How Automated Vehicles May Harm the Environment

April 5, 2022

Automated vehicles have been a hot topic in the automotive industry for the last several years. Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, are already on the road and are becoming increasingly automated. In some areas, they no longer even require a driver behind the wheel at all! In 2022, the technology will take even further leaps forward with major automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Honda releasing Level 3 autonomous vehicles that allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel. There are a lot of advantages to autonomous vehicles, but not everything about them is beneficial. In fact, there are some drawbacks that we must be aware of, particularly regarding the environment. This article will discuss how these vehicles work and how they may harm the environment. 

How Do Autonomous Vehicles Work? 

AVs use sensors to visualize the world around them. They can create maps of their surroundings and detect blockages in the road, nearby vehicles, lane markings, pedestrians, and traffic lights. The software compiles all of this information and creates a path for the car by sending instructions to the actuators that control the car’s movement. These actuators are in charge of the car’s acceleration, braking, and steering. Meanwhile, algorithms help the car avoid obstacles, obey traffic laws, and drive safely but efficiently. 

The Future of Autonomous Driving

Autonomous driving may change the way that we design cities. We could replace parking lots with more businesses, creating more jobs and growing the economy. Chandler, Arizona has already begun phasing out parking lots since they began implementing autonomous vehicles in 2016. Their goal is to do something more aesthetically pleasing with their parking lots. Many cities hope to see more growth as autonomous vehicles become more popular over the next thirty years. 

How Might AVs Hurt The Environment?

Although the future looks bright for autonomous vehicles, there are environmental concerns to consider. This section will break those concerns down. 

More Carbon Emissions

Research shows that automated vehicles may cause drivers to use their cars more than they currently do. Although one goal of AVs is to decrease congestion, it may actually lead to more congestion, consume more energy, and increase pollution. When people don’t have to deal with the stress of driving and can instead ride as a passenger, they may be willing to spend more time in the car or deal with more traffic. They may even move further away from their workplaces. 

Furthermore, it would enable cars to go on “zero-occupancy” trips. These are errands where the vehicle doesn’t have any passengers at all. An example would be if a driver doesn’t want to pay for downtown parking, they can simply send their vehicle back home and have it pick them up later. This means twice the driving and twice the emissions. 

Transportation is already the most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and one of the most critical strategies is reducing the number of people traveling on the road. Therefore, this issue would be a significant one. 

People Travel Farther

Even people who have partially automated vehicles already drive further than they usually would if they fully operated their vehicles. For example, a 2019 survey of 940 drivers found that 21%-35% made more long-distance trips because of their cars’ partially automated driving systems. These trips included weekend and vacation trips. When another study was conducted in 2019-2020, fully automated vehicles increased households’ travel by 60%. 

How Can We Limit Environmental Impact? 

The environment is a critical issue that we cannot ignore if automated vehicles are going to move forward. People must be aware of these issues, and policies must be put in place to combat them, so they do not further the current issues that we have with pollution. There are two ways that we can accomplish this. 

First, we can require that manufacturers of automated vehicles use zero-emission technology. California is already doing this, but it will not be significantly effective until the United States develops a 100% carbon-free electricity system. Until then, electric cars will continue to produce emissions through power generation. Even with such a policy in place, cars will still create water and air pollution from brake and tire wear. That is why lawmakers should combine this policy with another that prevents a steep increase in driving. We must enact policies that enforce the notion that driving isn’t free. Putting a price on car travel–especially zero-occupancy trips–could go a long way towards decreasing the carbon emissions that autonomous cars produce. 

Learn More About Automated Vehicles

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