Why Every City Car Should Be Electric (and Self-Driving)

By increasing access to zero-emission vehicles, Cruise is committed to increasing the proportion of green miles traveled.

Tracy Cheung
Oct 10 · 6 min read

In the week following Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, my Facebook feed was filled with enthusiastic posts from friends and acquaintances urging each of us to act. To do something for the environment.

One Facebook user went so far as to ask people to stop driving altogether if they love their children. Not entirely feasible for most, but the Facebook post’s underlying theme was that we each have choices to make when it comes to reducing the impact of our actions on the environment. We all have a part to play, and at Cruise, we agree.

The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world — and the single largest contributor in the United States. In California alone, transportation accounts for over 40% of total emissions, 70% of which come from light-duty passenger vehicles.

These emissions pollute our air and make our earth hotter. In fact, we now know that air pollution is the world’s top killer, causing 8.8 million premature deaths every year.

At Cruise, we care deeply about the communities we serve, and we value making the right decisions that will positively impact our environment. As such, we deliberately chose to make our entire fleet of self-driving cars all-electric. Ensuring self-driving cars are electric vehicles is a critical, fundamental decision for the future of human transportation. The autonomous vehicle industry should tackle it now as the technology is developing.

We believe that building a paradigm-shifting technology that is both self-driving and all-electric will usher in a new era of mobility that makes both our roads and the air safer for ourselves and our children.

While our mission is to build the world’s most advanced self-driving vehicles to safely connect people with the places, things, and experiences they care about, we also want to make our cities, air, and environment cleaner. One way to achieve this is by increasing access to zero-emission vehicles, which only 1.15% of Americans purchased in 2017. By making our all-electric vehicles available to everyone regardless of affordability, we can increase the proportion of green miles traveled.

We define green miles as any mile traveled without tailpipe emissions, specifically GHG emissions that contribute to global warming. By making a deliberate choice for our fleet to be all-electric, we believe our impact can be profound.

Why urban self-driving cars should be all-electric

Here are a few reasons why we feel that making our self-driving car fleet all-electric is the best choice for our communities.

Fuel efficiency

Self-driving cars require more energy to operate than a human-operated vehicle. A study by Ford and the University of Michigan found that autonomous vehicle systems could increase GHG emissions by 3–20% if deployed on traditional gasoline vehicles due to two reasons:

  1. Self-driving technology has a large physical footprint on cars. The added weight of sensing, communications, and computing equipment, along with the aerodynamic drag from placement of equipment on the vehicle exterior, all have the combined impact of reducing fuel efficiency.
  2. Like any other digital equipment, self-driving systems require significant amounts of power. In a traditional gasoline vehicle, the engine would generate the energy to power the self-driving systems by combusting gasoline, thereby diverting energy from vehicle propulsion and reducing mileage. This would result in self-driving cars being less fuel efficient than the average gas-powered passenger vehicle.

In contrast, Cruise’s all-electric, self-driving car can minimize the additional GHG emissions from added energy consumption by using cleaner energy sources than gasoline.

By choosing to make self-driving cars all-electric, we can mitigate the impacts of increased energy consumption by relying on low/zero-carbon fuels like wind, solar, and hydro to ensure that GHG emissions don’t increase. This will be especially important as the autonomous vehicle industry develops and self-driving cars start to be deployed in much greater numbers.

Urban use case

In many cases, self-driving cars are being tested in urban environments where all-electric vehicles are ideally suited:

  1. Stop-and-go traffic and congestion lead to worse gas mileage and higher emissions. The opposite is true for electric vehicles. Driving stop and go in the city is more efficient in an electric car due to regenerative braking.
  2. Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts and will require less maintenance.

Without an internal combustion engine, electric vehicles have fewer moving parts, less wear on brakes, fewer fluids, and simpler motors. In fact, a report by UBS found that the all-electric Chevy Bolt has only 24 moving parts in its powertrain compared to the 149 parts in a VW Golf with an internal combustion engine.

As the only self-driving car company with an all-electric fleet, Cruise can offer access to cars with fewer moving parts that require less maintenance, resulting in vehicles with longer asset lives, less time in the shop, and greater driving availability. More time on the roads means increased access to Cruise’s green miles.

With our plans to launch in San Francisco, we at Cruise are laser-focused on increasing access to green miles so that we can start to tackle air quality and reduce the 365 cigarettes a year per person that our SF community breathes in.

Electric, self-driving cars can help clean air initiatives

As we’ve described, there are many benefits for self-driving cars to be electric, but unfortunately the status quo is not for all self-driving cars to be electric vehicles. This may be because the choice to make a self-driving car fleet all-electric brings a unique set of challenges.

We believe the status quo of urban automotive mobility needs to change. Transportation network companies (now known as ride-hail companies) now account for between 1–13% of vehicle miles traveled in six major metropolitan regions, and this percentage is expected to grow.

Preliminary calculations estimate that in California, only 0.7% of vehicle miles traveled in ride-hail companies in 2017 were green miles. If these trends continue, the status quo is untenable.

The percentage of GHG emissions from transportation would increase, not decrease. Clearly something needs to change.

Imagine if, instead of only 0.7% of vehicle miles traveled in ride-hail vehicles being green, 100% of those miles are green. Research has shown that autonomous, all-electric vehicles could cut GHG emissions by as much as 73% by 2030.

In addition, another study by Dr. Alan Jenn at UC Davis found that fully-electric ride-hail vehicles save roughly 85 pounds of CO2 emissions per day, compared to the emissions of their gasoline-powered counterparts.

That is the future that we at Cruise envision, and that is why we have chosen to make our entire fleet of self-driving cars all-electric. As Greta Thunberg declared, we “can’t pretend that [climate change] can be solved with just ‘business as usual’”. At Cruise, nothing we do is business as usual.

¹ In the “core county” for each of the six regions. Study available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FIUskVkj9lsAnWJQ6kLhAhNoVLjfFdx3/view

² Study compared electric ride-hail vehicles to gasoline-powered vehicles averaging 35 mpg.

Cruise

We’re building the world’s most advanced self-driving vehicles to safely connect people with the places, things and experiences they care about. Help us solve the engineering challenge of a generation: https://getcruise.com/careers

Tracy Cheung

Written by

Cruise

Cruise

We’re building the world’s most advanced self-driving vehicles to safely connect people with the places, things and experiences they care about. Help us solve the engineering challenge of a generation: https://getcruise.com/careers

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