Smart and Charging

The Future of Autonomous Vehicles is Electric

An autonomous vehicle is seen during a test drive on August 24, 2016, in Singapore.

While it is clear that autonomous vehicle, or AV, technology is the future of new car models, how these AVs will affect the environment remains to be seen. Researchers have produced conflicting studies on whether automation will be a net positive or negative when it comes to carbon emissions from vehicle tailpipes. As it would allow people who currently don’t drive—such as the elderly and children—to travel independently by car, automation could increase the number of people and vehicles on the road. But AV features including cruise control and automated breaking could also make driving more efficient. Given that AVs have the potential to increase the number of cars on the road, it is essential that developers consider the effect that this technology could have on the rate of global climate change. There is one approach to AV development that could make concerns about tailpipe emissions moot: pairing automation with electrification.

Technological advances in automated features and current automaker industry investment make it clear that the cars of the future will be AVs, with features enabling cars to operate with minimal to no human involvement. Autonomous vehicle technology features, such as lane detection and crash avoidance, have gained a lot of attention in the past few years. They have demonstrated staying power as more and more companies have begun incorporating automated technology into their existing models or are jumping right into designing fully self-driving cars. As this technology advances, it is not only crucial that developers make these AVs electric but also that the nation continues to replace coal-fired power plants with renewable energy sources.

Autonomous vehicle technology on the rise

Multiple car companies, including BMW and Honda Motor Co., have already incorporated driver assist technology such as adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance into existing models. Other companies envision a future with completely self-driving cars—vehicles without even a steering wheel or foot pedals. Ford Motor Co. has stated that it will have fully self-driving AVs on the road by 2021, with a seat for a person to take over driving only in case of emergency. Other companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai Motor Co. project a longer timeframe of 10 years to 15 years. Volvo has partnered with ride-sharing tech company Uber and has been testing a self-driving fleet of ride-sharing vehicles in Pittsburgh in anticipation of significant shifts in how people get around. Other tech giants are also involved in this arena—for instance, Apple Inc.’s work on AV technology and recent investment in the Chinese ride-share startup Didi Chuxing. And Google is actively testing its own self-driving vehicles, which can be seen driving through the streets of Mountain View, California, and Phoenix.

The federal government has also been publically enthusiastic about advances in automated technology. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced at the North American International Auto Show in January 2016 that the federal government would create a policy framework for the safe development of AVs. In September, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy—guidance laying the groundwork for safe testing and deployment of AVs.

The need for electrification

As automation continues to penetrate the market, automakers and policymakers should ensure that these cars are autonomous electric vehicles, or AEVs, which produce no tailpipe emissions.

The importance of electrifying the U.S. transportation sector has never been clearer. The transportation sector releases more than one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, primarily from the fossil fuels used to power vehicles. In the first seven months of 2016, the transportation sector surpassed the electric power sector as the largest source of carbon emissions for the first time since 1979, in part due to significant declines in power sector emissions. As the United States continues to confront global climate change, electric vehicles, or EVs, are a clear way to cut down on carbon emissions. When including emissions related to manufacturing, EVs are still much cleaner options than their petroleum-powered counterparts. As electricity generation gets cleaner through the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, driving an EV becomes an even more environmentally friendly choice. In part thanks to falling renewable energy prices and smart government policies to promote it, renewable energy has become increasingly prevalent in the United States and is expected to continue growing.

Depending on how AVs are deployed—whether shared or individually owned and at what level of market penetration—they could increase or decrease tailpipe emissions. By making personal mobility easier, especially for those who would not be able to drive otherwise, automated technology has the potential to put more vehicles on the road and increase the distances that they drive. With full automation, children and people with various impairments will be able to drive unaccompanied. More commuters might drive to work in the privacy of their own cars while reading or working if they don’t have to pay attention to the road. AV car- and ride-sharing has the potential to mitigate new travel demand, but the net effect on vehicle emissions is uncertain.

Concerns about increased tailpipe emissions from a higher volume of cars on the road, however, are irrelevant if each AV is electric, particularly if the electric power sector is shifting away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy generation. It will not matter if an AV drives more miles than a traditional car, or if there are more AVs on the road, if each mile driven is a clean one—powered by clean electricity rather than gasoline.

Industry leaders in electrified automation

While many companies are making strides in developing AVs, some are ahead of the pack and already electrifying their AV models. Tesla is a prime example: The company solely sells EVs, has equipped its Model S with AV features, and is working toward building a fully autonomous vehicle that will be, of course, electric. Earlier this year, General Motors Co. established a partnership with ride-sharing tech company Lyft to begin testing AEVs within the year. In late August, Singapore gave permission to U.S.-based startup company nuTonomy to test out a fleet of self-driving electric taxis, and the company now carries passengers. According to nuTonomy, the company will have an all-AEV fleet of Renaults and Mitsubishis in Singapore by 2018.

As automakers and tech companies pivot to developing AV technology, the time is ripe to electrify their offerings. As companies, cities, and the federal government continue to reimagine the capabilities of transportation, it is critical that they also consider the impact on the environment. Putting more gasoline-powered vehicles on the road, no matter how smart, could be disastrous for the already changing climate. Preventing further devastating impacts of climate change will require significant emissions reductions, including from the transportation sector. Electrification of cars is inevitable to meet these clean transportation needs, and smart companies and organizations will simultaneously invest in both AV and EV technology. Electrification will ensure that the car of the future is reliable, safe, and working in line with the steps necessary to reduce carbon emissions and prevent further impacts of climate change.

Myriam Alexander-Kearns is a Research Associate with the Energy and Environment team at the Center for American Progress.