While much has been made of the potential safety implications of such vehicles entering daily use, little attention has been paid to the benefits that autonomous electric vehicles will offer in reducing carbon emissions and generating a more sustainable personal transport solution. In this respect they offer the potential for a true revolution.
Connected, controlled, cleaner
It is anticipated that urban environments will continue to be the mainstay of autonomous electric vehicles for the foreseeable future, and it is in this application that they can have the biggest impact on reducing emissions.
City driving is notorious for its stop-start nature, requiring higher fuel consumption to brake and accelerate the car, while many vehicles also spend the vast majority of their time idling in traffic – wasting fuel and generating harmful emissions while making little to no progress.
The introduction of autonomous electric vehicles will allow smarter traffic management, with connected vehicles communicating with one another to plan the most efficient route to avoid congestion and produce a smoother drive that will optimise energy usage.
This view has been supported by a recent study by The Eno Centre found that the use of current generation autonomous vehicle technologies could potentially increase fuel economy by 23-30% through smoothing traffic flows and minimising stop-start driving periods.
The potential for smarter route planning generated through connected data sharing is one the most prominent factors in the attraction of autonomous electric vehicles for the ride- and car-sharing industry. Businesses such as Lyft and Uber recognise the benefits of proactively planning how a vehicle will travel through a city to collect multiple fairs while minimising energy costs and time to serve customers, in order to maximise profits and portray a green image.
As such, fewer taxis and ride-share cars will be required; cutting congestion, minimising their downtime and reducing the potential for idling emissions – a major contributing factor to the growing smog crisis in many developed cities.
Reducing the cost per mile
The introduction of autonomous electric vehicles also offers the potential for a paradigm shift in the perception and use of personal vehicles.
The electrification of vehicles is playing a central role in reducing the cost per mile travelled, offering significant savings in the cost of energy and servicing compared to vehicles powered by combustion engines.
Furthermore, the Climate Action Tracker has concluded that zero-emission vehicles have the potential to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius – the internationally mandated target set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement – providing they account for 50% of cars on the road globally by 2050.
The change in vehicle powertrain technology is set against changing economic factors, such as rising house prices and rent in urban areas, which mean that fewer people are able to justify the expense of purchasing and running their own personal car, opting to use public transport instead.
Yet, with the increasing availability of autonomous electric ride-sharing services, the cost per vehicle miles travelled is predicted to rapidly decline; allow a flexible and affordable alternative to trains and buses.
Furthermore, autonomous vehicles offer the potential for those travelling in them to work on the move, enabling commuters to avoid peak congestion times during the early morning and evening while affording a level of privacy and space that public transport cannot compete with.
The environmental implications of a change in the mind-set of vehicle ownership go beyond the mere emissions generated whilst on the move. The vast majority of a vehicle’s working life is spent parked, with premium real estate in urban spaces dedicated to multi-storey parking garages and curb-side spaces.
By reducing the number of individually-owned vehicles and the land dedicated to their storage, city planners will be able to design smarter urban mobility solutions that favour pedestrians and cyclists, as well as intelligent traffic slow systems. The emissions generated by the remaining vehicles on the road can further be off-set by reclaiming land dedicated to parking and converting it to parkland, generating localised carbon sinks.
Supporting smarter solutions
The application of autonomous electric vehicle technology is steadily growing but remains bound by stringent legislation. Yet, a wealth of academic studies have already concluded the feasibility of this technology in a wide range of settings.
A recent study by the European Field Operational Test found that if every vehicle in the European Union used adaptive cruise control, it would save nearly 700 million litres of fuel each year and prevent 1.7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
With the transport sector accounting for an average of 18-25% of national greenhouse gas emissions globally, the introduction of intelligent, connected and autonomous vehicles offers the potential to significantly reduce anthropogenic global warming on an unprecedented scale. The revolution has already begun.
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