Sustainable Innovation in Autonomy

By Sebastian Larsen

Self-driving vehicles, also known as autonomous vehicles or AVs, are no longer some futuristic Silicon Valley concept that might never come to fruition. Now more companies than ever are making the push towards fully autonomous personal vehicles and taxi services.

The autonomous vehicle industry was originally spearheaded by smaller car companies or tech startups, however in recent years more traditional car manufacturers have been taking interest in releasing fully autonomous models. There are now more than 62 companies that have been issued autonomous vehicle testing permits by the state of California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, including Apple, Waymo, Tesla, Volkswagen, Ford, Honda, BMW, Uber, Lyft, Intel, and NVIDIA. While no one is exactly sure when full autonomy will hit the consumer market, there’s no question that AVs are here to stay.

Levels of Automation

Sustainable Innovation in Autonomy

There are six different levels of automation, beginning with level zero, in which a vehicle is entirely manually controlled, and moving up to level 5, in which a vehicle doesn’t require any human attention and may not even come with pedals or a steering wheel. Today, fully autonomous cars are undergoing extensive testing in a few select cities, but it will be at least a few years until level 5 autonomous vehicles become available to the general public.

Impact on the Environment

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Many people have been debating whether AVs will be beneficial to the environment or actually end up harming it. In 2017, it was reported that the transportation industry was responsible for 29% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Department of Energy, automated cars could reduce energy consumption in transportation up to 90%. On the flip side, self-driving vehicles could also increase energy consumption by 200%

A huge contributor to reduction in energy consumption would be the reduction of collisions. As vehicle autonomy becomes increasingly safer, the need for more expensive built in safety options and testing will decrease, saving a huge amount of energy in production and also cutting down the overall vehicle weight, making them far more efficient than their predecessors.

In addition to fuel saved by decreased weight, experts are saying that AVs are programmed to take the most efficient route, to minimize harsh breaking and excessive idling, and also to eliminate speeding. And as a result the vehicles may singlehandedly decrease gas consumption and cut environmental emissions.

A report by The Intelligent Transportation Society of America declares that intelligent transportation systems (ITS) have the potential of reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gases by two to four percent each year for 10 years as technology continues to advance. Another projection estimates that a transition to electric, driverless taxis could reduce emissions per mile by as much as 94% by 2030. Electric vehicles in particular need little to no routine maintenance, and some people have reported that cars from companies like Tesla are expected to last up to 500,000 miles, making electric AVs particularly economical.

Ultimately, the impact autonomous vehicles have on the environment will largely depend on how humans choose to use them. Self-driving cars have great potential to create a more fuel-efficient society, they have the ability to reduce emissions and clean up the environment if their drivers choose to do so.

Impact on Civilization

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Another opportunity with the autonomous technology comes with the implementation of a vehicle fleet. A fleet could cut the number of vehicles on the road in urban areas by up to 80%, greatly reducing fuel used and carbon emissions, but also reducing the need for an extensive number of parking lots. Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at M.I.T., declared that “in some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area, becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.” There are an estimated 500 million to 2 billion parking spots in the US, occupying some 14,360 square miles, or more than the area of Connecticut and Vermont combined. The adaptation of a fleet of vehicles could vastly reduce this number and free up space for alternative uses like bike lanes, parks, and businesses.

Self-driving cars can potentially travel faster and more safely than cars driven by a human, which could result in a considerable decrease in traffic congestion. Traffic does much more than just slowing down drivers from reaching their destination, it also costs the global economy $1.4 trillion annually. Annually, the average US urban resident spends 38 hours in traffic and is deprived of $818 due to lost hours and wasted fuel. In 2011, traffic also contributed to 56 billion additional pounds of carbon dioxide dumped into the air. AVs could potentially help solve this solution by traveling at greater speeds, and by reducing the number of cars on the road as ride sharing becomes more popular and those who are not able to drive, such as the disabled or the elderly, would once again gain freedom and mobility in their lives.

Impact on Safety

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Not only could autonomous vehicles cut carbon emissions, they could also prove themselves sustainable through their safety. The computers inside of autonomous vehicles compute millions of points of data coming from numerous sensors surrounding the vehicle, making decisions in a fraction of the time that it takes humans to make a decision - which could make the difference between life and death. In the US alone over 37,000 people die each year due to road crashes caused by human error, with worldwide death toll being nearly 1.25 million. If the US were to adopt a 90% driverless cars rate, it could potentially translate into 22,000 lives and $350 billion saved annually. Thats great and all, but as of right now those are all theoretical numbers, and the industry has a ways to go before AVs are safe enough to be released into the general public. Just last year, one of Uber’s self-driving cars was taking part in an early trial when the vehicle hit and killed a woman who was crossing the street. Because the vehicle was still on a test run, the car manufacturer was held responsible for the incident. 

Autonomous Vehicle Technology and Smart Cities

Smart Cities Image

(Source: Arunas Kacinskas on

Our self-driving future’s likelihood to bear a wide range of benefits — lower emissions; the transformation of parking lots to parks; decreased per-mile cost of transportation; and increased passenger and pedestrian safety — may depend heavily on the implementation of an intelligent city infrastructure.

Smart cities will likely be vital to the growth and popularity of autonomous vehicle technology. Cities will have to adapt their infrastructure to support AVs with their power consumption needs and the information necessary to make roads safer and manage traffic congestion. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication could make roads even safer by transmitting information about potential red light violations, pedestrians, cyclists, or animals on the road ahead, but would require a complex system built into city infrastructure.

Sensors embedded in roads or traffic indicators could feed accurate information about non-autonomous vehicles and various road conditions to AVs, emergency services, or even assist vehicles with lower levels of automation. A close-knit alliance between city infrastructure and AVs has the potential to create one streamlined mesh network that works together to create a more efficient city ecosystem.

Impact on Technology 

Once fully autonomous vehicles are released it will open up the potential for other industries to expand and develop their technologies for application within the AV business. A handful of companies have begun envisioning the future of the technology, which could mean huge advances in industries like travel, media and entertainment, mobile work, public transit, construction, and delivery. The anticipation of self driving vehicles has sparked a design revolution. With companies like Yanfeng Automotive Interiors taking steps to reimagine the way that car interiors could be used.

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(Yanfeng’s XiM20 autonomous rideshare vehicle interior concept.)

Amazon has invested in several autonomous vehicle startups, the most obvious reason is to be used in their shipping network. It also looks likely that Amazon wants to have its own self-driving platform instead of being a customer of other companies. Amazon also plans on bringing the Alexa platform to new cars from manufacturers like BMW, Ford, and Toyota.

The Future

Fully autonomous vehicles are quickly approaching reality, with huge strides being made in the technology and results that have consistently exceeded expectations. Their potential positive impact to the environment through increased sustainability is something that many industries will be affected by and should consider when looking into the future.

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