Report: The Environmental Impact of Autonomous Vehicles a Net Positive

By: Bridget Clerkin March 20, 2018
Loaded with all sorts of computers and sensors, self-driving cars aren't models of energy efficiency, but they may actually be greener in the long run, according to a recent study.

Autonomous cars are changing nearly everything about the way the world works—and that may include the very nature of duality itself.

While good cannot typically exist without evil, just as dark cannot exist without light nor happiness without sadness, a recent study shows the cars will both bolster efforts to reduce environmental pollution and cause more of it.

The first-of-its-kind report, conducted by the University of Michigan, explores the environmental effects of an autonomous vehicle over the course of the car’s lifetime—and results were mixed, to say the least.

With the full suite of sensors, cameras, and other hefty technology needed to navigate, the self-driving machines of today are mammoth compared to standard vehicles on the road—and all of that extra weight added up against them.

The cars were found to be responsible for contributing up to 20% more greenhouse gas emissions compared to human-driven vehicles, due to the excessive energy usage needed not only to power the onboard systems but the car itself under all the extra bulk, according to the study.

The computer system alone contributed 45% of the cars’ weight and consumed 80% of their power, producing 43% of the additional emissions, the study found.

When it came to figuring out where they were—and where they were going—the cars also burned a lot of fuel. Mapping systems the vehicles utilized caused a significant amount of energy consumption and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions, especially when the charts were high-definition images summoned through the use of a 4G LTE network, according to the report. (Standard-definition maps reduced power consumption by up to 35%.)

The issues weren’t only internal. The bevy of cameras and sensors mounted to the autos’ frames caused a significant amount of aerodynamic drag, which also worked against fuel efficiency.

Still, those flaws were more than made up for by the cars’ superior ability to create favorable traffic patterns.

The smoother, more efficient flow created by the computers—plus the anticipated shift to shared vehicle usage that the cars are forecasted to usher in—is predicted to be so beneficial that it won’t just erase the autonomous autos’ detriments to the environment, but lead to an overall reduction in net energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, by up to 9%, according to the report. Autonomous cars may be heavyweights, but it seems like they’re able to float like a butterfly.

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