How will the proliferation of autonomous vehicles affect sustainability?

The widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles (AVs) seems inevitable. Despite various concerns, AVs’ development and implementation continues to advance. How will their spread affect sustainability? How will they affect humans’ capacity to live on Earth in a way that does not threaten the planet’s life-support function? We asked experts the following question: “How will the proliferation of autonomous vehicles affect sustainability?”

The experts’ view is that the spread of AVs will by no means necessarily improve sustainability. It is true that the technology will likely improve traffic efficiency and, especially if the vehicles are electric, reduce carbon foot prints according to some metrics. But AVs may also make transportation more attractive. Humans can relax in artificial intelligence-powered vehicles that more quickly ferry them from one location to the other. In a nutshell, our addiction to cars and other modes of transport may grow, not shrink, negating any other benefits. There are other issues, including inequality and privacy, on which AVs may have negative effects. Experts largely agreed that the widespread adoption of AVs will only benefit sustainability when combined with wider societal change.


Christina Pakusch – Research Associate at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences

I am skeptical when it comes to the expected positive environmental consequences of shared AVs (or autonomous taxis). The spread of shared AVs could do a lot to make mobility more sustainable. Some experts and researchers have carried out simulation studies that indicate this will happen. Connected and shared AVs could lead to less vehicles, more efficient driving, and, as a result, lower emissions.

But what about the unexpected consequences of such a comfortable means of transport? Imagine that there are self-driving taxis that pick you up and take you wherever you want and that they are furthermore very affordable. There will be no need to search for a parking space. You won’t need to stand at a bus stop and wait, change trains, or share a space with strangers. Maybe some car owners will abandon their vehicles and use autonomous taxis instead. But because AV transportation services are more comfortable, and thus more attractive, they are likely to affect routes for which we would otherwise use public transport or bicycles – our studies show empirical evidence for this. For this reason, environmentally friendly transportation modes could be cannibalized in favor of AVs. Existing traffic problems in cities could be exacerbated. This would all need to be countered in good time.

Laura Brimont – Coordinator at The Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations

AVs are far from being a magic bullet for sustainable mobility. They fail to resolve a number of existing problems, such as low vehicle occupancy rates or transport sector carbon emissions. They furthermore generate new challenges: the quantity of data produced by automation could increase energy consumption of vehicles; autonomy could accentuate inequalities of access to mobility, both economically and geographically; and the new vehicles could also reduce the opportunity cost of travel time, thereby encouraging an increase in travel and urban sprawl. Nevertheless, autonomous mobility also presents long-term opportunities under certain conditions (extending the relevant geographical scope of public transport, improving access to mobility for people without driving licenses, sharing vehicles, etc.).

Autonomous mobility can take a number of development pathways depending on the technological, economic, social, and political constraints that will organize its development. It is critical that the local and national public authorities take charge in order to steer its development. To achieve this, they have some real tools for action. They can build on the collective mobility model based on public transport to organize their policies. And they can take advantage of the immaturity of this technology to impose their own agenda, using their competence in terms of road system planning and regulation (dedicated lanes, priority, speed, operating licenses). Experiments currently underway are also real opportunities to prepare the autonomous mobility of the future.

Brad Berens – Chief Strategy Officer at the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future; Lead for the Future of Transportation Project

A useful way to think about how self-driving vehicles impact sustainability is as an accelerant on whatever direction a culture is already heading.

Here are two extremes.

The first extreme is negative. In this “robot Uber” scenario, autonomous cars look and function like the cars humans drive. They have four-person carrying capacity, pick passengers up, carry them all the way to their destinations, and then roam around waiting to be summoned to pick up somebody else. Many rides will feature a single passenger in a four-passenger car. Sclerotic traffic, long commutes, and pollution all increase.

The second extreme is positive. Instead of four-passenger cars, small one- or two-seat “bubble cars” proliferate. To quote Mark Joseph of Transdev, these cars are PACE: personalized, autonomous, connected, and electric. Instead of point-to-point, smaller cars take care of first and last miles, bringing riders from home to a public transit hub or from a hub to their destinations. Congestion decreases.

