as a way to solve some of our most pressing transportation problems. But is our most hyped new transportation technology irrelevant to getting fossil fuels out of transportation?

I was on the phone recently with someone looking to break into sustainable transportation from a career in tech. He asked what I thought of various technologies he could work on, including AVs. I was surprised by how quickly I replied: AVs aren’t likely to help.

Don’t take my word for it. The decarbonization plans we've written about in Boston, Toronto, and the UK identify almost no role for AVs. In most of those plans, AVs actually make decarbonization harder; by making travel more convenient, they increase the amount people travel.  

All of this may sound strange, if you’ve heard the positive case for AVs. Heck, when I worked at Uber, I sometimes helped to make it. AVs could be a powerful force for decarbonization. They might help people give up their personal cars and rely on shared services, bringing down the total number of vehicles we need. Just as important, a fleet of shared AVs could ‘right size’ the vehicle for your trip, meaning you could use smaller vehicles for most trips, since we mostly travel alone. That right sizing could bring down the energy consumption of the fleet. Last but not least, the heavy mileage that autonomous robo taxis could do in a year (since they’d run as close to 24/7 as feasible) would make them ideal candidates for early electrification.

Many studies have supported this positive case. But they rely heavily on mass adoption of shared services. That seems unlikely. I suspect the more plausible outcome is that most people will continue travel in vehicles that are similar to the ones we use today and that we’ll mostly do it alone, in vehicles we own, even if they’re autonomous. Add that up, and it doesn’t help much on decarbonization.

It’s possible I’m being overly bearish on AVs. But there’s another reason that AVs probably won't matter on decarbonization: they won’t get here in time. 

It seems increasingly likely that mass adoption of AVs - at least for passenger transportation - won’t happen till long after the transition to electric vehicles. A growing number of countries have mandated 100% of car sales be electric by 2025, 2030, or 2035. Few people outside of the biggest boosters are predicting a big role for fully automated passenger vehicles before then.

By the time AVs arrive, we’ll likely already be well on our way to an electrified future. If you’re interested in getting involved in a new transportation technology to help address climate change, I’d throw your energy into electric vehicles, not autonomous ones.

As always, feel free to let me know why I’m wrong. 

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