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Self-Driving Vehicles - Green Revolution, Or Eco-Disaster?

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There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about self-driving vehicles. Vehicles ‘driven’, essentially, by computer are being rolled out in various locations across the world. The technology, we’re told, is ready to go - all that needs to happen is for governments to put a legal infrastructure in place to cover the use of self-driving cars. While the introduction of self-driving technology has not always gone smoothly, many believe that it will, ultimately, prove to be the future of transportation. From a business perspective, this raises questions about how the transport and logistics industry will change. Many have concerns about the potential loss of driving jobs. Others are curious about how the advent of driverless technology could impact the environment.

Going Driverless

Various companies, from Google to Tesla, are pushing driverless vehicles hard. Whether driverless technology is taken up wholesale by businesses, however, remains to be seen. It all depends on just how viable these vehicles are from a business perspective. If the costs of insuring, maintaining, and taxing a driverless vehicle (for example) are greater than the overheads (including, of course, driver wage) of a more conventional vehicle, businesses will remain cautious. Furthermore, replacing human employees with driving-computers is unlikely to go down well from a PR perspective. If, however, an argument could be made for greater ‘green’ credentials, and more energy efficiency, businesses who wish to appeal to an increasingly eco-conscious public may well think seriously about going driverless.

There is certainly an argument to be made for driverless cars bringing a green revolution in their wake. Unfortunately, however, we may not yet know enough about whether or not patterns of use will work for or against the environment.

Environmental Impact

It’s generally agreed that the impact of self-driving cars on the environment will be profound. But researchers are divided on whether this impact will be positive or negative. On the ‘green’ side are the following points:

Companies promoting self-driving vehicles have said that they will try and use electric technology wherever possible. It’ could be easier to use an electric self-driven car than an electric human-driven car, as the car could theoretically take itself off to a charging point and charge while not in use. In theory, a predominance of electric vehicles should reduce emissions - although this does rather depend on whether or not the requisite electricity is generated cleanly.

Vehicle automation would allow manufacturers to jettison an awful lot of safety equipment which currently adds significantly to the weight of vehicles. Most people agree that self-driven vehicles will be safer than human-driven vehicles (although the threats posed by computer viruses and so on have yet to be properly assessed). Lighter cars would mean much greater fuel efficiency - which would reduce emissions.

Self-driving cars could, in theory, drive to large ‘depots’ to park themselves when not in use, and be recalled at pick-up time. This could reduce the need for car parks outside every office and home, which could in turn make life easier for pedestrians (many of whom are currently crowded out of the pavements by parked cars), and free up land. Today’s car parks could be tomorrow’s gardens.

Self-driving cars could be programmed to make eco-conscious choices. For example, a computer is far better able than most humans to calculate and pick its most fuel-efficient route to a destination.

It would be far easier for people to ‘share’ driverless vehicles, as they could simply be ‘called up’ when needed - effectively by remote control, and would not need to be permanently at a single residence or ‘driven’ by a single named, insured driver. This could lead to fewer vehicles on the roads overall. However, this would also depend on people’s willingness to share (something which some have suggested could be encouraged via government incentives and/or regulations).

Others, however, have argued that self-driving vehicles could be an ecological disaster:

Self-driving vehicles would make long journeys (and more of them) far more viable than is currently the case. Journeys which would previously not have been considered will now be undertaken with ease, potentially resulting in more emissions.

Self-driving cars will make motorised vehicles far more accessible than is currently the case. Many more people will find themselves able to use a car, and those who would not currently consider starting up their engine for a less-important journey are likely to do so, given the relative ease of simply sitting in a self-driven vehicle. This, again, could result in more traffic, and more emissions.

The potentially advanced safety of a self-driven vehicle is likely to result in raised speed limits. The dangers to wildlife of this notwithstanding, it’s worth noting that fuel efficiency decreases enormously above 80kmph. The faster you go, the more greenhouse gases your vehicle is emitting.

Self-Driving Vehicles - Green Revolution, Or Eco-Disaster?