Almost every major car manufacturer has mentioned the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles. They often talk about design, on-board technology, safety and fuel efficiency, but too little focus is given to the effects on sectors including energy, the environment and human rights.

Are these sectors ready for the changes that autonomous vehicles will bring? Or will there be unintended consequences that cause either these sectors or autonomous driving to collapse?

The good news is that a solution exists that leverages existing mobility platforms with new autonomous technology.

Energy consumption

The US Energy Information Administration recently released a report on the Uncertainties and Energy Implications of autonomous vehicles. It notes that on-road vehicles in the US use a substantial amount of energy, making the potential impact of autonomous vehicles on the energy sector an important factor. The Study of Potential Energy Consumption impacts of Connected and Automated Vehicles concludes that while individual vehicle efficiency may improve, this does not imply a system-wide fuel consumption decrease. (It does not consider an increase in the vehicle population or vehicle miles traveled.)

Existing research predicts that the cumulative energy impacts accounting for all the potential changes could range from a 90% decrease to a 200% increase in fuel consumption by the year 2050. While autonomy is often touted as a way to cause fewer crashes and smoother traffic flow, it may also lead to increased highway speeds, increased feature content, a greater willingness to commute long distances, and an increased demand for delivery services.

2050 baseline energy consumption forecasts for autonomous vehicles
2050 baseline energy consumption forecasts for autonomous vehicles
Image: US Energy Information Administration

Source: Brown, Austin, Jeffrey Gonder, and Brittany Repac, “An Analysis of Possible Energy Impacts of Automated Vehicle,” Road Vehicle Automation, Springer International Publishing (2014)

Most vehicles are also expected to be battery-electric or hybrid, resulting in an increase of electricity consumption by the transportation sector. In 2017, renewable sources made up only 11% of total energy production. Given a potential increase in electricity demand, how would it be generated? If the answer is coal or natural gas, then electric autonomous vehicles may increase greenhouse emissions.

These are worldwide trends. The world energy outlook 2018 predicts electrification will increase from 19% to 24% of final energy consumption by 2040. It sees many other uses for that energy: motor systems in Chinese industry alone will account for one-fifth of the increase, and the number of home air conditioners will quadruple, from 600 million today to 2.5 billion in two decades.

Environmental and human impacts

Rare earth elements are critical to the manufacture and production of electric and hybrid vehicles, electronic devices (including those needed for autonomy), catalytic converters, petroleum refining, flat panel displays, wind turbine generators and medical devices. As of 2013, the Congressional Research Service reported that the US is 100% reliant on foreign imports for these materials.

Rare earth elements are concentrated in a handful of economically viable deposits that do not adhere to political borders. The most desirable zones are often located in countries that lack the economic or technological resources to take advantage of them, often due to mismanagement or local militia groups who control their mining and sale.

Research by MIT elaborates on the human rights violations prevalent in this industry: “The value of the mineral [coltan] and the ease with which it can be extracted make it subject to systematic exploitation by the militia groups of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. To maintain control of mining operations, these organizations have conducted years of systematic brutality, raping, murdering, and committing other atrocities to keep local populations terrified.”

Throughout the process of obtaining rare earth elements, there is a potential for negative effects on the environment. Mining rare earth elements may lead to contamination from radionuclides, as dust and metal are released into the atmosphere. Even the refining process and end-of-life disposal of rare earth elements pose a threat to the environment.

Are we opening a Pandora’s box of environmental and conflict issues in trying to solve the problems of greenhouse gas emissions through the development of autonomous mobility?

The 3R solution

While the end vision may include electric autonomous vehicles, there is an existing transportation system which already does this efficiently: commuter rail. Similar to autonomous vehicles, it takes passengers from point A to B without requiring their active involvement. A report by the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) details that the most efficient solution may be a mixture of autonomy, light rail and shared mobility, referred to as ‘3R’.

Their ideal scenario includes widespread vehicle electrification and light rail and adds a shift in mobility patterns by maximizing the use of shared vehicle trips. UC Davis argues that 3R will show improved impacts on energy and CO2 emissions, and dramatically reduce the number of vehicles on the world’s roads by 2050.

Thus, the future of mobility may not be limited to autonomous vehicles, but rather a blend of modalities which take advantage of transportation systems currently at our disposal, augmented through a higher level of interconnectivity.