Essay Contest 2019 - First prize in category Mobility: Implementing Autonomous Vehicles with Mindful Thinking


The emergence of autonomous vehicles (AV) into the mobility sector has positioned itself as a promising technology that can alleviate traffic congestion, improve road safety, and increase vehicle efficiency. 
AV technology offers itself as a method of lowering energy intensity but must be developed in a manner that is conscious of anticipated shifts in passenger behavior. Additionally, its implementation must be executed in a way of which is equitable and conscious of labour market changes. Finally, AV technology must be systematically analyzed in its areas of implementation, where it may only be one of many possible solutions for reducing carbon emissions. 

Integrating AV Technology into our Energy System

The future of mobility had foreseen the idea of cars that would drive themselves, such that the passengers could use this time in transit working, socializing, or even sleeping. The degree of automation is designated by levels, as shown in Figure 1. With the introduction of Tesla’s Autopilot feature, and with many other car manufacturers and high-tech firms working on AV technology, it has become an attractive trend in the automotive industry; forecasts predict 3.1% of vehicles sold in 2023 will feature AV technology [3]
AV technology uses sophisticated algorithms, a variety of sensors, and powerful hardware to accomplish its operation, of which results in reduction of energy use. At a vehicle level, reducing aggressive driving and performance matching ensures the vehicle is operating within the best efficiency range, dynamically adjusting for headwind, grade, among others. Using connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) can introduce more energy savings through platooning, of which vehicles drive closer together to reduce the overall air resistance faced by the sum of vehicles. CAV also can enhance traffic flow through dynamic operation, reducing congestion, waiting times, and overall time of vehicle operation. In all, integration of CAVs can result in a 2-25% reduction of energy use [4]. 


Figure 1: SAE levels of automation [5] 

However, AV technology can take car-centrism to the next level, where the added convenience adds more flexibility for the user to travel point-to-point, on-demand; this may result in current car-owners to make more trips and at longer distances. The personal comfort and luxury of a smaller AV may entice those normally taking public transport to use ‘robo-taxi’ services, should they be priced accordingly. AVs may also incentivize urban sprawl as the commuting effort no longer becomes a barrier, thereby increasing the overall distance travelled by users. This rebound effect has been studied as AV technology has the appeal to consumers to travel more, and more often, of which can completely cancel out the energy efficiency benefits. In particular, considering an average fuel consumption could change by -15% from CAV technology, whereas the induced demand could yield a +2-47% change, where the net change is actually greater fuel consumption, which is visualized in Figure 2 [6]. 

Figure 2: Net energy impacts of CAV technology [6]


AV Technology for All?

Buying an AV today usually comes at a premium, of which manufacturers consider this feature an add-on. AVs entering the market also has posed legal, liability, and social adversity, of which questions around changed insurance premiums, and different operating schemes makes services like ‘robo-taxis’ difficult to compete. Even at high utilization rates, use of AV technology in ride sharing can cost between $1.58 and $6.01 per mile, compared to typical taxi rates at $2.60 per mile [7]. Reporting on this figure is shown to have some variation, with some studies reporting below $1 per mile, with AV ridesharing operations being close to public transit per-mile cost, as shown in Figure 3. 

Figure 3: Anticipated cost comparison of various AV technologies [8]

With the roll-out of AVs being something relatively new, AVs can typically only be operated in certain conditions where specialized maps are available, in favorable weather conditions, and typical traffic flow. In this case, only affluent drivers who live in areas of high development will benefit from AVs. Only when AVs can be accessed economically to broader income groups, would the benefits be fully realized. 
An interesting aspect of AVs is its potential to provide access to mobility to those whom otherwise have limited mobility, such as the elderly and youth. Those who have difficulty navigating public transit, and where private para-transit is expensive, AV technology in a ride-sharing capacity could remove barriers to transport, enhancing the quality of life. 

