Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)

We’ve been fantasizing about self-driving cars for decades; the luxury of napping, watching TV, or reading while a robot car takes us to our destination. The first truly autonomous car debuted in the 1980s from Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab project, and in the last four decades transportation has rapidly evolved into chauffeur-esque services like Uber and Lyft. But what are the real implications of this impending driverless future? New data from Uber and Lyft might give us a window to our unregulated driverless future: increased congestion and emissions.

Automated vehicles are an oft-overlooked issue in climate policy, even though transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and traffic congestion is at an all-time high in many cities. A future where cars drive themselves will ideally cut down our time spent unproductively sitting in traffic, reduce air pollution, and make transportation more accessible for underserved groups. But without regulation, widespread use of automated vehicles could make all of these things worse.

We’re already observing these trends in new forms of mobility like Uber and Lyft. New studies show that ride-hailing companies are the biggest contributors to congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. Uber and Lyft released a joint report last month showing that their services have contributed to a significant increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the main urban cities they operate of up to 13 percent since they started service. The ultimate business plans of companies like Lyft and Uber are to operate driverless ride-hailing fleets, which will cut down the cost-per-mile for both the company and the passenger. In a future where driverless vehicles are priced lower than any other option, they are likely to continue increasing VMT, moving us further from the emission reduction goals we need to meet to avoid catastrophic climate disaster; without incentives or regulation, these vehicles will likely be gasoline-powered, single or zero occupancy, and encourage more travel.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Smart policy solutions will help reduce congestion and improve transportation access and equity. Federal policymakers must be proactive to ensure rapidly changing transportation technology will benefit society as a whole. Decades of damage might result if the government takes a reactive approach to technologies like automated vehicles. And the government better hurry because technology is rapidly progressing. Large companies like Waymo are testing driverless vehicles on the road right now in six states. Tesla is advertising self-driving technologies. New research shows that semi-automated technology like Tesla’s autopilot is already increasing travel. Immediate intervention is necessary to ensure this technology benefits the public.

In a worst-case scenario, researchers and transportation experts fear a future where self-driving cars are mostly privately owned, powered by gasoline, and priced for only upper-income populations. Automated vehicle owners might move further out of the urban core, worsening gentrification and urban sprawl. They would likely send empty cars home to park rather than paying to park at their destination, resulting in increased traffic congestion and pollution. Middle and low-income populations might become further disadvantaged in accessibility to transportation if private driverless cars are unaffordable. This is an extreme scenario, but experts believe it is possible if policies and regulations are not implemented before driverless cars are on the market.

Unfortunately, waiting to react is exactly the official policy that the Trump Administration has outlined in U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) a document called Automated Vehicles 3.0 (AV 3.0). The DOT agency tasked with vehicle safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), released a policy document titled AV 2.0 in 2016 outlining preliminary guidelines for autonomous vehicle manufacturers under the Obama Administration. In September 2017, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao released AV 3.0, which removed many of the restrictions for testing that AV 2.0 implemented. This follows the Trump administration protocol of undoing everything the Obama administration started. Fittingly NHTSA is also leading the effort to undo fuel efficiency standards implemented under the Obama administration, despite pushback from automakers and the general public.

Fatal accidents involving self-driving cars have drawn attention to safety concerns, prompting action from some state and local lawmakers. However, without overlying federal policy, this patchwork approach makes it difficult for automakers and software companies to deploy technology and hard for users to understand what is available to them. It also makes it difficult for cities to plan supporting policies and infrastructure projects like smart intersections and geofenced lanes.

With a lack of leadership from the administration, Congress must put together policy guidelines for our driverless car future to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector and improve access to transportation from traditionally underserved groups.

The next 5 years will be crucial to avoid the worst outcome. Policy solutions like the principles California has released should be implemented to meet these goals at the federal level, without hindering innovation. For example, regulations should be put in place to require all driverless vehicles be zero-emission, which will save taxpayers and transportation companies in the long-run. California passed legislation requiring an emissions standard and reduction plan for ride-sharing vehicles. A recently published study from UC Davis found that zero-emission Uber and Lyft vehicles provide roughly three times more emissions-savings benefits than personal vehicles. Similar regulations on self-driving vehicles using this legislative framework should be implemented nationally to encourage manufacturers to innovate in ways that would improve energy efficiency and reduce battery costs. Policies incentivizing autonomous vehicles to include technology to communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure will improve traffic flow and safety.

If proactive policies like this are enacted, it allows cities and states to invest in the infrastructure required. For example, driverless cars should be equipped with smart-charging technology to take advantage of times of day the grid is producing the cleanest electricity, benefiting utilities while minimizing emissions. Technology including vehicle to grid, vehicle to vehicle, and vehicle to infrastructure equipment are in development. With policies to accelerate their deployment, jobs in these industries will flourish.

Driverless cars should be shared and utilized to compliment public transportation to reduce congestion and vehicle miles. Encouraging shared and pooled use of automated vehicles, and minimizing zero-passenger miles (known as dead-heading) can be accomplished with incentive policies like price signaling (charging riders and companies more for single and zero passenger rides, and providing discounts to riders who opt to share). To ensure that automated vehicles can be used by underserved groups, services should be deployed and incentivized in areas that are underserved by transit and other non-vehicle infrastructure. These services should complement transit in these areas using incentives to encourage service to transit hubs, and requiring integrated payment options (one app to buy the whole trip) for customers. With proper planning, these types of policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase access to goods and services, improve transportation equity, and save taxpayer dollars.

Automated vehicles are on pace to be part of our lives in the next few decades, depending on the policies that are implemented today. Structured policies will prevent the worst potential outcomes of technology that will impact the entire transportation system. The U.S.can position itself as a leader in this space with a thoughtful approach that encourages innovation and improves society. 2020 presidential candidates, in particular, should take note: We must act immediately, or it will be too late.

Kelly L. Fleming is a policy analyst at UC Davis in the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, and a 2019 alumni of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellowship Program. Prior, she served as a science policy fellow at the US Department of Energy, and on the leadership board of 500 Women Scientists. She has a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Washington and a BS in chemical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.

Share This Story