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Self-Driving Cars vs. Climate Change: The Environmental Dilemma

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11/10/2023 |

7 min read

Codete Team

Autonomous vehicles and carbon emissions may not be a commonly-known issue yet, but, in fact, the self-driving cars vs. climate change dilemma can be a major environmental challenge of the future. The way they are designed now, driverless vehicles have a dark side that can possibly add up to a climate disaster if these cars get adopted by millions of people worldwide.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Since self-driving cars are still being developed and enhanced, a lot can be done to prevent such a scenario and minimize the environmental impact. There’s still time to choose the right technology solutions and make good decisions, also on the political level, in this regard.

With more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions coming from the transportation sector, such resolutions are vital. That’s why – and also due to climate change – preparing a comprehensive AV deployment strategy, considering the use of renewable energy and fossil fuels, should be made a top priority.

But is eco-friendly autonomous driving even possible? How much gas emissions do autonomous cars produce? How can we tackle greenhouse gas emissions? What other challenges does the dissemination of self-driving cars entail? And what is the real environmental impact of self-driving cars? Let’s see.

Table of contents:

1. Self-driving cars in brief

2. Autonomous vehicles and carbon emissions

3. Self-driving cars – other challenges

4. Tackling greenhouse gas emissions in vehicles – key takeaways


Self-driving cars in brief

Autonomous cars are not the most widespread transportation solution in 2023, but new technology fans say it’s just a matter of time before they will. And so do many researchers. For example, some of them predict that in the UK alone, even 3 in 4 vehicles on the country’s roads could be fully automated by 2040.

But what exactly are self-driving cars by definition? Well, an autonomous (or automated) vehicle is an „automobile that employs driver assistance technologies to remove the need for a human operator.” Of course, this need is usually not entirely, but only partially, removed.

There are several stages of automation (0-5), ranging from no automation at all to full automation with no driver assistance required, which makes some of the self-driving cars partially automated vehicles. Functions where direct driver’s input may be unnecessary, include steering, throttle, and braking.

Autonomous vehicles and carbon emissions

Now that we know what driverless cars are all about, let’s shed some light on the carbon emission issues that are related to them.

One of the reasons why autonomous cars leave a carbon footprint is because computers that power self-driving vehicles generate greenhouse gas. Of course, these computation needs vary in every case. On top of that, the amount of carbon emissions produced depends on the vehicle’s and thus the battery’s size as these emissions are also just a byproduct of manufacturing.

The carbon cost of self-driving vehicles can be significant in the case of their widespread adoption. A huge global fleet of autonomous cars could generate a staggering 0.14 gigatons of additional greenhouse gas emissions per year, according to researchers by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If we analyze the vehicle’s entire lifecycle (from manufacturing to disposal), the common use of private electric vehicles can result in rising carbon emissions by up to 200 percent.

However, according to the U.S. Department of Energy researchers, energy consumption in transportation can not only jump by over 250% but it can also be limited – by even 90%! – with the use of automated cars. Provided everything goes fine.

But what could go wrong?

Well, there are many threats and challenges involved. The first one concerns the immense freedom of using these cars – the freedom that can turn out to be overwhelming for some people. When they don’t need to use their hands and their whole attention for driving anymore, they may start treating traveling by car more carelessly, as a form of entertainment, available even when they’re tired.

This way, the number of hours traveled can go up greatly, so that the positive effect coming from reduced carbon emission is offset. Plus, as AVs are understood as safer at higher speeds than conventional cars driven by people, they will most likely travel way faster, making fuel economy poor, and affecting the environment and the climate badly.

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On the other hand, some aspects make autonomous cars more energy-efficient than their conventional counterparts.

Driverless vehicles can ease traffic congestion, but they may also reduce GHG emissions. They offer more efficient driving as they tend to travel at constant speeds, without unnecessary accelerating and braking – activities that increase fuel consumption greatly. Plus, the majority of self-driving cars of the future will probably be electric ones, anyway.

Self-driving cars – other challenges

Being – potentially – not very environmentally friendly is just one obstacle that can prevent self-driving cars from becoming a widespread solution. There are many more concerns or challenges that the idea of an autonomous vehicle – and its down-to-earth application – has to face.

Some of them include:

  • the possibility of cyber-attacks performed by hackers or other malicious actors;
  • false sense of security as autonomous vehicles can have problems with making decisions when all options are undesirable;
  • eliminating various kinds of professional drivers from the labor market;
  • problems with effective communication of driverless vehicles with traditional cars.

The basic fear many people share is that AVs are not entirely safe. In the best-case scenario, they will save millions of lives, eliminating human error, which is responsible for, or at least involved in, the majority of accidents. The worst-case scenario is that people, discouraged by safety concerns and feeling out of control, will never start using them on a mass scale.

Tackling greenhouse gas emissions in vehicles – key takeaways

Self-driving cars, which have been a head-turner in the transportation sector recently, do not leave anyone indifferent. With hands off a steering wheel, the journey may certainly be way more comfortable and smoother, but there are consequences.

Autonomous vehicle technology causes a lot of controversy not only due to safety concerns, hackability, or the possible harmful impact on the labor market. It can also affect the environment in a bad way, accelerating climate change. The lifecycle analysis of autonomous vehicles proves that this impact can be truly significant.

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Despite many hopes related to the development and dissemination of autonomous vehicles, they are not a perfect fit for the sustainable transportation solutions category, yet. That’s because energy consumption, and thus greenhouse gas emissions, can be significant in their case.

The problem will probably become even bigger when self-driving cars become used more commonly. So before everything gets out of control, appropriate institutions and organizations need to act fast and develop and implement emission reduction strategies for self-driving cars.

The time to make such decisions is now as choices made today will greatly affect the future – of both the AVs and the environment as a whole. They will shape climate change either in a good, or in a bad way – the thing is no one knows exactly how this revolution will end.

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If you need more information on the idea of self-driving cars, current and future applications of autonomous vehicles, as well as environmental or safety concerns – contact Codete now for assistance on your automotive project.

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Codete Team

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