Are autonomous “driverless” vehicles truly the “next big thing” to transform our transportation system?  If so, how soon, and what are the consequences for both safety and environmental values?  How should investors with environmental screens think about autonomous vehicles and climate change solutions? 

Federal policies to advance autonomous vehicle use should go hand-in-hand with policies to accelerate zero and low emissions vehicles and implement the Phase 2 CAFÉ standards that require much higher vehicle fuel efficiency. 

Federal oversight agencies are initially focusing on autonomous vehicle safety, but they can do more than one thing at a time. Consistent with the Obama Administration’s overall climate change policy solutions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should assess ways in which autonomous vehicle use can reduce greenhouse gas pollution. This should be a “both-and”: the technological advances that are spurring development of autonomous vehicles can create opportunities to both reduce fatalities on roadways and reduce pollution that harms our health and environment. 

If federal policies are crafted with a broader view to address climate change solutions, driverless cars can significantly help the United States to reach the greenhouse gas pollution reduction goals set at the United Nations COP21 meeting in Paris where our nation pledged to achieve a 28 percent domestic reduction in greenhouse gas pollution by 2025. The new vehicle technologies developed and deployed here can also be transferred and exported to advance global climate change solutions. As a matter of climate change science, it doesn’t matter for the atmosphere whether carbon pollution comes from Indiana, India or Indonesia.

Transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas pollution. Promoting the development of driverless cars that include an emphasis on vehicles with zero or low carbon emissions is an important climate change solution.

Autonomous vehicle technologies can be deployed in ways that increase fuel efficiency thereby reducing pollution by:

  • Optimizing driving efficiency – for example, through smooth acceleration – which has been shown to cut emissions as much as 60 percent. Autonomous vehicles can be programmed to reduce “heavy-footed” driving.
  • “Platooning” – where a group of vehicles follows each other very closely on a highway – can increase fuel efficiency by 5-20 percent. This vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology can precede the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles. 
  • Alleviating congestion, especially in city centers, to enable freer-flowing traffic and less start-and-stop driving that burns more fuel and creates more pollution. 
  • Reducing vehicle weight.  If driverless cars prove as safe as developers claim, then smaller, lighter, more efficient vehicles become more possible. 

This is not, however, a one-way street. Adding more gas-powered driverless vehicles on the highways also presents the risk of reversing decades of progress in policy work to reduce vehicle miles travelled (VMT) and pollution. The ease of not-driving while reading a book, chatting with friends and family, or snoozing in a driverless car can facilitate longer commutes, more vehicles and more congestion on the highways, more exurban sprawl, and more VMTs.  Unless there are accompanying fuel efficiency improvements through better vehicle technologies that substantially reduce pollution, there is a risk of moving backward (or at least not moving as far forward) in achieving greenhouse gas pollution reduction goals. 

Simply put, policies to advance autonomous vehicle use should work together with federal policies to accelerate zero and low emissions vehicles and to ensure progress implementing the Phase 2 CAFÉ standards for higher vehicle fuel efficiency in order to reduce pollution. 

These opportunities and challenges are ripe for discussion. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced in January that the NHTSA intends to work with automakers and state governments to remove barriers by developing prototype laws and regulations. While the initial U.S. DOT and NHTSA discussions are focused on setting safety standards, the agencies should also engage the U.S. EPA at the table and infuse climate change considerations into the discussions and resulting guidelines over the next six months. 

EPA’s recent draft Technical Assessment Report on the CAFÉ standards begins to address greenhouse gas pollution impacts of autonomous vehicles:  “EPA, NHTSA, and CARB are beginning to explore research on the potential emissions and fuel economy impacts of emerging transformational technologies and transportation trends.” 

That’s a step in the right direction for devising the best policy roadmap for incorporating autonomous vehicles into our national transportation system in a way that improves both safety and environmental quality for us all.

Howard A. Learner is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a leading public interest environmental progress and economic development advocacy organization based in Chicago.