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Can Autonomous Vehicles Help Tackle Climate Change?

Courtesy of the New York Times.

This post is part of a Climate Now podcast series on the intersection of transportation and energy. I encourage you to listen to the full episodes yourself, as well as Climate Now’s other content. It’s chock full of science and data and nitty gritty stuff that often gets glossed over.

If you’ve been paying any attention to Tesla, you’ve probably witnessed the controversy around full autonomy and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Without wading into that debate, we’ll scope this discussion by stating that Cruise is focused on operating a fully electric and autonomous ridesharing and delivery fleet.

This challenge is important because studies show that ridehailing platforms like Uber and Lyft cause more carbon emissions than privately owned vehicles. As a result, electrifying a ridehailing vehicle can reduce 3x as much emissions as electrifying a privately-owned vehicle. However, to be truly better than privately-owned vehicles, ridehailing companies must hit aggressive targets on pooling and utilization to reduce deadhead miles.

An autonomous fleet, by its centrally-controlled nature, has additional levers to reduce emissions. For example, they can be programmed to avoid routes with frequent elevation changes and charge when electricity costs and carbon emissions are lowest.

Dave also pointed out that Cruise can democratize electric transportation for those who can’t otherwise afford a personal EV or lack the space to charge. This is actually a surprisingly prevalent challenge, as 40% of Americans don’t have access to home charging.

Additionally, Cruise has the potential to pull forward the deployment of charging infrastructure. Because its fleet can charge at times when most consumers wouldn’t (i.e. in the dead of night), it can boost the utilization and economics of public charging sites.

Finally, Dave mentioned that Cruise currently powers its fleet with renewable energy by buying and retiring renewable energy credits (RECs). While this is not the same as consuming renewable electricity 24/7, this mechanism helps incentivize the deployment of new solar and wind capacity.



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