With large tech companies like Google and Uber circling driverless cars, the conversation has mostly been one of “how soon can we do this?” and not “should we?” Of course, autonomous cars would be cool, but what are the advantages besides the obvious luxury of not needing an error-prone, human hand behind the wheel?
Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California say another advantage exists — an environmental one. If a fleet of autonomous electric taxis were to replace everyone's gas-powered, personal cars, we could see more than a 90 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and almost 100 percent decrease in oil consumption from cars, all while saving money in the long run. Right now that may seem like a long shot, but a study earlier this year said that 44 percent of Americans would consider buying a driverless car in the next 10 years, even if it would cost $5,000 more.
Now this may seem obvious: if you started to only build electric cars, emissions and oil consumption will fall. But what surprised Berkeley researchers was how most efficient such a system would actually be, even with the relatively high cost of electric vehicles today.
“You don't often find that, where the cheapest is also the greenest,” said Jeff Greenblatt, co-author of the study.
A fleet about 15 percent of the size of all private cars could service the same population, if scheduled correctly, estimated Greenblatt. But the real savings would be found in the operating cost. Even when estimating that an electric, driverless car would cost $150,000 up front, researchers say that a car that could drive 24/7, not require a salary and use no gasoline would pay for itself before five years. The paper says that price will drop drastically, citing an IHS study that says autonomy will only add around $5,000 to a car's current sticker price by 2030.
When asked about the limiting range of electric cars (right now the Nissan Leaf gets 84 miles per charge), Greenblatt told Popular Science that a fleet would be able to compensate for that range, versus a single-owner car—when the battery is low, a car would simply drive back to the main station, to be replaced in the field by a charged car.
Researchers relied heavily on the idea they called “right-sizing,” meaning the car dispatched would be fit to the trip's needs. For instance, a different car would be sent for one-person trip, versus a group of four people heading out for a long-distance road trip. Greenblatt said that if based purely off current technology, that might be a situation where an autonomous hybrid car would be deployed.
The biggest issue right now: these cars don't commercially exist. However, it seems both Google and Uber are looking to change that, and according to Berkeley press, researchers from this study already have talks scheduled at Google.