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Automated, electric driving - a dream team to save the planet?

Will automated e-mobility lead to a clean environment? (Photo: VW)

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Dr Gregory Offer
Dr Gregory Offer
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By making transport cheaper, driverless cars could make emissions and pollution much worse. However, if they are electric they could reduce them significantly - and with new ownership models make electric vehicles far cheaper.

Global emissions from road transport do not show any sign of decreasing, and although the transition towards electrification has clearly begun, it is going to take decades to replace the combustion engine and chemical fuels. At the same time another transport revolution is going to occur: automated vehicles.

Technology revolutions are defined as a change to a system in a way that affects our entire society. They do this by breaking the link between a unit of human effort and a unit of economic activity by a significant amount, as shown below, where k determines the productivity of a given process and for a technology revolution must by definition be large.

Human Effort × k = Economic Activity

Global emissions are steadily increasing. (Photo: Fotolia / Stripped Pixel)

Many previous technology revolutions are identified by this definition, such as the invention of irrigation and the agricultural revolution. Enabling the few to feed the many allowed civilisation to develop. The industrial revolution at the beginning of the 19th century increased production by orders of magnitude. More recently the information revolution has enabled information to be found many times faster than previously. In every case it is worth considering the unintended consequences, and the social changes that were triggered by the revolution. Governments need to consider the consequences of automated vehicles and plan accordingly.

Can electric drives fill the gap?

Analysis from Shell suggests that the International Energy Agency’s “business-as-usual” scenario is impossible to achieve because of the 30 years it takes for new energy technologies to be scaled up. Shell’s alternative scenario pushes alternative technologies as fast as they can go, not to reduce emissions but to fill the gap in energy demand. However, it results in energy-related emissions pushing greenhouse gas concentrations to around 600 ppm and a temperature rise of more than 3oC – and the global energy market would still be a third smaller than business-as-usual demand.

Experts demand transport to be electrified. (Photo: Daan Roosegaarde (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Still, it is difficult to imagine that it is politically possible to disappoint the aspirations of millions by adopting policies that may slow economic growth even further. And without electrification of transport, emissions will be even worse, always assuming that the electric energy will be produced in a more environmentally friendly way. Yet most major studies agree that the economics of electric vehicles won’t equal those of combustion engines for the mass market until 2035. This is too long; we don’t have this much time to wait for electric vehicles to come.

The wild card: driverless cars

Fortunately, in all these reports, there is a wild card: Automated vehicles. Those have not been considered until very recently: in my 2015 article I studied the effect of automated vehicles on the economics of electric vehicles. I assumed that automated vehicles combined with car clubs and new business models would increase vehicle utilisation.  This would decrease the capital cost per mile and make the lower running cost of the electric vehicles add up faster. If average vehicle mileage increased by 5 times this could bring forward the tipping point when electric vehicles become cheaper by ten years, potentially as early as 2025.

Automated vehicles promise many other benefits too, improved safety, increasing the numbers of cars we can fit on our roads, decreasing congestion, and significantly reducing the biggest cost of driving, our time. This could significantly increase the amount of driving, and is called the rebound effect. Therefore, automated vehicle could if used incorrectly and powered by combustion engines make emissions and pollution much worse. The same would be true of electric vehicles if the electricity is generated from burning coal or gas.

Electric vehicles: still a question of costs. (Photo: BMW)

Therefore, automated vehicles could speed up the electric vehicle revolution, and provide billions of people in developing countries with access to mobility without making global warming worse. In return the cheaper running costs of electric vehicles would help speed up the automated vehicle revolution. It is therefore essential that the two transport revolutions, automation and electrification are planned for together by Governments around the world. Governments should also consider very carefully that perhaps combustion engine powered automated vehicles should be banned, and that they must be electric in order to achieve the benefits of both revolutions at the same time and as quickly as possible.

In summary:

  • Automated vehicles will make transport cheaper through car-sharing initiatives and thus traffic will increase.
  • Therefore, emissions would increase, unless the automated vehicles are electric vehicles - which create less emissions.
  • Currently, electric vehicles won't become profitable until 2035.
  • Automated vehicles, by increasing vehicle usage, will reduce capital cost per mile and therefore make electric vehicles viable much faster.
  • Through this combination of the two technical revolutions, more transportation at lower emissions will be possible.

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Dr Gregory Offer
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