Are Driverless Cars a Good Way to Help Stop Greenhouse Warming, or Is Greenhouse Warming a Good Pretext for Selling Driverless Cars?

Photo by Paul Sableman | CC by 2.0

The automakers and IT giants are predicting that autonomous vehicles (AVs or “driverless cars”) will play a big role in reducing America’s currently extravagant emissions of greenhouse gases. In this claim (as in the assertion that flying cars will be more energy efficient than helicopters), climate mitigation is serving not as a goal but as a selling point for a lucrative new technology that society doesn’t need.

Most of the academic discussion of autonomous vehicles assumes the gradual introduction of both personal and shared electric AVs into the market. During that lengthy transition, AVs presumably will ply the streets and highways alongside human-driven electric and internal-combustion vehicles. How this is going to take us toward deep reductions in greenhouse emissions is not clear; the expectation appears to be that market forces and government incentives will somehow push the system toward fully autonomous, electrified transportation powered exclusively by renewable sources.

But the 100-percent renewable dream is a mirage, and AV cars will not bring it to life. That’s not due to any shortcomings of AVs; on the contrary, the technology’s failure to resolve the climate problem will be a result of the many attractive features that a successful AV-based system would offer—all of which will have the effect of increasing greenhouse emissions.

In a commentary on autonomous vehicles, Shelie Miller and Brent Heard of the…

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