Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles will change everything. With self-driving cars, we are about to engage in a method of mobility that will rival the advent of the car itself in the way that it changes our world. The entire transportation system – and the communities shaped by it – will be transformed by automated vehicles.

“The real innovation potential here is not just for new kinds of cars, but new kinds of communities.” Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute

Google brought self-driving cars to public consciousness with its highly visible cars traveling on California roads in 2009. Now, dozens of cities and dozens of manufacturers are piloting these machines. The Midwest cities of Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Minneapolis are joining London, Helsinki, Singapore and Melbourne in piloting cars or shuttle buses that can drive themselves. In Minneapolis, an autonomous shuttle bus is being tested for performance in cold weather and may be showcased at Super Bowl 2018. You can view a full list of these pilot programs here.

Why Should We Care?

There is no doubt that automated vehicles also will have an impact on the environment. When travel is easier, there will be a lot more of it. That is the promise and peril of cars that drive themselves. Automated vehicles could increase miles travelled, increase energy consumption and sprawl, and make 100-mile commutes more common. After all, if you can read, sleep, or text, a 90+ minute commute might not be so objectionable. An empty car (a “zombie” vehicle) might be sent on errands that would otherwise be done by walking or bike.

Safety of automated vehicles has been the initial concern of automakers, consumers, and legislators, with debates simmering over how much better the vehicles have to perform as compared to human drivers.

Other concerns are surfacing: polluting effects on the environment, congestion and land use. Transportation is now the leading source of CO2 emissions in the U.S. And automated vehicles may increase those emissions. Forecasts on the energy impacts of automated vehicles range from a decrease of 60% in total energy consumption to an increase of 200%.

What ELPC Is Doing

ELPC has raised these issues with agencies of the federal government, urging them to carefully consider the potential greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts – both benefits and drawbacks – that result from accelerating automated vehicle deployment. A smart, data-driven analysis of autonomous vehicle impacts – both personal and commercial – can lead to better policies that will build upon the benefits derived from cleaner fuel mandates, more efficient engines and vehicles, and other efforts to reduce emissions.

Congress is working on legislation aimed at a workable balance between encouraging innovation, setting standards for safety and uniformity, and showing necessary deference to state and local authorities to regulate streets and roadways. ELPC continues to urge that environmental impacts be carefully considered.

In Chicago, ELPC  partnered with the Metropolitan Planning Council and Shared Use Mobility Center to present a series of forums to help ask the questions that need to be asked: What policies on automated vehicles should cities consider to capture the benefits of this transformational technology and address all its impacts? What policies will help ensure that automated vehicles improve the quality of life for all, not some? Watch the three-part series: The Public Sector’s Role, Envisioning the City of the Future, and Is Our Infrastructure Ready?


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