Ernst von Weizsäcker: “Driverless cars could increase emissions”
Where is automated driving headed? In the last part of our interview video series, Club of Rome Co-President Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker explains why self-driving cars will make our roads much safer – and why he still wouldn’t ride one himself.
Let’s look at the big picture! At a recent developer conference of technology company Continental in Copenhagen, 2025AD had the chance to talk to several renowned experts from various fields. We asked them what impact automated driving will have on our society, how public trust in driverless cars can be created and whether humans will still drive cars in 2050. In the first part, bestselling author Martin Ford explained why he thinks humans will continue to drive in the future. In the second part, Peter Cochrane, technology consultant and former CTO of British Telecom, explained why sensors represent the biggest challenge for driverless cars. In the third part, artificial intelligence Oxford expert Michael Osborne explained why we need to prevent driverless cars from becoming black boxes. In the final part, we interview Club of Rome Co-President and environmental expert Prof. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker.
2025AD: What can be done in order to make traffic more climate-friendly?
Weizsäcker: I suggest that the climate damaging gases have to become more expensive in a socially acceptable, slow pace but so that engineers in the car companies and suppliers know that eventually – in 25 years or so – climate-damaging mobility will be more or less phased out. If we are really talking only about climate, then my answer is yes, essentially carbon dioxide could be taxed but in small steps increasing so that the efficiency of cars or the transition to electric cars can keep pace, so that the driving itself doesn’t get more expensive. I suggest that the emission of carbon dioxide and perhaps other climate-damaging gases should become more expensive year by year by year in small steps so that the kilometer driven does not become more expensive because efficiency increases and the transition to electric cars can keep pace.
2025AD: What is your opinion on automated vehicles?
Weizsäcker: For society and the prevention of accidents I believe this is a positive, good development. For climate, the effects would be rather negative, because people who today opt for public transport, including railways, would switch to the car because they can work in the car. Then, congestion would increase, driving would increase and therefore carbon dioxide emissions.
2025AD: What does it take to create public trust in driverless cars?
Weizsäcker: Well, if the credibility and trust of people has increased in past decades by looking at crash tests of cars, then you can do the analogous thing for automated driving. And then showing statistically that the automated driving would have less accidents than that of normal drivers: in particular with youth between 18 and 26 years, which happens to be the age, particularly for males, where they are crazy and are dangerous drivers.
2025AD: What has to be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Weizsäcker: Of course, there are two quite different segments to be considered in this question. One is the car: what can be done to make cars climate-friendly and the other is the infrastructure: like the availability of public transport. Typically, the car industry is only interested in the first one. And there, I would say electric cars or fuel-cell-cars with hydrogen gas fuels, are the best answer. Also, lighter cars. Huge electric batteries are a nightmare for the car industry. The other is, indeed, a better modal split so that where mass transport or public transport is feasible, we should promote it. One idea came from Sweden: to allow parking in the inner city only to cars that show a time extended ticket for using public transport. Otherwise you don’t have a parking space in the inner city. And if you have that monthly card already, then you can use your public transport for free. That is just one type of incentive structure one can develop to make cities more climate-friendly, like Copenhagen. I believe that as a sport or as a farm vehicle – where you don’t have roads with all kinds of signals – we will still have driver-driven cars. But in the mass flow on the road, I believe that automated or autonomous cars will be the majority.
2025AD: How will you spend your time during the ride once cars are self-driving?
Weizsäcker: Well in my case, we are close enough to the railway station that we can walk there – my children ride their bikes. I would try to avoid using my car as much as possible. And when I’m using it, I have a certain joy of driving and steering and have hardly had any accidents in my life. So I would probably avoid the additional cost of autonomous driving.