|Fig. 1: A model of the Google Lexus RX 450H self-driving car. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)|
As technological advancements continue to improve our lives, what will be the next great innovation? The most likely one that will soon change the way we live is the self-driving car. Google started a self-driving car project in 2009. There have already been many successful test drives on city streets and highways in these automobiles by several manufacturers.  Even Uber, the ride-sharing service, has started assembling a fleet of self-driving vehicles. Fig. 1 shows a model of one of Google's self-driving cars. The camera-like device seen at the top of the car in the figure contains the sensors needed to help navigate the car. There are many benefits to self-driving technology such as the ability to save lives from car accidents that are caused by human error. Intoxicated people would be able to sit in driver seat and safely go home. Cars would be able to drive faster, while its' passengers multitask or even sleep in a computerized automobile.  Those who are not able to drive, such as the disabled or the elderly, would gain freedom and mobility in their lives. While there are many benefits to autonomous transportation, there is also a debate on whether self-driving vehicles are safe for the environment.
According to the Department of Energy, automated cars can reduce energy consumption in transportation up to 90%.  More than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from automobiles so with automated cars that have redesigned computerized systems that choose the most fuel efficient routes and travel faster, the cars have a chance to place a large impact on the environment. 
A self-driving car can move faster and more safely than a car driven by a human, which decreases traffic congestion. These vehicles have built in adaptive cruise control and can automatically shift into electric mode to save gas.  Excess safety equipment that are currently included in regular automobiles would not be needed anymore. Vehicles will then be lighter and can run faster on the roads.  Emissions are reduced because the computerized systems accelerate and break smoothly. The computerized systems also are programmed to choose the most fuel efficient route. Automated cars have the ability to drive 70,000 to 80,000 miles per year which is around four to five more times further than regular privately owned vehicles that typically drive 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year.  The self-driving vehicles would need to be replaced only every three to four years, leading to less maintenance and service costs.
Self-driving vehicles could also increase energy consumption up to 200%.  The biggest downside is that the total number of miles traveled by vehicles will be increased because car travel would become a lot easier and more convenient. Car owners might might make trips that they currently would not because car traveling would become so easy. Even though commuters benefit because they can perform other tasks in the time they would normally be driving, this could negatively impact the environment.  People might be willing to live further away from work and cars would be able to drive for a longer period of time. However, that would cause an increase in energy and gas use. We may find out that those concerns are overblown but we will not know until automated cars are in wide spread use.
If our society is committed to making driving safer and more efficient, then researchers and engineers need to make advances sooner rather than later. If the debate about whether self-driving cars are unsafe for the environment continues, then traffic will continue to worsen.  Self-driving cars seem to be the wave for the future and as long as the negative environmental impact can be minimized, the benefits will far outweigh the risks.
© Payton Chang. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
 J. Markoff, "Google Cars Drive Themselves, In Traffic," New York Times, 9 Oct 10.
 J. Worland, "Self-Driving Cars Could Help Save the Environment Or Ruin It. It Depends on Us," Time, 8 Sep 16.
 C. Beeler, "Driverless Cars Could Either Be Scary or Great for the Environment," Public Radio International, 18 Apr 17.
 G. Gardner, "Why Most Self-Driving Cars Will Be Electric," USA Today, 19 Sep 16.