Announcing a $4 billion budget proposal to support driverless vehicles, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said earlier this month that the technology had “enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people.”
It’s not just the Obama administration that has touted the potential environmental benefits of driverless cars: Automakers have even sought to use the technology to count towards fuel-economy standards.
But not everyone is so sure that a future of robot cars will be such a good thing for the environment. Some environmentalists are now warning that driverless cars, which could start hitting the roads within the decade, may actually be a net loss for the climate.
“There’s a utopian vision of what this looks like, but there’s also a dystopian vision,” said Roland Hwang, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s transportation program. “There are clearly a lot of benefits associated with this technology, especially if we harness it and push it in the right direction … But we could create a situations where we might undermine our clean transportation systems.”
The utopian vision looks something like this: Cars that can connect to each other and infrastructure like traffic lights could platoon with each other and plot out the most efficient routes, making every car trip cleaner than it would be with a human-driven car. And a shared pool of autonomous cars—think Uber without a driver behind the wheel—makes it possible to travel around a city without ever owning, or even driving, a car. Plus, cars that are programmed not to crash can be lighter, making them more efficient.