Autonomous cars – the road to the future? [2/2]

Photography by Josh Rawlinson -

The sci-fi dream of being driven everywhere by a robot seems now closer than ever. Whilst it won’t exactly be Johnny Cab, Arnie nearly getting run down by an autonomous vehicle is very much becoming a thing of the present. The first death by driverless car already happened in 2016, and you can watch a host of YouTube videos of Tesla drivers having to grapple with the wheel before their car swerves in the wrong direction. However, following Sophie’s ethics-orientated article last week, I’ll focus more on what autonomous cars offer for our climate.

With both France and the UK aiming to halt production of petrol and diesel engines within a certain time frame, it seems highly likely that autonomous cars will almost exclusively be hybrid or electric when they become accessible. This would hopefully allow for a huge improvement to carbon emissions – especially considering electric motors are more efficient to actually create, requiring fewer parts. Even if driverless cars were petrol-based, they would still lend an significant hand to reducing emissions.

This is the case because traffic is created by humans: our limited reaction times is what causes queues and slowing (there’s a fantastic video easily explaining this below). With more driverless cars, we get less traffic, and less traffic means less sitting around with the engine running.

To offer a little more proof, Fagnant and Kockelman at the University of Texas used some complicated mathematical modelling to show that a fleet of shared driverless cars would result in less cars on the road. This comes at the expensive of slightly longer (11%) travel time. The biggest advantage and net effect in their model was the big drop in emissions it would create.

Will it be enough though? Making driverless, electric cars commonplace would be more effiecient. Though batteries, like everything, have a lifespan. They will need producing, throwing away, and recycling even if they are for cars. Plus, given the planet’s current energy situation, the electricity will probably be sourced largely from fossil fuels regardless. Thermodynamics (a branch of physical chemistry) dictates in its second law that entropy always increases. In layman’s terms, nothing is truly efficient and every action in the universe leads to an increase in disorder. Even the most perfect, autonomous, electric cars using batteries charged with wind turbines will still eventually rust.

Regardless of this, we’ll always need to go from one place to another, spatially and temporally. We may as well make it the best ride it can be.


Mentioned today in Headcandy:


The First Driverless Car Death

How Traffic is Formed


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