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.”