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Will self-driving cars be good for the planet?

Image: Self-driving car
Volvo’s SARTRE project is aimed at developing fuel-saving approaches to autonomous driving, such as “platooning.” SARTRE stands for “Safe Road Trains for the Environment.” (Credit: Volvo)

Experts expect self-driving cars to make the roads much safer, and driving much more convenient. But what will they do to the environment? A newly published study suggests that, under some scenarios, the shift to autonomous vehicles could double energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The good news is that other scenarios could lead to a nearly 50 percent reduction in those metrics by 2050, which would brighten the picture for coping with climate change. It all depends on how driverless cars are introduced into the marketplace, and how consumers and businesses respond.

“There is lots of hype around self-driving cars, much of it somewhat utopian in nature. But there are likely to be positives and negatives,” University of Washington engineering professor Don MacKenzie said. “By taking a clear-eyed view, we can design and implement policies to maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides of automated vehicles.”

MacKenzie is one of the authors of a study analyzing the range of possibilities, published today in the journal Transportation Research Part A. The survey comes as a plethora of companies, ranging from Ford and Tesla to Google and Apple, are hustling to make vehicles more autonomous and jump through regulatory hoops.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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