Vehicle automation is cool but will it save energy? We talk to an expert

Blog Post | March 26, 2019 - 9:18 am

We’re in a new era of rapid advances in vehicle technologies. Safety, mobility, and convenience benefits are spurring the development, for example, of connected and autonomous vehicles or CAVs. Sure, the cars of the future sound cool, but what will they mean for our energy use, infrastructure, and transportation policy?

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To answer this question, ACEEE is holding its first CAV forum —a day-long event in Washington, DC, on the energy impacts of vehicle automation. We caught up with one of the speakers, Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit that provides research to help manufacturers and municipalities plan for the future. We asked her about the opportunities and challenges of widespread CAV adoption. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

How might vehicle connectivity affect fuel efficiency, whether directly or indirectly?

There will be a direct effect. When the vehicles can communicate with infrastructure to find out where traffic jams are and how to avoid them, they don’t idle in traffic. When they communicate with smart traffic signals, they can learn how long the light will be and essentially tell a driver, ‘you’re not going to make that green light, you might as well just take your foot off the gas now and just coast.’ That will help a lot. 

When vehicles communicate among each other, they can decrease following distance and lane width, which should enable a greater throughput. This means fewer bottlenecks, less idling time, and a shorter commute, which is both more efficient and better for the environment. Of course, fuel economy, CO2, and GHG emissions are pieces of this too—and when it all goes together you begin to see some remarkable changes that will add up.

Let’s talk timing—how long until we see fully autonomous vehicles?

That’s a loaded question! We will see “level four” vehicles by the early 2020s. Level four vehicles have the technology to drive themselves, but are in a geo-fenced area, which is an area or very specific route that only autonomous vehicles are allowed to drive in. This reduces interaction with others on open roadways.

I don’t think we’re going to see fully autonomous vehicles out on the open roadways until 2040 for a number of reasons. One is technology. The average vehicle on the road is 12 years old and does not communicate; it’s going to take a long time to get those cars off the roadways. When you start mixing autonomous vehicles with human driven vehicles there are so many different aspects to machine learning and artificial intelligence, and it’s going to take a while to crack that ‘technology nut,’ so to speak.

Another reason is some of the things that many companies have already experienced in their pilots with regard to public policy, insurance, liability, consumer trust, and behavior changes. These are tough hurdles to overcome. Technology can move at a great pace, but all of those other aspects have to follow suit to make an environment that’s right for autonomous vehicles.

What will determine how CAVs affect the environment and overall energy consumption?

That really depends how we deploy them. Right now CAVs are relatively expensive, but when the technology reaches a stage where people are able to simply replace their current car with an autonomous car we could have a complete mess. We will have cars not only driving people but also going out and doing errands for people, so it will completely bottleneck many areas. To deploy it properly we really have to look at human behavior, and changing human behavior. That involves going from the personal ownership model to a shared ownership model and providing the right incentives to drive those changes in human behavior.

Will these technologies meet the expectations of manufacturers, users, and society at large?

We hope so! It depends on what you’re looking for. When I think about autonomous vehicles I immediately think of safety and throughput (road capacity). I also think of people who either have never had independence or have lost their independence, such the disabled or the elderly. While they may not be able to drive a vehicle, we still need to provide them with opportunities for mobility. Providing opportunities for mobility to underserved populations can improve their access to things like healthcare, education, transportation to and from work, and other opportunities. I really think this is what we need to focus on when we talk about autonomous, and maybe we shouldn’t focus so much on the convenience and the ability to multitask.

The CAV forum will bring together people with a wide range of perspectives. What’s a CAV-related challenge that calls for a better understanding between technology and policy experts?

We need to find the right environment to allow different pilot tests to happen. We need to be able to improve technology by working together with public policymakers and law enforcement so we can find solutions, and not just ways to say no. While certain communities are beginning to do this, the first thing many people hear when they want to deploy an AV is, ‘we can’t do that—the laws aren’t right and the risks are high.’ We need to find common ground that balances the learning with the risk. It reminds me of the first automobiles in the era of horses; they went through the same discussion about the issues related to safety and technology—and fearfulness of the technology—but look how quickly that was overcome with the right mindset.