Why Do Self-Driving Cars Get Climate Cred?

Local experts weigh in on why cars could (maybe) be (part of) the answer.

On June 7, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order designed to promote the development of self-driving cars in Washington. In so doing, he invoked what’s often pegged these days as an exciting part of the technology’s potential: Autonomous vehicles, or “AVs,” will help solve the climate crisis.

“AVs could help save countless lives, reclaim time spent in traffic, improve mobility and be an important tool in our efforts to combat climate change,” Inslee said in a statement about the order. Charles Knutson, a senior policy advisor for Inslee, reiterated that promise in a recent interview with Seattle Weekly: “Save lives, save time, save the planet… improving mobility, cleaning our air—there are so many upsides to doing this.”

Across the country and the world, investors and thought leaders are making similar claims, including that “self-driving cars will be a potent weapon to combat climate change,” the cars could save “1 gigaton of carbon emissions annually,” and that a world full of autonomous vehicles means a world where parking garages will get converted into public parks or urban food forests or housing. The sustainability-policy gurus over at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute were already talking about this back in 2013: AVs would mean “more efficient travel patterns, fewer vehicles, cleaner cars, and less driving overall,” they wrote, which “would lead to better urban air quality and lower carbon emissions.”

The leap from self-driving cars to the fight against climate change—at least in a lot of the enthusiastic rhetoric out there—is fervent and direct. Self-driving cars are coming, many experts insist, far faster than you think; everyone from GM to Google to Ford to Tesla is working on it right now. There are already at least 20 different AV-related companies operating in Washington state alone. And, many proponents say, little could be more helpful for the planet and our horrible transportation-related emissions metrics.

Yet it isn’t inherently clear why cars—whether or not humans are driving them—get to jump to this special, climate crisis-solving status. Many say that AVs stand to improve traffic simply because, according to federal data, human error causes 94 percent of car accidents and accidents cause at least a quarter of traffic snarls. Because AVs will do a better job than people do of controlling themselves, they will be able to drive closer together, and in narrower lanes, thereby increasing road capacity. But others argue that autonomous vehicles could actually increase traffic if they make commuting by car easier (watch a movie! Work on your emails!) and allow more people to use cars who otherwise might use a bus or a train.

Overall, it stands to reason that there are just two major arguments for why self-driving cars spell a better future for the climate than human-driven cars do: One, if the new vehicles are all electric, and two, if a self-driving car will work as a car-sharing service rather than as a vehicle that we own, and the number of cars on the road truly plummets as a result.

Many think that is exactly what is going to happen. At a recent talk on the subject put on by Forterra, several local transportation and AV experts concurred that getting the cars to go electric is the easy part: Most AVs are going to be EVs, they said, in part because it’s easier to get a computer to drive an electric car than a gas-powered one. Also, the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft are working hard on developing and promoting the new technology, ostensibly with the hope of converting their fleets (in late 2016, Lyft CEO John Zimmer claimed that the majority of Lyft rides would take place in self-driving cars by 2021). That makes economic sense, explained Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, during the talk; the more a single car is driving around, the more it can save on gas. Thus he is “very, very confident” that companies like Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, and ReachNow are headed toward fully-electric conversion.

And as for car-sharing, automakers such as Ford and GM are also already “talking about how their first autonomous vehicles will be fleet sales” to Uber and Lyft and Car2GO, said panelist Tom Alberg, co-founder and managing director of Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle-based investing firm. Madrona Group was among the first to get behind Amazon, and is now advocating for Seattle and Vancouver to get behind a plan that could accelerate the use of AVs along the I-5 corridor, citing all kinds of boons, from reducing congestion to improving safety.

None of this “is to say that in the short term, or medium term, all people will abandon cars or even car ownership,” Alberg added. “I do think you will find increasingly that people will own one car instead two or three.”

Not everyone is sure that all of the pro-AV logic follows. Hallenbeck says he sees no prospects for an improvement in traffic, for instance. With the introduction of AVs, “congestion is gonna be a disaster,” he says. “If anything, it will get worse.” Most of the best-case, traffic-smoothing scenarios involve an imagined future where all cars on the freeway are autonomous. No matter what, that won’t happen for decades. And AVs are “awful in dense, urban areas,” he says, because “the car itself is really space-hoggish.” From a traffic perspective, buses and trains do a better job of making efficient use of urban space (and from a climate perspective, having fewer cars on the road, period, helps reduce emissions, electric car or no). And when it comes to all AVs being shared, it doesn’t seem clear to Hallenbeck that they will be. “They can be,” he says. “They don’t have to be.” He explains that car-sharing is always going to be more appealing in urban areas, especially if parking costs money, and less appealing in suburban ones, whether or not there’s a human behind the wheel. “My gut reaction—and it’s purely gut—is that there’s not going to be nearly as much sharing as the optimists feel.”

