Nav: Home

Autonomous vehicles could be an environmental boon or disaster, depending on public policy

March 12, 2019

Widespread use of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could either massively increase or drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions depending, in large part, on public policy, according to new research from Princeton University.

"We need fuel economy standards to ensure the cars are clean, and policies to encourage ridesharing to reduce vehicle miles traveled," said Judi Greenwald, non-resident fellow at Princeton's Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and co-author of a Jan. 4 paper published in the journal Energy Policy.

The researchers found that well-managed autonomous vehicles "could increase mobility, improve safety, reduce traffic congestion and make fleet management companies rich, while lowering emissions and reducing energy use." But, they said, poorly managed ones could make "things significantly worse on all these fronts."

By allowing passengers to work or relax en route, automated vehicles would greatly improve the experience of traveling in an automobile. But planning, management and carefully crafted regulations are essential to reducing vehicle emissions and avoiding additional miles traveled by the vehicles, specifically vehicles traveling with few passengers or without any passengers at all.

"Two big changes are coming -- automation and mobility as a service," said Greenwald, who served as deputy director for climate, environment and energy efficiency in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. "Depending on how they interact, and how clean the fuel is, it could really end up a lot better or worse off for the environment," said Greenwald, who is a Princeton engineering alumna.

Greenwald and co-author Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering who has a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton, found that the best way to ensure a good outcome is to deploy AVs in managed fleets rather than as personal vehicles, and to implement rigorous fuel efficiency standards for the vehicles. Fleet managers have strong incentives to use the most efficient fuels and to minimize the amount of time on the road that cars spend with few or no passengers.

"Fleets are motivated to deliver as many person-miles out of each vehicle as they possibly can," said Kornhauser, who is also director of Princeton's Program in Transportation. "If you're getting two person-miles out of each vehicle-mile traveled (because there are two passengers in the vehicle), energy use and pollution are chopped in half, regardless of the fuel source."

The authors conducted the study during Greenwald's tenure in spring 2018 as an inaugural Gerhard R. Andlinger Visiting Fellow in Energy and the Environment at the Andlinger Center. The program brings in seasoned professionals in energy and the environment to collaborate on research and enrich the center's education efforts. For the study, the authors examined a large body of earlier research by Kornhauser, with one study showing that a properly managed fleet, combined with public transit, could cut vehicle travel by 43 percent in New Jersey. They also pointed to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2016 report that showed that AVs could triple fuel use due to easier travel and an increase in empty vehicle miles traveled.

Greenwald said policy will play a big role in controlling which players are able to operate these vehicles and how. High barriers to market entry, such as expensive licenses similar to a commercial trucking license, could discourage individuals from buying autonomous vehicles. Regulations could also prohibit the technology from being sold to individuals, the report said.

"While a future with autonomous vehicles may seem far off, we must be planning for them today to ensure they deliver on their promise versus set us back," said Rob Freudenberg, vice president for energy and environment at Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy organization focused on the tri-state area, and unaffiliated with the study. "That includes everything from encouraging the right technology, to integrating with existing public transportation networks, to completely reimagining our streets for the better."

"We need public policy to ensure that we align the economic incentives with what we want from a societal perspective," said Greenwald. "It's really up to us."
-end-


Princeton University, Engineering School

Related Public Policy Articles:

Public divides over environmental regulation and energy policy
A 54 percent majority of US adults believe that 'government regulations are necessary to encourage businesses and consumers to rely more on renewable energy sources,' while 38 percent support the notion that 'the private marketplace will ensure that businesses and consumers rely more on renewable energy sources, even without government regulations,' according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
Smoke-free policy cuts nicotine detected in Philadelphia public housing in half: Study
The largest public housing authority to implement comprehensive smoke-free policies, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, is seeing significant positive results related to secondhand smoke exposures.
Public health experts support federally mandated smoke-free public housing
In response to a new federal rule mandating smoke-free policies in federally funded public housing authorities, three public health experts applaud the efforts of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to protect nonsmoking residents from the harmful effects of tobacco exposure.
Parents and parenting influence childhood cognition -- but public policy can help
In a study of factors that influence childhood cognition in the United States and Great Britain, researchers find that the role of parents is more important than far-reaching public policies -- but that public policies can make a difference.
Competing attitudes about the homeless complicate public policy
Many people support both policies aimed at helping the homeless and those that make their lives more difficult, such as banning sleeping in public.
Science Policy Research Unit sets out to redefine innovation policy as it marks 50 years
A new international effort to develop and disseminate 'transformative innovation policy' around the world will be launched by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex this week.
RAND and Lawrence Livermore National Lab combine computing & public policy analysis
Researchers from the RAND Corporation and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have joined forces to combine high-performance computing with innovative public policy analysis to improve planning for particularly complex issues such as water resource management.
The science of diffusion and the spread of public policy
A research team at New York University and University of California, Los Angeles collaborated on merging the domains of health policy with network science and dynamical systems to help understand the mechanisms of policy diffusion in the same way we understand the diffusion of one substance into another.
The Lancet: Experts call for global drug policy reform as evidence shows 'war on drugs' has harmed public health and human rights
Fifty years of drug policies aimed at restricting and criminalizing drug use and minor possession have had serious detrimental effects on the health, well-being and human rights of drug users and the wider public, according to a major new report by The Lancet and Johns Hopkins University in the US.
New international research reinforces the link between public policy and life expectancy
New research led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) shows that life expectancy declined significantly and rapidly in three countries where policy changes increased access to prescription opioids, alcohol or illicit drugs.

Related Public Policy Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#532 A Class Conversation
This week we take a look at the sociology of class. What factors create and impact class? How do we try and study it? How does class play out differently in different countries like the US and the UK? How does it impact the political system? We talk with Daniel Laurison, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College and coauthor of the book "The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged", about class and its impacts on people and our systems.