Why Self-Driving Car Makers Need to Think Clean Now — Even With a Trump EPA

Autonomous vehicle developers can avoid costly re-engineering of technology and markets in ten years by designing now technology and shaping consumer expectations for a low-emissions pathway.

President Trump recently announced his first steps to loosen national clean vehicle standards.

Here’s why autonomous vehicle developers still have reason to start paying serious attention to clean vehicle standards — and why they should be asking right now how to shape technology and consumer choices to lower emissions in the autonomous driving world.

Last year, the U.S. transportation sector surpassed the power sector in greenhouse gas emissions for the first time. Can self-driving cars deliver us a downward trend in greenhouse gases and conventional pollutants?

The jury is out, but autonomous vehicle companies may have good reason to shape a low-emission autonomous vehicle market (or at least a low-emissions-ready market) to lower the costs of anticipated post-2025 vehicle standards.

Thinking emissions now rather than later

Post-2025 U.S. pollution and fuel economy standards for vehicles will include measures to limit emissions from an emerging autonomous vehicle market. EPA is already thinking about autonomous vehicles.

The financial and reputational fallout of Volkswagen’s efforts to cheat EPA emissions standards — and the criminal charges its executives face — signal to autonomous vehicle developers the significant investment involved in meeting air quality, fuel economy, and climate vehicle standards.

Even if Trump hits the brakes on EPA standard setting, autonomous vehicle developers can count on standards that will demand reductions over the next ten to fifteen years — just as driverless vehicles gain a foothold in the American fleet — for two reasons.

First, history says that while administrations may slow the pace of stricter standards, clean vehicle standards will continue to demand cleaner vehicles over time. In addition, the public shows strong bipartisan support for stronger fuel economy standards. (Greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards are set jointly by EPA and DOT.)

Transportation’s growing share of greenhouse gas emissions will only increase pressure on the U.S. fleet’s emission performance. The Trump administration may slow down vehicle regulations by a few years, but autonomous vehicles have a near future that will demand lower emissions.

Second, California will keep the pressure turned up on automakers and set the stage for post-Trump standards. California’s role as a state leader and laboratory under the Clean Air Act means the state’s approach to autonomous vehicles will likely serve as a model for the next round of EPA standards.

The good news is that autonomous vehicles — along with ride-sharing — represent the first technology-driven and market-driven shift that holds promise for reducing emissions in a climate-critical and air quality-critical sector since environmental standards became law in the 1960s and 1970s.

Autonomous vehicle developers can anticipate today the compliance costs of current and future air pollution and climate standards, avoiding the costly re-engineering of technology that automakers have historically faced.

Henry Ford didn’t know to set the stage for 20th century vehicles with clean air, climate change, and energy security in mind. Today’s autonomous vehicle developers do.

Driverless innovations provide a wide range of opportunities to lower emissions. Some of those innovations can be win-win for profits and lower emissions, if companies do it right and start now.

How autonomous vehicles will drive emissions

Start a discussion about autonomous vehicles and emission, and the conversation will quickly turn to electric vehicles and ride-sharing. Lyft is talking about a “shared electric autonomous” future with its GM partnership.

Waymo signaled its expectations for EVs in the future market with its electric self-driving vehicle prototype. EVs and ride-sharing are key pathways to lower emissions, and autonomous vehicles may make both more economical. But the excitement around the EV-RS-AV nexus sometimes loses the tree for the forest.

Self-driving technology itself offers a range of opportunities to lower emissions, whether or not we see the rapid fruition of EVs and ride-sharing. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates a potential forty percent reduction in energy consumption — or an increase as much as three times today’s levels.

Emissions from autonomous vehicles will be driven by technology, their driving behavior (e.g., acceleration rates or safe following distance), and consumer choices (e.g., owning versus ride-sharing or willingness to spend time on the road).

Unfortunately, the biggest social and consumer benefits of autonomous vehicles are also the mostly likely to increase emissions.

In one of the most comprehensive of early-days impact assessments, Zia Wadud of University of Leeds and his colleagues estimate marked (and wide ranging) increases in passenger vehicle energy consumption due to lower cost of travel, higher highway speeds, new user groups such as elderly people and people with disabilities, and in-vehicle features (e.g., tv screens):

How autonomous vehicle technology and use can impact emissions from passenger vehicles
Energy impact can be used as a proxy for air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions impacts from vehicles. Zia Wadud and colleagues estimated 2050 energy impact ranges of autonomous vehicle technologies and use that drive vehicle miles traveled and energy efficiency (compared to a 2050 baseline without autonomous vehicles). The study does not include autonomous heavy-duty vehicles and assumes nearly full penetration of autonomous passenger vehicles by 2050. (Figure reprinted from Wadud, MacKenzie & Leiby 2016 Transportation Research Part A (open-access license) . Color-coded mechanisms of change added by this author.)

Those increases may be inevitable, but autonomous developers have levers they can pull to reduce emissions. Wadud’s study estimates that vehicle right-sizing could reduce energy consumption by up to forty-five percent.

Platooning — vehicles safely driving closely together at high speeds with the aid of computing and sensors — could give us a ten percent reduction in energy consumption in passenger vehicles alone, though critics caveat that more room on the road typically leads to more cars on the road and fewer emissions benefits. Eco-driving and de-emphasized performance each may offer more than twenty percent in emissions reductions.

The challenge is for companies to figure out the combinations of autonomous features that will reduce emissions and that make sense for cost savings and profit and then shape consumer choice accordingly. Customers will have different priorities once they leave the steering wheel behind — a golden opportunity for autonomous vehicle companies to show consumers what they need and want, Steve Jobs-style.

Even today’s performance-obsessed driver may opt for tomorrow’s eco-driving driverless car to smooth the ride for a comfortable in-car working environment.

Baking in lower emissions

Autonomous vehicle companies can anticipate that post-2025 emissions standards will demand lowered air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Their choice is to design lower emissions into the driverless market from the get-go or to face the long term costs and clunkiness of re-engineering new vehicles and markets in ten years.

The first choice calls on autonomous vehicle developers and environmental organizations to means rolling up the sleeves now, before the market starts baking in the shape of the self-driving world we’ll ride into the 2030s.

Attributions: Leaf vector created by Freepik