Most everyone agrees the technology is basically there (and “nothing is going to stop it,” says Alberg). It just depends on how we use it. According to recent Department of Energy research, AVs could either reduce energy use by up to 90 percent, or increase it by more than 250 percent, depending on factors such as sharing, electrification, and more efficient driving practices. Another study by the Center for American Progress came to similar conclusions: “All that is certain is that uncertainty remains,” the authors write, “as to whether automation of vehicles will help the United States respond to climate change.”

The fundamental problem, Hallenbeck believes, is human behavior. What combination of carrots and sticks gets people to change how they feel about car ownership, or of driving, period? “The human behavior side. Never underestimate that,” Hallenbeck says. “The question is… how do you shape human behavior to get the good things, and limit the impacts of the bad things?”

“If we do it well,” claims Inslee’s Knutson, we can get all the benefits everyone touts. Already, he says, “the Puget Sound area has some of the most successful ride-sharing systems in the world,” and ramping up that system with electric, self-driving cars need not compete against other green transportation. “You need to push for electrification and autonomy and sharing … and make major investments in robust transit so that people have options and choices.” He points both to Inslee’s passage in 2015 of “the largest and greenest transportation package in state history” as well as the light rail expansion planned through ST3. Washington already has some 25,000 electric vehicles on the road; Inslee’s goal is to make that 50,000 by the year 2020, in part by extending a state tax exemption for the purchase of EVs. Last month, Inslee also announced $1 million in state funding to build 15 new electric-vehicle charging stations along I-5, I-90, and a few other busy highways.

“I think there is danger in ascribing one technology as solving the problem around climate change,” said Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of Transportation Choices, at the Forterra talk. “If [AV technology] is shared, and it’s electric, I think, yes, there will be positive benefits.” In other words, self-driving cars likely fall in line with every other climate-fighting tool: “Part of the solution, not the solution.”

More in News & Comment

Puget Sound Prepares For The Big One

Three years after an alarming report made national headlines, locals are quietly preparing disaster.

A woman works on a drawing next to an unused viewing scope as a smoky haze obscures the Space Needle and downtown Seattle last August as smoke from wildfires moved across the region. (Photo courtesy of The Herald/Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
Why Do Washington Voters Struggle With Climate Change Policies?

Despite environmental awareness and the public’s apparent desire for reform, statewide initiatives keep failing

Mary Lynn Pannen, founder and CEO of Sound Options, has consulted thousands of Washington families on geriatric care for 30 years. Photo courtesy of Sound Options
Seattle Takes on Elder Abuse as Reported Cases Rise

Local agencies and geriatric care managers aim to increase public awareness about the epidemic.

The Ride2 transit app will offer on-demand rides to and from West Seattle starting on Dec. 17. Courtesy of King County Metro
Climate Action Coalition Urges City to Respond to Seattle Squeeze

MASS asks the city to prioritize reducing traffic and increasing pedestrian safety ahead of the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s closure.

State Supreme Court Strikes Down I-27; King County Will Pursue Safe Consumption Sites

The decision upholds a court ruling keeping the anti-consumption site initiative off the ballot.

Seattle’s Hockey Team And Stadium Are On Their Way

Key Arena renovations will be completed without the use of public funding

Andrea Bernard, Allycea Weil, and Phoenix Johnson (left to right) are Licton Springs K-8 parents who want their kids to stay in the Native-centered program. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Licton Springs K-8 Parents Dismayed by Potential School Move

The PTO says children have benefited from the Native-centered program, and that transferring the pupils would disrupt their progress.

Seattle Municipal Court’s warrant outreach event on Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Seattle Takes Steps to Quash Warrants

City Attorney attempts to address inequities in criminal justice system and enhance public safety.

The King County Courthouse. File photo
King County Council Acknowledges Report on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

Report also says youth of color face a disproportionate amount of disciplinary measures

Federal Way Megachurch Slapped With Another Sexual Exploitation Lawsuit

Lawsuit calls for removal of Casey and Wendy Treat, and CFO, from church leadership roles.

The Centralia Power Plant is a coal-burning plant owned by TransAlta which supplies 380 megawatts to Puget Sound Energy. It is located in Lewis County and slated to shut down by 2025. Aaron Kunkler/Staff Photo
National Report Outlines Climate Change’s Course For Northwest

More fires, floods and drought appear to be on their way for Washington state.