Will Troppe | RMI Outlet

A Google driverless car navigates along a street in Mountain View, Calif. The way we get around could be significantly different in coming decades, and the environmental impacts of this new transportation economy will ultimately depend on several different factors.
A Google driverless car navigates along a street in Mountain View, Calif. The way we get around could be significantly different in coming decades, and the environmental impacts of this new transportation economy will ultimately depend on several different factors.

Driverless cars are almost certainly a part of our transportation future as companies like Google experiment with autonomous driving. Depending on how you look at it, impact of driverless cars on our energy use could either be incredibly good or incredibly bad, or somewhere in between.

Autonomous vehicles have captured people’s imaginations for decades. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, GM’s pivotal Futurama exhibit presented its vision for 1960s autonomous highway infrastructure to 30,000 visitors a day. Two decades later, during the construction of the interstate highway system (largely based on Futurama, sans vehicle autonomy), the Central Power and Light Company, an electric utility, employed the autonomous highway dream in a newspaper advertisement to demonstrate the vital role power companies could play in our driving future.

Now autonomous vehicles are no longer a utopian dream, capturing the attention of many, including some of my colleagues at RMI. Google recently made headlines by announcing it has started to manufacture its own autonomous car prototypes that lack steering wheels. Almost every major automaker is investing significant R&D capital in vehicle autonomy, including Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. It’d be a shorter list to note which companies aren’t working on autonomous vehicle technology.

Although fully autonomous cars aren’t yet commercially available, vehicles with autonomous features are already on the market. Self-parking features have been available since 2007. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class can drive itself on the highway—as long as the driver’s hands remain on the steering wheel, the car maintains its lane and accelerates and decelerates according to speed limits and the locations of surrounding vehicles. A San Francisco start-up, Cruise, manufactures a kit that allows Audi A4 and S4 owners to drive autonomously on the highway. These semi-autonomous cars will likely be the first stepping stones to fully automated driving. Nissan and Google both expect to market fully autonomous cars early next decade, and they’re not alone. Read more