Katie Levy, 15

A query into the nuanced and complex issue of self-driving cars, the environment, and the corporations who make them, expertly researched by a 15 year old.

Imagine: you’re a high school student in 2030. It’s 7:30 AM on a brisk, clear fall morning. You hop into a driverless vehicle, enter the address of your school, and wave to your parents as the car pulls away. Your trip from the suburbs into a major city takes only a few minutes, as your car communicates with the others on the road, ensuring maximum efficiency and a speedy commute. You sit back assured that, free from human error, your city’s roads are safer than ever.

Conversely, imagine: you’re a high school student in 2030. At 6:45 AM, you glance up at the hazy, smog-filled sky as you step into a self-driving car. As your car pulls into a packed road jammed with other autonomous vehicles, you see that your trip to your school in a major city will take over an hour, even though the car’s algorithm has chosen a new route to minimize traffic. As your car crawls along, you notice through the windshield the taped-off ruins of an old subway station, clearly out of use for years. You roll down your window to get a better look, but the exhaust-saturated air stings your eyes and makes you cough. Your phone buzzes: it’s a public announcement warning your city about an oncoming tropical storm, expected to make landfall in the next few days. You peer at the passengers using their phones in the cars beside you, wondering how people will react to the news. Nobody moves. The gridlock of cars remains indifferent, stretching blocks in every direction, each tailpipe sputtering on in stubborn disregard.

Self-driving cars could radically affect the climate for the better. Driverless cars could lead to less greenhouse gas emissions for four main reasons: driverless cars don’t require all the safety equipment needed when humans are in control (such as anti-lock brakes, air bags, and laminated glass) so they’d weigh less (and thus require less fuel to move), driverless cars’ computer algorithms could achieve higher fuel efficiency by using the most efficient routing and driving techniques, the cars could find parking more quickly which would cut down on wasted driving time, and the cars could tolerate higher occupancies without the risks that come from human distraction. The Department of Energy finds that with those changes, self-driving cars have the potential to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in transportation by as much as 90%. In a sector that ranks first in environmental impact (comprising more than a quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions), those differences are potentially world-changing.

On the flip side, the same cars could also increase those emissions by as much as 250%. Most significantly, self-driving cars are expected to drastically increase the number of total miles that people drive. Initially faster commutes due to more efficient techniques coupled with the ability to pursue other activities while driving mean that people will be willing to regularly travel farther and farther by car, and will be more and more likely to prefer cars over public transportation, driving up car ownership and use (the resulting congestion will likely make most urban commutes slower than before). Moreover, self-driving cars can safely travel much faster than human-driven vehicles due to computers’ speedy reaction times, and fuel efficiency decreases when cars travel faster than about 50 miles per hour. Efficiency gains from autonomous systems are further undercut by the tremendous amount of energy those systems require (about the equivalent of 50 to 100 laptops). In fact, driverless cars from Waymo (former branch of Google and probable industry leader in autonomous vehicles) are substantially less fuel-efficient than their human-driven counterparts. A scenario in which urban areas were dependent on and saturated with similar cars would bring a sharp spike in transportation emissions, meaning a devastating environmental impact and severely worsened pollution-related health issues. That worst-case-scenario cannot be allowed to happen.

To ensure that self-driving cars become a force for climatic good, comprehensive environmental policies are needed. Make no mistake: corporations can and should do their part by (among other things) creating hybrid and electric instead of gas-burning vehicles, minimizing the environmental impact of manufacturing and shipping those vehicles, and creating rideshare/carpooling services,  but in addition to corporate responsibility, regulatory actions are critical. Some essential environmental laws in a society with self-driving cars include energy efficiency standards and electrization requirements for all self-driving cars (coupled with shifting the power grid away from fossil fuels, but that’s another story), requirements for car manufacturers to release emissions data, upkeep of and improvements in access to public transportation services, and incentives to use public transportation and rideshare services over personally-owned cars plus perhaps a carefully-crafted tax on miles driven in low-occupancy cars for non-essential purposes. As a starting point, those policies would raise the chance of a drop in transportation emissions and lessen the risk of a catastrophic increase.

As political debates around self-driving cars rage on, climate change remains a legislative afterthought. Lawmakers and citizens must balance self-driving cars’ long-term effects with the short-term risks and rewards of the technology. While lifestyle, economic, and political changes are extremely impactful, the ecological choices that humans make now will affect the planet for centuries to come.