Morteza Taiebat – PhD Candidate in Resource Policy and Behavior at University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability

The primary purpose of vehicle automation is to increase transportation safety and provide better mobility services. In addition, AV technology has strong implications for all aspects of sustainability: economy, society, and most importantly the environment. Removing humans as drivers and service providers substantially lowers the cost of mobility, which will likely increase accessibility and provide an improved mobility experience for underserved populations including elderly, unlicensed, and medically restricted individuals. On the other hand, it may compete with public transit, ultimately hurting low-income riders. Widespread deployment of AVs may also influence other industries, such as online retail, food distribution, and even tourism and hospitality. The sustainability implications of economic and societal transformations from AVs are vast but mostly promising.

In terms of environmental interactions, AVs provide an unprecedented opportunity to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions from the transportation sector through several mechanisms, including but not limited to route optimization, eco- and optimal driving cycle, crash avoidance, and vehicle right-sizing, powertrain downsizing, and platooning, among others (see here). Vehicle automation has strong complementary attributes with electrification. Electric AVs could make it easier to reduce global GHG emissions, enhance energy security of transportation system, solve local air quality problems, reduce congestion and meet future growth in mobility services. However, all of these measures might be dwarfed by “induced” demand stemming from this technology. Public policy has a critical role to play in shaping the environmental impacts of evolving AV landscape. The beginning of an AV era represents an essential opportunity to establish proactive, well-informed energy and environmental policies to maximize benefits and avoid unintended environmental consequences.

Federico Cugurullo – Professor in Smart and Sustainable Urbanism at Trinity College Dublin

We are in front of two roads, literally and metaphorically, which can lead to sustainability or unsustainability. Road number one is the way of sharing. It has been estimated that a single shared autonomous car can replace up to eleven conventional cars and four taxis. In this scenario, traffic and carbon emissions drop. We save energy and, above all, we save space. With less cars around, we need less parking spaces and vehicles lanes, and we can repurpose now car-centric urban spaces as pedestrian streets, cycling lanes, and gardens.

Road number two leads to the opposite scenario. Autonomous cars offer the promise of productive and leisure onboard activities, which can lead to more and longer commutes. This, in turn, increases the demand for the energy and the urban spaces that are necessary to power cars and allow their transit. We need to choose our road as a society, not as individuals.

Araz Taeihagh – Professor of Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore

Broad adoption of AVs is expected to result in benefits that can enable greater sustainability. AVs, due to their connectivity and autonomous nature, can enable better optimization of traffic flows and help improve traffic efficiency and yield economic benefits, as well as increase accessibility to mobility for new user groups and thus, improve public well-being and social sustainability (see here). Moreover, as the majority of AVs are expected to run on electricity, and as we expect to transition to electricity generation from renewable sources, the transition to electric AVs will likely result in the reduction of carbon emissions and fuel consumption, thus enabling greater environmental sustainability.

Nevertheless, widespread adoption of AVs is not without its challenges, as it can introduce risks that can decrease sustainability. For instance, AVs can induce greater travel demand, which can potentially worsen congestion, increase energy consumption, and promote sedentary lifestyles at the expense of public health (see here). In addition, widescale adoption of AVs without appropriate safeguards can introduce privacy and cybersecurity risks, which can reduce social sustainability. AVs store personal data of the users, which can be accessed and misused by third parties such as government agencies and insurance companies, or can be hacked to undermine safety and security (see here). Furthermore, inaccuracies or biases in the data and algorithms used in AVs can result in discrimination and increase inequality. Insufficient attention to safety and privacy issues, for instance, can undermine consumer trust and market uptake of the technology, which in turn can hinder the realization of AVs’ sustainability benefits that would be more pronounced with their large-scale adoption (see here). AVs also introduce risks of unemployment as transport companies are likely to eliminate drivers, who tend to be low-skilled workers, to cut costs. This can exacerbate economic and social inequalities if not addressed (see here).

How the spread of AVs affects sustainability depends on the level of adaptiveness and agility in their governance. Their impact depends on implementing smart policy solutions that address potential risks and unintended consequences.