If you follow this blog, you’re definitely aware that the main benefit of self-driving cars is their unwavering vigilance. Someday soon, autonomous vehicle developers hope, you’ll be able to hop in your car, tell it where to go, and turn your attention elsewhere. So will end the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths that occur each year because humans get behind the wheel when they’re drunk or sleepy, decide to text and drive, or otherwise lose focus.
But a Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) article highlights another important way that robocars will benefit us that we’ve previously mentioned. The environmental impact of driving, says RMI, will be radically altered. Once we reach a critical mass of self-driving cars on the world’s roads, these vehicles will be able to move through highway networks like schools of fish, communicating with each other so they can travel together at close distances without concern for collisions or even traffic jams.
But that’s just the start, says RMI. Make those cars lightweight (because they no longer have to be armored with structural elements meant to protect occupants in the event of a collision) and outfit them with electric powertrains, and you can “reduce vehicle CO2 emissions by up to 95 percent, even when considering the CO2 emitted from the electricity generation,”RMI predicts.
According to the article’s vision of the future, “The city looks and feels different than it used to. Many parking lots and parking spaces are gone, replaced by parks, small businesses, and additional housing…Your car drops you off at work and then engages with the electrical grid to charge and offer services like load balancing, frequency regulation, and energy storage.”
These things, taken together, will change how our driving habits affect our overall energy usage. The Rocky Mountain Institute says its studies indicate that today’s gasoline-fueled vehicles could more than double their fuel economy if they operated within autonomous-vehicle-only zones, because starting, stopping, and idling would be minimized, and gone would be the days of cruising around to find a parking space. And at highway speeds, where most of the energy in fuel is used to overcome drag, platoons of cars spaced closely together would dramatically reduce drag.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.