With contributions from Ashleigh Rose-Harman


By now it’s clear that a future with mostly (if not all) driverless cars on our roads is a matter of when, not if. With Tesla’s renowned Autopilot feature, Google’s autonomous carUber’s self-driving fleet, and even a rumoured Apple car, autonomous vehicles are about to become a mainstay of our culture.

But outside of the obvious benefits of driverless cars (e.g. watching Netflix while commuting), there are many other societal and environmental implications that make a driverless future exciting for environmentalists.

This article takes a look at all of the positive developments a driverless future will bring. But first, let’s look at exactly what a driverless car is.

What is a driverless car?

driverless car

Driverless cars, also referred to as self-driving cars or autonomous cars, are vehicles that don’t require a person to manually control them. You don’t need to have your hands on a steering wheel, and in some cases, there isn’t even a steering wheel to hold.

Driverless cars exist in a few different formats today, that range from fully autonomous driving (e.g. Google’s car) to driver-assisted technology that only requires the driver to control the vehicle some of the time (e.g. Tesla’s “Autopilot”).

In general, a driverless car’s computer system takes over all driving responsibilities. The vehicle’s system uses infrared radars, LIDAR (laser radar), as well as sophisticated motion sensors, cameras, incredibly accurate GPS, and complex algorithms that allow the car to drive itself. Using all of this technology, along with historical data from logged hours, the car can generate a map of its surroundings to know where it’s going, what’s around it and what areas to avoid.

The car can read road lights, traffic signs, road markings and even monitor other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. The car drives by the rules of the roads, meaning speed limits are always adhered to and obstacles and potential hazards are spotted much quicker allowing for a safer halt, with less braking and accelerating.

 

The environmental benefits of driverless cars

Emissions

First of all, emissions. Yes, most of the driverless vehicles being driven (and test-driven) today are already fully electric, but even so, unless your car’s battery charge is powered entirely by clean energy, you’re still indirectly contributing to emissions (though, not nearly as much as a gas engine).

Autonomous cars use significantly less gas and energy when driving, compared to a vehicle driven by a human. Most gas is burned when driving at high speeds, braking, and re-accelerating excessively. Self-driving vehicles cut these factors out of their driving style, meaning less gas is burned, or battery power consumed, resulting in less air pollution.

 

Google Self-Driving Car
Google’s Self-Driving Car

Driverless cars also mean fewer cars per household. One vehicle can now drop the kids off at school, take both mom and dad to work, and then park itself until it’s time to pick them back up. One driverless car can literally get you to all of the destinations you need, so families can cut back on having 2 or 3 different cars to fit the needs of each person. This reduces the overall number of cars on the road, as well as unnecessary overlapping trips that contribute to emissions.

It’s also expected that, as driverless car technology is advanced, the weight of the cars will drop as a result of lighter batteries, and less need for heavy safety modifications to the engine. This will also have a positive effect on gas/energy consumption.

 

Accidents

You know the saying, guns don’t kill people, people kill people? It goes the same way for vehicles. Cars don’t cause crashes, people cause crashes. Whether from reckless driving, human error, texting, drinking, or just generally being distracted behind the wheel, human drivers are the most dangerous part of the driving experience.

In fact, Tesla’s safety data on its Autopilot feature usage convinced its CEO, Elon Musk, that it would have been irresponsible of the company to withhold the feature from a public release, given how much safer Autopilot was compared a human driver.

It may be difficult for a human to make a split-second decision to veer right or left when a collision is imminent, but for a computer that has run thousands of simulations (or has a collective driving experience of hundreds of thousands of similar incidents), the safest path can be chosen instantly, avoiding any collision. As an example, in the video below, a Tesla Model S on Autopilot safely avoids a truck merging into its lane that the human driver hadn’t even noticed:

The increased safety of autonomous vehicles will save countless human lives – whether in cars, on bike, or on foot – as well as animals that have found themselves in someone’s headlights.

 

Traffic Congestion

In addition to emissions and city smog, traffic congestion in general is an inconvenience for most city dwellers. Valuable urban areas are reserved for highways and thoroughfares, in many cases leaving little to no area for pedestrians, cyclist or parks.

Congested city streets and highways will be a distant memory when all of the vehicles on the road are driverless. Consider this demonstration of a “smart traffic light” system developed by researchers at MIT:

Traffic moves more steadily, opening up new opportunities for city planning that focuses on pedestrians and green space rather than traffic flows.

Additionally, the ability to have a driverless car take you wherever you need to be opens up the possibility for more people to move outside of urban areas. Getting in and out of a city will be easier with steady traffic flows, and will eliminate the need for many people to live downtown for convenience.

 

The Legislation

While the technology seems a little too good to be true in terms of potential benefits and added safety, the government still has concerns when it comes to autonomous cars. As it currently stands, driverless cars are legal in California, Nevada, Michigan, Tennessee and Florida, with many more under consideration.

 

status map driverless car regulation
Up to date as of publishing.

(Click here for a full breakdown of the current US Legislative and Regulatory action on automated driving)

Discussion is still underway in many of the remaining states on whether driverless cars should be authorized, and we will likely see more activity on these in the coming months.

 

In Conclusion

Driverless cars are undoubtedly a boon for the planet. Not only will they help curb emissions, reduce fatalities of humans and wildlife, and allow city planners to focus on green space more than roads, they’ll also give every commuter more time in their days.

Fore more more information on driverless cars, visit our sister site, The Auto Future.