The Obama administration’s nearly $4 billion proposal to boost automated vehicles could help cut back overall fuel use, researchers cautiously predict.

Cars that require little to no human input appear ever closer to reality as automakers like Audi AG, BMW AG, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. continue developing their own versions of the technology and Google Inc. sends driverless cars around the streets of California. But whether that will lead to a less-congested transportation system—saving fuel and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions—remains to be seen, according to be transportation experts.

“The impact can be dramatic, but there remains a lot of uncertainty about it,” said Jeffrey Gonder, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. “There needs to be further research to try to more intelligently understand where are the key tipping points in the evolution of the technology, so we can help encourage the beneficial impacts and mitigate the negative impacts.”

The plan comes on the heels of President Obama’s call in his State of the Union address to reduce emissions in a “21st-century transportation system.” The sector’s carbon footprint is second only to the power sector, contributing around 27 percent of overall emissions in the United States in 2013, according to U.S. EPA.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Thursday the president’s upcoming fiscal 2017 budget proposal would include $3.9 billion over 10 years for automated cars. The money would go to testing self-driving cars and other connected vehicle systems in designated corridors around the country (Greenwire, Jan. 14).

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transform mobility for the American people,” Foxx said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “Today’s actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.”

Safety grabbed the spotlight. Foxx also described a series of initiatives aimed at making sure government regulations kept up with the technology. He promised an update to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2013 preliminary policy statement on autonomous vehicles within six months that recognizes the progress the technology has made in the past three years.

But reducing emissions from the transportation sector is an increasingly important theme for Obama as he works to build a legacy of climate change action. Last December, the Department of Transportation launched a Smart City competition asking municipalities to submit plans integrating technology innovations to help ease traffic and reduce greenhouse gases.

Lots of theories, not much practice
Transportation experts have long modeled the many hypothetical ways in which connected, intelligent or driverless vehicles might cut back on fuel. Cars that talk to each other can flow right by each other at intersections, avoiding stopping and starting. Smart routing systems can make moving around more efficient, reducing congestion. Vehicles driving directly behind one another because their systems are linked might reduce air drag, a phenomenon called “platooning.”

When combined with other innovations in transportation, the benefits can be even greater, researchers suggested. Driverless taxis gained more attention when General Motors Co. in early January made a $500 million investment in the ride-sharing company Lyft to develop a network of autonomous, on-demand vehicles.

“The idea of automated car-sharing vehicle or a ride-sharing service, when you increase the occupancy of a vehicle, the emissions and fuel use overall are going to be split over those individuals, hence they are going to be lower,” said Susan Shaheen, the co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research focuses on car-sharing.

Another proposal would combine automation and electric cars. A Nature Climate Change study last year estimated that emissions per mile from light-duty vehicles could fall by as much as 94 percent by 2030 in a “best-case scenario” of electric driverless taxis (ClimateWire, July 7, 2015).

“Autonomous vehicles can accelerate or enable the greater use of electric,” said Jeffery Greenblatt, a co-author of the study and an energy researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Especially with a car that’s providing rides to others, the vehicle itself can take care of battery recharging, which makes owning an electric car a lot easier. And because these cars would be used five to six times as often as gas-powered vehicles, you pay off the upfront cost more quickly.”

But an automated transportation might increase fuel use, too, he warned. Driverless technology might get people who don’t usually drive in gas-guzzling vehicles. Trips may get longer if people use automated cars as mobile offices.

The pilot programs floated by the Department of Transportation funding will be particularly important in figuring out how humans actually react to the technology, said Gonder, from the NREL.

“Without the technologies out there and people interacting with them, it’s really just speculation and relying on surveys,” Gondor said. “That type of real world experience would really help to get a better understanding to reduce these uncertainties around making predictions for individual behaviors.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500