AV Technology: a wide Scope of Application

Enhancing our mobility experiences through added convenience and lower energy use by AV technology is only one of many methods, of which must always be analyzed in context of its area of application. Consider AVs becoming a significant mode (personal ownership and ride-sharing) resulting in modal shift from those who normally take transit, walk, or bike. In this case, investment in public transit and active transport infrastructure could be reduced to construct expanded roadway and communications for AVs. In some scenarios, this may yield even more disparity between lower and higher income groups, of which people who rely on public and active transport may experience reduced reliability and capacity from these modes. 
An important thing to note is that AVs offer an additional pathway for the electrification of mobility; developing AV technology at the same time as manufacturers and policy makers announce electrification initiatives, means that it acts as an incentive to develop both at the same time. Even though AVs are mostly being implemented in electric vehicles, it is important to ensure AVs do not induce more petroleum consumption. 


Figure 4: A self-driving bus in Paris, ‘micro-transit’ [9]

Finally, implementing AV technology into public transit, which already exists in many rail applications, and into shipping and logistics, can create more reliable, dynamic, and efficient mobility. AVs in transit applications, or ‘micro-transit,’ can yield better demand matching and better route and interconnection planning also add efficiency improvements, attracting more mass-transit solutions than personal vehicles. 

A cautionary note on this is the loss of driving dependant jobs, of which represent 3.8 million jobs in the US for example, most of whom are truck drivers [10]. In this case, given the strong market forecast, the economy can support a variety of new jobs, though must be carefully monitored to ensure the future labour markets are protected. 


Autonomous vehicles offer a high-tech solution to further improving the energy efficiency of the mobility sector, among other benefits such us increased reliability, convenience, productivity, safety, and accessibility. Likewise, AV technology can also lead to induced vehicle demand increase due to its appeal compared to all other modes, drive greater disparity between lower and higher income groups, and cause the loss of driver-dependant jobs, to which the anticipated benefits are outweighed by the negative impacts. 
It is of utmost importance, as with the development of any new technology, to be conscious, aware, and carefully monitor the systematic changes of its implementation, where AV technology is no exception. This is an important area for government, regulatory agencies, and the public at large to ensure that well- informed policies are put in place to ensure the benefits of AV technology are fully realized, while ensuring overall carbon emissions are reduced and access to mobility is improved. Autonomous vehicles can offer a low-carbon mobility future for all, but only if it is executed with diligence. 

By: James M. Harper

Published on: 29.11.2019


[1] Frost & Sullivan, "Global Autonomous Driving Market Outlook, 2018," Frost & Sullivan, 2018. 
[2] A. L. B. H. R. S. S. Q. M. X. Morteza Taiebat, "A Review on Energy, Environmental, and Sustainability 
Implications of Connected and Automated Vehicles," Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 52, pp. 11449-11465, 2018. 
[3] Synopsys Inc., "Dude, Where's My Autonomous Car? The 6 Levels of Vehicle Autonomy," 2019.  Accessed 4 October 2019.
[4] S. S. X. M. Taiebat M., "Forecasting the Impact of Connected and Automated Vehicles on Energy Use: A Microeconomic Study of Induced Travel and Energy Rebound," Applied Energy, no. 247, pp. 297-308, 2019. 
[5] K. D. H. Ashley Nunes, "Autonomous Vehicles and Public Health: High Cost or High Opportunity Cost?," MIT, Cambridge, 2019. 
[6] T. Litman, "Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions," Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Victoria, 2019. 
[7] Canadian Underwriter, "Paris tests electric driverless minibus to fight pollution," 25 January 2017. Accessed 4 October 2019. 
[8] D. R. Polgar, "What's More Important: 4 Millions Jobs or a $7 Trillion Economy?," Big Idea, 05 January 2018. 
[9] International Energy Agency, "World Energy Outlook," IEA Publications, Paris, 2016. 
[10] OECD, "ITF Transport Outlook Summary 2017," 2017. [Online]. Accessed 23 September 2018. 


Other news